One year into pandemic, perseverance pays off for leisure and hospitality industry

This Week in Connecticut

(WTNH) — With the passage of the American Rescue Plan, Main Street businesses can now plan for their recovery. Last year at this time, the atmosphere was very different and full of uncertainty.

News 8 revisited some small businesses, one year after they were forced to change their business model because of COVID.

Phil Barnett from the Hartford Restaurant Group recalls, “All of a sudden I look at my phone and they say they canceled the NCAA tournament. I said, ‘Wow this is getting real.'”

The COVID shut down was here.

Barnett told his staff from 10 restaurants, “I don’t know what this means but we’ll do it together.”

Barnett and his team had to make drastic financial decisions. If the Wood-n-Tap chain, including its scenic Farmington River location, was going to survive, layoffs were necessary.

“To lay off 650 employees… it was devastating.”

At Republic in Bloomfield, the devastation was the same. 

Jared Cohen from the Mill Restaurant Group said he was in a meeting with co-owners, and it was shocking. “We were trying to find the best way to tell our staff, try to find the best way to plan for the future. But at that point there’s so little…we’re still figuring out so much then. We didn’t know anything.”

Immediately after a press conference at Metro Hartford Alliance last March, Cohen shuttered his downtown Hartford location. The government had ordered a partial shutdown.

“We are all in this together, the whole world is dealing with it,” was the remark Cohen made at the event.

One year later – these restaurant owners say what kept them alive; ingenuity, technology and perseverance. Both pivoted to take-out, curbside pick up, online ordering and government programs like Pay Check Protection, Connecticut’s Shared Work Program and the Small Business Administration Grants. But, loyal customers were the key.

“They’re doing everything they can…take out, gift cards…just the good wishes,” said Cohen.

For Barnett, those return customers are the difference.

“Perseverance is paying off. I can’t thank everyone enough for that,” added Barnett.

Berkin’s Coffee Shop on Oak in Hartford lost 90% of its business; customers left the office tower to work remotely. 

Owners tell News 8 they’re operating at a loss. Unless workers come back, the café may close.

In Connecticut, according to the State’s Economic Digest, the leisure and hospitality industry shed nearly 30,000 jobs over the last year. That’s a nearly 205 loss in just one industry.

In just a couple of days, the governor’s executive orders are set to expire. Restaurant owners say they want outdoor dining permits expanded and to keep those cocktails to go.

At the Wood-n-Tap, owners say it’s, “added value for our guests. Restaurants don’t want to be package stores. I want to make that very clear.”

President Biden’s American Rescue Plan has targeted small business grants specifically for restaurants. It’s the largest government package since the Great Depression.

Jared Cohen is optimistic, “Hold onto hope. We know it’s gonna end at some point definitely at the point now with the third vaccine. You can see it, feel it happening.”

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