Restaurant owners are putting up a brave front. Scroll through Instagram and Facebook and you’ll see makeshift patios, picnic tables in parking lots, masked smiles and announcements of altered menus and hours. Behind the poker faces are fears and uncertainty, for their businesses, their employees and their communities.
Connecticut gave the go-ahead for restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining on May 20. That same day, Founders House Pub and Patio on the Milford Green had its grand opening. I ask owner Frank Basile, who also runs the popular Bridge House and Bonfire Grille in town, what he would have done if Founders House was his first venture. “I probably wouldn’t have opened it,” Basile says. “I’m banking on the fact that we have a great reputation between the other two restaurants and people are anxious to come in and check us out.”
The original plan for the building previously occupied by Rainbow Gardens for 23 years was to open in March. Staff was hired and trained, and then the rug got pulled out. Basile had to lay off people who never worked a single shift. On the first day, the restaurant’s outdoor seating was at capacity but only for dinner service. That trend continued throughout the first couple of weeks. “Everyone wants the same timeframe,” Basile says. “If I have 12 tables and they all want 6 o’clock, and they don’t want to move to 8 o’clock or they don’t want to come in at 4 o’clock, I’m honestly turning down more tables than I’m taking.”
Basile says customers are loving the food — “it’s a massive menu of specials” — and the service, but the obstacles standing between the business and success leave him handcuffed. Bad weather is crippling, especially on the weekends, and the protocols and limitations are constricting. And some people are still scared. “Our clientele at lunch is an older clientele. It’s 60s, 70s; they’re not leaving the house,” Basile says. “It pretty much cripples your lunch business unless you’re in a city. Not everyone’s working either. A lot of people are working from home. So you don’t have that business lunch. It’s tough.”
Ironically, as the state limps forward toward reopening indoor dining June 17, Basile is less comfortable in phase one than he was in phase none. “It was easier three weeks ago [when it was takeout only],” he says. “It was manageable and your finger was on the pulse the whole time. Now there’s so many different elements.”
The picnic tables, patio furniture, umbrellas, string lights, heaters and tents you see popping up at your local restaurant weren’t just sitting in the storage room. Those are recent purchases. And if the customers don’t show, it’s all sunk cost for an industry that operates on slim margins even during prosperity. “We’re all overdoing it. We’re all overspending. We’re all trying to have everything that we need,” Basile says. “All this PPE stuff and everything else. That alone, I mean it’s not readily available. I don’t have someone dropping this stuff off to me. I gotta go out and buy it and we’re buying it at a premium, because if it’s available you don’t care what it costs. You need it. Sanitizers, dispensers, masks, gloves — our vendors, they don’t even have vinyl gloves. We’re buying nitrile gloves which are $20 a case more. It’s just nuts.”
The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation being provided to workers through late July also complicates the already complex and unprecedented position in which restaurant owners find themselves. “Some of your employees don’t want to come back to work because it’s just a good situation not to come back to work,” Basile says. “They can collect and make double the money they were making. As a dishwasher who was making $450 a week, now they’re making $1,100 a week to stay home. Why would you go back to work?”
That puts bosses in yet another tough position. Do you become a whistleblower? Basile says he refuses to go down that road. “When you offer somebody their job back and they don’t want it, then [the state] will immediately stop the unemployment. At the end of the day, what does that do for the camaraderie of your business?” Basile says. “[Imagine if I] told on my best server who’s given me 10 years of 40 hours a week, extra cleaning duties, watching it like it’s their own, and now I’m gonna sit there and go, ‘Hey listen, they won’t come back to work, take their unemployment back.’ That’s not right. C’mon. That’s not fair.”
Basile vows to press on, anxiously awaiting the day when he can operate at full capacity, nearly 200 people, in the completely renovated interior. He calls it an old-school dining experience in the Grand Victorian style that celebrates the past of Milford. A private room is named after one of the city’s founding families and there are wine lockers like you’d typically find in a fancy steakhouse.
Like most restaurant owners right now, Basile is taking his lumps. But he’s not throwing in the towel. “I’m gonna fight like hell. And I’m gonna go down with the ship.”