Just across Manafort Drive from campus is a small cluster of businesses that go by the name of Central Square Plaza. Originally built in 1988, it was last sold to Levy Properties in 2012 for $2.1 million. Today the plaza is home to both corporate chains like Dunkin Donuts and smaller independent businesses like Flying Tiger Tattoo and Quick N’ Easy. Blue Muse Magazine spent time with Zach Roof of The Underground Deli, Tony and Sevy Antonares of Tony’s Central Pizza, and Omair Shalo of Central Blue Moon Grill & Hookah Lounge. We discovered their histories, favorite sandwiches, their experience doing business in Connecticut, and most importantly, their relationship with the CCSU community.
Sevy Antonares : Tony’s Central Pizza
As told to Emma Roth
I came here in 1968. We’re Greek. Tony was born in Greece, but he was raised in Australia. We met here. We’ve been doing this for many, many years. My dad used to own a restaurant, I’ve been doing it since I was twelve. We had a few places before this. We had one in Glastonbury as well. We came [to the plaza] twenty-eight years ago. Everything is homemade, nothing is frozen. We have five stars online. Our chicken parm is very popular. A lot of places use frozen patties, we don’t. We use fresh chicken and make it per order. It’s a lot of work, but people can tell the difference.
It’s hard now and we’re not young anymore. Some days it’s really busy, some days it’s slow. Before, it was more profit, now it’s like paying bills because a lot of places opened up. We still do good, but everyone takes a piece of the pie. Three years ago, we were where Wing It On is. A new owner bought the plaza and he raised the rent very high. We had a lot of support from Central, sending him emails. They were so mad, they said: “This is a landmark, you can’t move it.” This spot was never rented before. It was just four walls. Wing It On didn’t want this spot, they wanted our store. At our age, we looked around to find another spot around here, but we couldn’t find anything. So we had to deal with the same landlord again. We were out a full year when we had to move. It was a big pain. We were working then, trying to fix this place, it cost a lot. We had to take a second mortgage on the house. We had to do all the electrical, plumbing, everything. It’s like we had to start all over again. It was unfair. We didn’t have any choice.
I love it here and I love the people. We know everybody by name. Everybody that graduates always comes back and visits with kids. I have this couple, they used to go to Central. They’re from far away and they still come for our eggplant. We put in a lot of work. We’re here over 80 hours a week, but we like what we’re doing. We have all college kids working here. One hand washes the other. They support us, so we support them.
Omair Shalo : Central Blue Moon Grill & Hookah Lounge
As told to Emma Roth
I’m from Palestine. I was seventeen years old when I moved here and now I’m twenty-seven. When I came to this country, I only had one dollar in my pocket. I only had my brother, and his wife. I lived in their house, started working eighteen, nineteen hours a day. Saving money, little by little. We didn’t have a country over there. We’ve been occupied since 1969. It’s not safe over there, that’s why I moved here to start a new life—we come here to build ourselves. Everybody can own their own business. It’s really easy. But you need to know, when to start, how to start. It’s opportunity in your life. You take it or you leave it.
I wanted this place from six years ago. I tried to buy it and we couldn’t get an agreement between me and the old owners. I moved to Florida that time and opened my other business. I came back in 2016, the store was closed. Finally, I own it. It’s been a year and a half. I know if I don’t take it, I’m gonna lose it because somebody else is gonna take it and I’m not gonna find any other store until another ten years. Because each one of us has a ten year lease. That’s why if you catch something in here, just hug it and don’t leave it!
I just used my back home experience, like when I used to see my mom how to cook, tried to add it together and finally came up with a good menu and good food. I do a lunch special for the students, to help the students out. Because a lot of people don’t know Middle Eastern food. Students don’t have a lot of money. I do $3.99 a sandwich, fries and soda. They don’t have to pay nine, ten dollars for their lunch. It’s just a way to think about business. You help, you get help.
The other side is the hookah lounge. Hookah is a fruit flavor. You have some with tobacco and some without tobacco. It’s a flavor you burn, something better than cigarettes. When you’re puffing on it, it doesn’t give you a high or anything, it’s just for fun, you’re relaxing. A lot of people say ‘But hookah is worse than cigarettes.’ No. It doesn’t have nicotine. It helps people quit cigarettes. When you smoke hookah, you don’t inhale. You just taste the flavor and get it out. After you smoke a cigarette, smell your hand. How do they smell? Gross. Right now if you walk with me in the hookah lounge, you can only smell fruit flavor. This is the idea of the hookah.
The hookah lounge is a nice place to sit, relax. I offer free Wi-Fi for students. No people do any bad stuff in here. Everybody respects each other in here. On the weekend, Friday, Saturday, we have a belly dancer. She comes here, and they all sit, watching her dance. On Thursdays we get live DJs.
I’m always funny with my customers, joking with them, playing with them, I make them feel like this is their place now. Because I’m twenty-seven, a lot of people here are twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. I understand the way they think, they understand the way I think. They come and give me a hug because I built a friendship between me and the customer. It’s not like it’s an owner and a customer.
If we don’t have CCSU, we’d all be closed. No businesses last in New Britain. I’m worried about the future, and at the same time I’m not worried. The other part of this that makes me feel okay and happy, is that I’m next to the college. Every year, more students come here. When school is off, we all cry in here because we don’t make any money.
I have the ice cream [business] upstairs, the frozen yogurt. I’m not making any money on it right now because they added the ice cream in the college cafeteria. It ruined my business upstairs. I bought it because I know nobody is going to leave this plaza right now, and I thought it was going to be a good opportunity for me for the future. At the end of the year, I’m closing it down. I want to turn it into a smoke shop.
Always if you put something in your mind, you will get to it. You could be a good person, you could be a bad person. But you need to decide what you want. Sometimes you have a bad day, sometimes you have good days. I came here, didn’t have any idea what I’m doing, started looking around, then I find this store. It happened. It just happened.
Zack Roof : Underground Deli
As told to Jack Waterfield
It started off as a cafe; there was a cappuccino machine and they only had a few sandwiches. This was before my time. It was mostly teas, coffees, stuff like that. That was owned by a guy named Bruce, he sold it to a lady named Yui. My girlfriend Nicole has been here since she was seventeen, a freshman at CCSU, and worked here her entire college career. Then she was offered the deli while she was still a senior in college by Bruce, but she didn’t really have the capital. And just out of coincidence I had moved in with Nicole and a friend when their employees just up and left. And so she was like, “You know how to work a register?” and I’ve just been stuck here ever since. I’m just kidding, it’s awesome.
At the time Nicole was thinking that she needed to either find a big girl job or make something out of this place, because she had thought about owning this place for a while, so she buys it three years ago. Like all of a sudden I went from being a guy who just worked at a deli, to where I felt like I was involved in the process. I try to make it as cool as possible, I try to make it just a fun place for people to hang out and get some food, relax from school for a bit.
I was born and raised in Connecticut, love Connecticut. For businesses in Connecticut, dude, taxes are absolutely brutal. But I mean it’s a beautiful place, the roads are kept, the police are awesome, there are a lot of upsides which is why you gotta pay a lot of taxes but the first time we looked at a full year’s worth of taxes we were like “Oh my God.” Year two, year three, we were better at keeping on top of that stuff. We gotta pay the health department, fire department, gotta pay for everything: electricity, water, bread, drinks, chips, you know, tea, coffee, avocado. I’ve been to other places outside of Connecticut and whenever I am I just want to go back. Everybody wants to leave. And I said it too, and once I got out I was like, “I want to go back.”
I like to have students contribute as much as possible to the decorations we have in here. I’m pretty sure everything in here besides the mirrors and pictures of animals is student stuff.
One of my favorite customers now is this dude who’s always quiet, never talks, orders the same thing, and he would just go over to the couches where we have Wi-Fi and Smash 4. I’m a super nerd so I know playing online in Smash 4 is super hard—it lags and stuff. Anyone who’s ever played Super Smash Brothers knows if you have any lag it’s bananas. So he would come in and just bop people online just all day long. He’s one of my favorite customers because he’s quiet and he’s actually the most talented Smash player I’ve ever met. I love weird people, and I hate making weird people feel weird so I try to make sure everyone knows we love weird people. The weird ones are always my favorite.
The most sold sandwich is made of breaded chicken, cheddar, bacon, and Russian dressing on a roll. It’s called The Situation. And it has nothing to do with the Jersey Shore. They had a situation while coming up with a different sandwich name, it was already taken by some place in Rhode Island. Most sold by a landslide. I do not understand it at all. It’s hidden as number thirty-eight, there’s thirty other sandwiches to go through. I’ll make it all day though—it’s easy. The least selling sandwich is the number ten, the Family Guy. A time honored tradition and it just gets neglected. Ham and Swiss, lettuce, tomato, spicy mustard, on some rye bread. It’s a great sandwich. Never, ever gets ordered.
My favorite, they called it the Zach Special. It’s a half grinder, roast beef, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, oil and vinegar, mayo, cheddar cheese, and bacon. But I try not to eat it, I don’t want to eat all the expensive protein. I wasn’t even here for the naming. They just told me when I came in that they called it the Zach Special and I was like, “Auugh that’s so weird.” My least favorite is the Veggie. It’s missing something. There’s something wrong with that sandwich.
My favorite [art piece] is the Joker, right on this wall, next to a drawing of Rick Sanchez, which is a good combo piece. I had a hubbub here once because someone drew a pentagram, it’s just a stupid face now, but we had a nicely drawn pentagram. This guy threw a hissy fit man. I said, “I’m not going to erase it, someone put in time making art.” We ended up just putting a broken clock on it that just says “Whatever.”
As CCSU continues getting bigger, we’ll continue getting bigger. People are always like, “when are you going to open another one?” and maybe we will, but right now we like what we got. I don’t think it’s a lack of ambition or anything like that, I think we just really, really like it. For me, it’s been proven that there are cool people coming in here every year. I’ve yet to be disappointed by an entire class.