Hartford's funky West End may be best known for its eclectic selection of restaurants, but in the current economy, this source of neighborhood pride and identity is under threat. The clock is ticking on at least one of the neighborhood's classic Chinese storefronts. The popular Brazilian BBQ spot, Churrascaria Braza, closed up shop this past April after eight years in business; an attempted expansion into downtown's Constitution Plaza had overextended the owner's finances.
Next to the now-vacant Venice Pizza on Farmington Avenue, a small note taped to the door of the Abyssinian Ethiopian Restaurant reads, "Dear Customers, as of October 15th, 2012, we will be serving dinner only!" To view this sign as a death notice for the neighborhood might be an exaggeration — they merely stopped serving lunch, it's true — but to say that several establishments are in danger of closure is far less of a whopper. Business is unsustainably slow at the Abyssinian. The question is: Are things so bad that this entire strip could soon go from a haven of kitfo — a spiced minced-beef dish — and collard greens to a place where a Whopper is one of the few options left?
"We are very much struggling. That's why we closed our lunch program. Even dinner is no better than lunch right now," said Getachew Dires, who has managed the five-year-old establishment for almost two years now. (Many Ethiopians are formally referred to by their first names. Dires goes by Getch.) "We are trying our best, but it's very mysterious to us. We have improved our food greatly and have very good reviews."
Getch is not kidding. The gluten-free injera bread (fermented for three days) and the vegetarian and fish entrees at the Abyssinian Ethiopian could go toe-to-toe with East African restaurants in New York City. Kristina Newmann-Scott of the Jamaican Bakery family, former Director of Visual Arts at Real Art Ways, says that the Abyssinian Ethiopian Restaurant is a "treasure" within Hartford's most culinarily diverse neighborhood.
According to Getch, regulars come from as far away as Northampton, but therein may lie the problem. If a business is too dependent on out-of-town diners, the combined factors of a bad economy with sustained high gas prices make the mystery of the missing customers less, um, mysterious. There's also the triple-whammy of competition. According to Francisco Gomes, president of the Farmington Avenue Alliance, "West Hartford Center has become much more of a destination for people; a lot of prospective customers are going there. There is also a lot of attention focused on d owntown, and with all that, the West End has kind of been forgotten."
If destination diners are forsaking the West End, almost as heavily impacted have been longtime neighborhood fixtures dependent on local patrons, such as South Whitney Pizza, which has been in the West End for almost four decades. "Hartford was hit pretty hard," said owner Prince Singh, whose father bought the business in 1997. "Instead of customers not coming in, their order size has gotten smaller." This is a telltale recession buying pattern: Loyal customers with shrinking budgets.
Sunna Liu of China House reports that the restaurant is "slowly going out of business" after being open for 30 years. She describes the problem as "a little bit of everything": more competition from other local restaurants, a bad economy overall and a particularly severe impact on its West End customer base.
Monte Alban, the Mexican restaurant next door to the Abyssinian, opened in November, 2001, during the recovery from the last recession, and the establishment is taking a beating in the current economy. Owner Alfonso Martinez is quick to point out, "Everywhere it is the same, not just here. Business is not like it was before."
One place not to bother worrying about is Mo's Midtown, and if you've ever tried to find a seat there, you'll know why. Owned by the Polish-American Nowak family since 1998, Mo's has a history that stretches beyond the current owners' memory. It's a classic American diner with heavenly omelets and bacon so thick that no one would be surprised to see Faith Middleton zombie-walking through the door, nosefirst.
Fire–N–Spice is doing better than when it opened, according to owner Garfield Haylett, but it's hard not to do better than 2009, when economic gloom was as severe as a slow-moving hurricane. Also, as cutting edge and unlikely a concept as vegan food with a West Indian flavor may sound to some, it may be drawing a healthy balance of out-of-towners and locals from the city's artsiest district.
For those businesses that are struggling, Gomes predicts light at the end of the tunnel. "It's cyclical in nature," he said. "About 10 to 15 years ago, we had a bit of a renaissance with Braza, Tisane and Half Door. Prior to that, businesses here had some very down years." Half Door and Tisane opened in 1999 and 2000 respectively and weathered the last recession; today, they anchor the neighborhood's nightlife.
Gomes says that for some time there has been money budgeted for a new streetscape, like the funds some of the other pedestrian-centric business districts have received. Gomes thinks that the eventual makeover will bring diners back to the neighborhood.
But will the Abyssinian Ethiopian Restaurant be able to hold on that long? Getch spoke of a reality show in which a restaurateur was about to go under until the community rallied behind him. "It's a Wonderful Life"-onomics may sound farfetched, but that classic trope started here in Hartford. In 1917, G. Fox and Company burned to the ground, its sales records along with it. Everyone who had done their Christmas shopping on credit stepped up and paid, because Connecticut Yankees knew back then that a good business is worth keeping.