“Doors closed. Service window open” is plastered all over ECO Coffee House & Tavern, a small cafe that is big on promoting customers to dine in and enjoy their Smoky Butter Pecan lattes. The entrance is blocked off with colorful signs made out of chalkboard, decorative potted plants, and black velvet curtains. A “Black Lives Matter” sign is taped against the wall of the doorway. Beyond the locked door is a small pathway to the four stool bar that overlooks the brewery station. Another long black curtain separates the retail side, containing handcrafted clothing, jewelry, and hats, from the coffee bar. The owner of ECO, Susan Popielaski, dressed in comfortable sweats with her ginger hair pulled back in a ponytail, hides her face behind a white surgical mask. The rim of the mask tucked under her glasses. She prepared us each a coffee with her Faema Enova Espresso Machine, her Barista certificate hanging over her head from the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe. She sat behind the counter on a small, short stool, while I stationed myself six feet away at the bar. The restaurant’s orange coffee mugs stacked on the brewer.
“Everyone wanted to use my orange cups. So that was a huge savings because people were coming in and were sitting outside with my orange cups. Because of COVID-19 everything has to be disposable.” Before the pandemic, ECO Coffee House & Tavern was known for their signature glass orange mugs. They were an eco-friendly alternative to providing plastic or styrofoam cups and lids for the customers. It went perfectly with ECO’s goal to keep the environment clean of waste, and local customers united in the community.
On March 8, 2020, Connecticut had its first confirmed case of the coronavirus. It soon erupted throughout the state, causing businesses to shut their doors. According to Executive Order No. 7D, On March 16, 2020, Governor Lamont mandated restaurant, bar and private club operations in Connecticut to “only serve food or non-alcoholic beverages for off-premises consumption” effective at 8 p.m. Bars and restaurants closed their doors for only takeout or delivery to the public.
Small restaurant owners have had to close their doors to the public and reduce the number of people allowed inside their businesses. While many other restaurants were reopening for indoor seating, smaller ones had to remain closed and only serve take out due to their lack of space.
“I decided to use my second emergency door as an entrance. So give them a thirty-foot que, but people still weren’t paying attention to that. They were coming in [the front door] even though there was a big sign that said, ‘stop, use the other door, exit only.’ It was just a shitshow, so I just closed that down and then became window only,” said Popielaski, as she pointed to the exits behind me, where bright pink signs used to be painted on the floorboards.
Stimulus checks, grants, and loans were given to big corporations by the federal government to help these companies stay afloat to cover the loss of business. Small businesses were given less attention, leaving them to struggle to stay open. “As far as the state goes, the only thing they did that had any sort of impact on us was they gave us an extension on filing our sales tax for the first few months. But that was it,” said Alicia Marotto, Co-owner of Vintage, a Colchester, Connecticut restaurant that serves locally sourced meat, produce, and cheeses, on a Zoom call conducted with her husband, Tim Marotto.
“They could have done so much more for us. We stayed open for the pandemic because we are essential businesses. I am no politician, but I think they could have pulled back on taxes here and there, supplied us with some stuff or given us reimbursements because of all the hand sanitizer,” said Tim Marotto. “Anything, they could have done literally anything, and I don’t feel like they did that much.”
Without financial support from the government, small restaurants were forced to lay off employees to stay open. With few employees, the owners are working overtime to keep their businesses standing. Alicia Marotto explained how she missed her husband and her staff, but agreed they were lucky that most of the employees laid off had other employment. Most of them worked at Vintage as a part time and/or night job because it is only open during dinner hours.
“It went perfectly with ECO’s goal to keep the environment clean of waste, and local customers united in the community.
“It hurts you as a person and as a business owner. You’ve done this work and you’re excited to be able to not only provide jobs, but also bring people into the experience of what we’re providing and work with them. We laid off our staff for the first few months of the pandemic; it was just the two of us working. Only recently were we able to rehire one of our team members, which happens to be our niece.”
October 1, 2019, Governor Ned Lemont passed an increase of sales tax on meals and certain beverages. Generating higher prices across the state, this has added more strain for Popielaski. “I’ve never increased my prices in three years. Now, the state tax on food increased from 6.35 percent, to now 7.35 percent. So that sums up my prices to people, they don’t know about the tax thing. They’re just doing like, ‘Oh my God, my coffee costs more now!’”.
Along with the tax increase within the past year and a half, restaurants have been hit with unforeseen pandemic costs to keep their doors open.
“I’m spending so much money on cups and lids and sleeves and straws and all the things associated with napkins, bags, gloves, and then more gloves. So I have regular hands, like rubber gloves. And then I have deli gloves that go over that when I’m preparing food. So it’s just so much more cost,” Popielaski added.
Facing the same issues, Tim Marotto added, “we were always on top of everything cleaning wise, but now it’s literally every time anybody leaves we have to sanitize everything they may have touched. We have to use sanitizer, spray, paper towels instead of rags. So you’re going through a lot more stuff. We didn’t do takeout just because we didn’t like the fact that it is just more trash. Just a big pivot in our restaurant’s whole theory.” He continued to explain the couple’s commitment to keep the economy clean, with reducing trash the restaurant produces, which unfortunately has increased since the beginning of COVID-19. They are now a take-out only facility.
As a result of COVID-19 financial issues, many small restaurants have come together in a symbiotic relationship. ECO Coffee House & Tavern and Vintage are joining forces in the small town of East Hampton. Popielaski’s coffeehouse has recently transitioned from a coffee tavern to have a cafe license, which includes the allowance to sell liquor. In the state of Connecticut, a cafe permit allows the business to sell alcoholic beverages as long as food is available for sale. Currently, ECO only has one food item on the menu, avocado toast. Recognizing that not many people will want to eat the toast with their drink, Popielaski invited Vintage’s new food truck to park curbside within the next few months.
“I’m super excited over [working with Vintage]. Because they switched it to a cafe permit, so I can serve hard alcohol. Any type of food is now available; not everyone’s going to want an avocado toast with their bourbon. So they’re going to get great food right outside my door. Come to my walk-up window, get a beer or cocktail and sit outside. I’m going to put heaters out there. Sit outside and enjoy being outside where it’s safe.”
Excited about working together, both Vintage and ECO agree that restaurants will have to transition to food trucks and walk-up window service. We can only guess what the future holds. Will the country make this transition? Resourceful local businesses can join together to keep the community operational and safe, while residents can support small local businesses to help us all survive the pandemic.
Megan Sulzinski is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Header Photo Credit: Winter Caplanson (@connfoodandfarm)