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Going Hungry?

The economic crisis is grinding away on Hartford's little guys in the restaurant business

Daniel D'Ambrosio

November 27, 2008

Before I leave Tinker's Main Seafood Grill, which opened five months ago downtown across from City Hall, owner Joe Konoir wants me to see one of his favorite photographs. It's a large black-and-white print framed and hung in the narrow entranceway to his business, a scene from Hartford's Main Street in the 1950s, bustling with people and cars and filled with life.

"I don't care who you elect mayor in Hartford, I don't think you'll get anything like that again," says Konoir.

Konoir and his partner Jay Tinker have another restaurant and fish market on Park Street in the West End, where they have a loyal following after 18 years of business. The restaurant was opened by Tinker's father; Konoir has been a partner for the last 12 years.

Business at the West End location is down about 20 percent, but nothing like the debacle downtown. Konoir says it's a good thing he and Tinker aren't relying on their Main Street location.

"If this was my only restaurant downtown Hartford I don't think I would make it," he said.

Konoir picks up on a whole range of signs. Customers no longer want to watch ESPN on the television above the bar. They want to track the crumbling Dow. He tells them, "You don't want to watch that, buddy."

In the Subway next door, Konoir knows there are customers who buy a foot-long sandwich and eat half for lunch and save half for dinner.

"They cut it down to two dollars and 50 cents a meal," he says.

The only thing on his menu that competes is a $3.75 bowl of clam chowder.

"I've never seen it like this," says Konoir. "I've never seen it this bad."

Now Konoir is wondering if Christmas and New Year's celebrations will be as good to him and his partner as they have been in the past. Tinker's has a fish market as well as a restaurant at its West End location, and typically sells thousands of pounds of lobster to people spending hundreds of dollars each during the holiday season. This year, Konoir isn't sure what to order.

"What if we get stuck with thousands of pounds of lobster?" he asks.

All in all, the move to downtown has been a big disappointment.

"The whole Hartford scene hasn't brought anything back," says Konoir. "There's been a lot of open-ended promises when it comes to downtown Hartford. I still believe in Hartford, but I'm losing my belief in downtown Hartford, I'll be honest with you."

Konoir occupies a sort of middle ground between two other downtown restaurateurs I spoke to last week. Up the street at Dish, an upscale restaurant with seating for 210 near the Old State House, manager Erik Parks is relentlessly optimistic.

"We definitely believe the better we do our job, the better off we'll be," he says. "If we provide the right environment, people are still going to go out."

Parks concedes that he sees more people on the street carrying box lunches, or "getting a $3 sandwich instead of a $10 lunch." Dish has also begun to adjust its menu in response to the new economic reality. They've begun using lobster in "practical" ways, like on a salad or in a lobster roll, rather than offering a $100 lobster no one is going to order. Really ... $100 lobster?

"We did have that $100 lobster," says Parks of the restaurant when it first opened a little over a year ago.

Parks won't comment on whether or not Dish is making money, but says he and his staff are managing the restaurant "very smartly" and they're not in a situation where they might have to close down in a couple months.

Which is more than you can say for Ron Reisner of Roscoe's Big Dog, just around the corner from Dish.

"The bottom line is: It's dire," says Reisner. "More than likely, if business doesn't increase or I can't find a second job or third job, I'll shut my doors."

Reisner only gives himself a few months. A refugee from the corporate world, Roscoe's is his dream, and at first his move downtown from Franklin Avenue seemed like a home run, with sales climbing three to four times higher. But he's been bleeding money since June, losing $6,000 in September alone. September was supposed to be his turnaround month. Tinker's Konoir says everyone told him things would pick up in September, too.

Roscoe dogs have always played to rave reviews. And Reisner is doing what he can, like passing out fliers on the street after events at the XL Center and offering his space for corporate events and birthday parties. He also has a "recession meal" of a hot dog, fries and a drink for $4.99. And he's looking for a second job to pay the bills.

"You'd think owning a business you wouldn't have to," says Reisner. "That's just to afford groceries on the table."

Echoing Konoir, Reisner says downtown Hartford just can't hang on to customers. Commuters who work downtown spend little or no time there in off hours. It's a familiar refrain that seems to have no answer, no matter how much revenue the state sinks into revitalization projects for the city.

"People just want to bolt out of Dodge," says Reisner. "They want to get in and out quick. When I moved to downtown, I thought there was a vibrant scene with people walking around squares, going into side streets for their favorite shops. It just ain't happening."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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