Restaurant owner says he's selling a Hartford institution
By Daniel D'Ambrosio
January 13, 2009
Since moving to North Main Street in 2004, Rajun Cajun has been much more than the city's only source of fried alligator, frog legs and bread pudding with swamp sauce. It has been ground zero for North End politics.
City Councilman Matt Ritter says he regularly attends meetings of the African-American Alliance at the restaurant, in addition to chance meetings with constituents and local power brokers whenever he drops in.
But now owner Tom Armstrong is selling, and points to a large "for sale" banner on the back of the building to prove it. Business is bad, and the numbers just don't add up. This despite Armstrong's long history of running successful restaurants in other parts of the city.
"It's really too bad to hear that an institution in Hartford, a hub of political discourse and debate for a long time, is up for sale," said Ritter, who was unaware of the sale.
Armstrong says he "lost his shirt" on the move to the North End, investing $500,000 of his own money. The historic 1952 diner he bought to house his restaurant needed more work than he realized.
"It was unbelievable, what it really needed was to be tore down," Armstrong says. "I took all my savings and invested in the North End. It was very risky; nobody else would have done that."
He did it, Armstrong says, believing the city was behind him. "I thought before I came down here everybody was on board, the mayor, the councilmen, I thought everybody was on board for economic development," said Armstrong.
But his efforts to secure a loan from the city to renovate his building proved unsuccessful. As for the banks, Armstrong says he tried them all.
"When you say North End, you can forget it, you're dead on arrival," he says.
Sarah Barr, director of communications for Mayor Eddie Perez, said that in fact the administration has tried to help Armstrong, and has invested in the North End. She says the city's small business development program provided assistance to Armstrong dating back to 2002 when he was located on New Park Avenue.
"I'm sure he's been disappointed there has been no grant funding for the building, but he is delinquent in city property taxes of about $15,000," Barr said.
Armstrong acknowledged he owed back taxes, but put the amount at about $10,000.
Ritter believes there's more the city can do for Armstrong by improving the streetscape on North Main. But before that can happen, he says, the first step is to relocate the school bus parking lot that's currently across the street from the Rajun Cajun. The buses create a lot of noise and traffic.
"It's an eyesore, it's got barbed wire around it right across the street from the restaurant," said Ritter. "To me it's got to go."
Negotiations are currently underway to find a new home for the school buses, says Ritter, but Armstrong may not be around for the outcome.
"The African-American, he ain't got a shot down here, he just needs to pack up and go," Armstrong said. "I'm for sale right now and I don't care who gets it."