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Lunch Break: Motivated Crowds Fill Up On Downtown Fare

KENNETH R. GOSSELIN

September 10, 2009

It was, as one restaurant owner said Wednesday, "like a men's UConn basketball game, New Year's Eve and a Bruce Springsteen concert rolled into one."

Thousands streamed out of the XL Center Wednesday during the lunch break at the Get Motivated! conference to grab a bite to eat, some thronging up Pratt Street, others heading toward Union Station.

"It feels like a real city," said the restaurant owner, Johnny Vaughan. "There's a real vive in the air."

Up and down Pratt Street, lines of diners spilled out onto the sidewalk, many of them clutching red tote bags, Get Motivated! workbooks and event schedules.

"We should have called and ordered pizza for delivery," quipped conference-goer Susan Hughes of Milford, who with co-worker Kathy Surdel of Beacon Falls marched up Pratt looking for a place to eat.

Hughes had to pause at a couple places where large groups blocked the sidewalk. Despite their search for something to eat, Hughes and Surdel were in a good mood, reflecting the inspirational nature of the conference.

Vaughan's Public House and several other restaurants, such as Max Bibo's around the corner on Trumbull Street, had special sidewalk promotions designed for the event, which promoters say was sold out, with 19,000 in attendance.

Vaughan's set up a table and offered bag lunches of turkey and ham sandwiches for $10. With the overflow crowd, Vaughan estimated that his staff prepared 250 lunches, twice the usual for a weekday. To prepare, he more than doubled his lunchtime staff from 8 to 18.

Near Main Street, Woody's hot dog cart which moved from State House Square for the event was hopping, with the line at one point 40-people deep.

"Once upon a time it was like this in downtown Hartford," said Cindy Wood, co-owner of Woody's, as she squirted ketchup and mustard on one of the footlong franks. "But it's been years."

Nowadays, the hot dog cart is lucky to have three or four people waiting in line, she said.

Wednesday's event was welcomed by restaurant owners weary not only of the recession but of an especially slow summer with a dearth of activities at the XL Center. Pratt Street, in particular, has struggled with rising storefront vacancies. Just this week, the Tanuki Japanese Noodle Kitchen closed.

But thoughts of those doldrums were pushed to the back of the mind for Bob Colangelo Jr., managing partner of Max Bibo's. He had plenty of customers on Wednesday.

He also got another visit: the Secret Service. The agents accompanied former first lady Laura Bush, a guest speaker at the conference, and were securing the area around the XL Center. They weren't there to buy lunch, though.

"They kind of combed the place, trying to make sure everything was OK," Colangelo said.

Downtown lunchtime regulars, some surprised by the size of the crowds, took them in stride.

Luke Magnan, an information technology architect at The Hartford, strode down Pratt Street wearing dark sunglasses and listening to his iPod.

"Never before have I seen anything like this," Magnan said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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