January 24, 2007
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
Timothy Otte sat in the back of his quiet Zion Street restaurant between shifts, a green apron tied around his waist, a file cabinet of folded-up papers in his back pocket.
He paused briefly after giving his age - 62 - perhaps thinking about the 32 years he's run the restaurant that bears his name and thinking ahead to the change about to come.
"It's exciting to do something else," he said.
Sure it is. Three decades spent serving people was good work, but it wasn't always easy, and it got harder as the dinner business fell off, the regulars retired, West Hartford poached his clientele, the building costs spiked and the neighborhood stopped coming to his neighborhood restaurant.
So, for Otte, the time is right to take a buyer's offer for the Zion Street building that houses Timothy's Restaurant - a popular place for everyone from Trinity College students and professors to neighborhood regulars, union workers and legislators. And, assuming the deal to sell goes forward in mid-February, Otte is moving on, though he's not sure where yet.
"I would say 45 percent of me is sad and 55 is excited," he said Tuesday. "I mean there's a lot of people who meant something to me who worked here, you know, who died."
"There was Gladys [Moore], who was an employee. There was my first wife, who I started it with. She died. There's my brother and his wife," he said, pausing to catch himself, "who both died."
"There's Raymond, a dishwasher, who died. Customers who've died. Regulars. So that's where the sadness comes from. In a way, you know, you're moving, you're giving up a little bit of them."
But leaving one place means going someplace else, and Otte is excited about the future - even if it's still up for grabs.
"Then the exciting part is, you know, doing something else, deciding what you want to do with the rest of your life," Otte said.
But leave Otte aside for a second. Because when a place that's been around since 1974 closes, one person's choice to move on is another person's worry about where to eat next.
"Oh, ouch," said Ron Cretaro, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits.
Cretaro is a frequent Friday-night-dinner and Saturday-morning-breakfast-after-yoga guy at Timothy's, and he has been a regular for more than 20 years. He had his 50th birthday party there. He knows the people.
"It feels like my `Cheers,'" Cretaro said.
Otte's approach to running a restaurant created what Cretaro called a "quasi-liberal, progressive hangout," a low-key gathering place.
"You didn't have to be impressed by the formality or uncomfortable with the informality of Timothy's," Cretaro said. "I'm going to miss that."
Diane Zannoni, a Trinity economics professor, has been starting her mornings with 7 a.m. oatmeal at Timothy's for 30 years. In an effort to stave off the closing, she and a handful of others have been helping Otte over the past year or so with everything from cleaning to garbage collecting to doing his books to planning his economic future.
They did it because Timothy's Restaurant was special, she said. Sure, it's about the food and the cakes and the organics and the blueberries he'd want you to taste. But it's about Otte the man, too.
"Tim made it a place that you wanted to go," Zannoni said. "You always knew when you entered there that you were going to be treated like a human being. When you went there you just felt there was somebody who cared about you."
If all goes as planned, Otte has to be out by Feb. 17. He has a retirement party for someone at the restaurant scheduled for Feb. 15, so Feb. 16 is likely to be his last day.
The building's new owner is planning to put a restaurant there, but Otte said he won't be part of it.
Sitting in the back of the restaurant, Otte was understated, true to his Midwestern roots, and frank about both the past and the future.
The economics of the restaurant have been going this way for years, he said.
The regulars are gone, the new niche of young professionals hasn't materialized. And even though there's a meal plan for the faithful - pay just $90 up front for $100 worth of food - it hasn't been enough to make the numbers work.
So he'll likely finish out the school year catering a Trinity fraternity and hopes to do some catering long-term. After that, he's just excited.
"I'm open to all sorts of possibilities. It's exciting in a way," Otte said. "It seemed like the right time to do something new."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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