April 17, 2017
Foodies' Delight

Greater Hartford restaurant scene becomes more creative, competitive

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Al Gamble is among the well-known Greater Hartford restaurateurs opening new establishments. His latest concept is Butchers & Bakers in Farmington.
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Butchers & Bakers employees are being trained on how to make artisanal breads and other delicacies.
PHOTO | Winter Caplanson/Connecticut Food & Farm
Max Restaurant Group’s latest venture Savoy Pizzeria & Craft Bar in West Hartford features southern Italian cuisine.
PHOTO | Winter Caplanson/Connecticut Food & Farm
Italian-style pizza is the main menu item.
PHOTO | HBJ File
Dorjan Puka seen cooking at his Treva restaurant in West Hartford.

By the Numbers

154,100

Restaurant and foodservice jobs in Connecticut in 2017, which equals 9 percent of employment in the state.

7.1%

The number of additional restaurant and foodservice jobs Connecticut is expected to gain by 2027, which would add 11,000 new jobs.

7,877

The number of eating and drinking locations in Connecticut in 2015.

$7.5B

Projected sales by Connecticut's restaurants in 2017.

Source: Connecticut Restaurant Association/National Restaurant Association

Fueled by social media sites like Instagram, where restaurants can showcase picture-perfect, mouth-watering dishes, and the popularity of celebrity-themed cooking shows, Greater Hartford's dining landscape has become more sophisticated over the last decade, local restaurateurs say.

Chefs today are seen as entertainers, and dining out and eating new and adventurous food is viewed as something to get excited about.

That, along with good economic conditions including low interest rates, has spurred some of the region's top and up-and-coming chefs to open newly themed restaurants in recent years. But it's also creating an increasingly competitive marketplace, industry officials say, that will create winners and losers.

Nationally, there has been speculation about a restaurant bubble forming and bursting.

"I think [the restaurant industry] is a little oversaturated right now," said Scott Smith, who is vice president at Max Restaurant Group, which has seven restaurants in Greater Hartford, including the newly opened Savoy Pizzeria and Craft Bar in West Hartford Center, which features pizzas typically made in Naples, Italy.

Smith said that in the last two or three years he's noticed a great deal more competition in Greater Hartford, particularly West Hartford, where he thinks the restaurant bubble "is about to burst if it hasn't already." Inadequate parking for all of the restaurant seats that need to fill on Friday and Saturday nights is an issue, he said.

Additionally, restaurants are competing for diners and vying for good staff.

On the bright side, Smith says younger people who might not ordinarily venture out to certain restaurants are doing so because they are seeing social-media posts.

"It's an exciting business and it's attracting a lot of people," Smith said. "It has become a more exciting industry and because of social media, it's become a more noble profession. TV has played a role, too."

While some Greater Hartford restaurateurs say the market is becoming saturated, those interviewed are confident their new restaurant concept will succeed.

Al Gamble, who is founder and CEO of Locals 8, which owns several longstanding restaurants in the region, said current conditions are suitable for new restaurants. That's what spurred him earlier this month to open his latest venue, Butchers & Bakersin Farmington, which will serve butchered meats and homemade bread and pastries.

"The economic conditions are ideal to build restaurants," said Gamble, whose company also owns Plan B Burger Bar and two Hartford establishments, Half Door and Tisane Euro Asian Cafe. "Interest rates are low, there is a lot of commercial inventory on the market and there is a lot of great talent looking to do food."

He also said there is a creative, collaborative environment that is fueling an entrepreneurial spirit among chefs to try new concepts.

"I feel we all want to challenge each other through creativity while looking to support each other professionally," he said.

Gamble says he's not sure if the market is oversaturated, but there will always be restaurants that open and close. Even though opening a restaurant can be a risky venture, many restaurateurs have an entrepreneurial spirit, he said.

"There will have to be some winners and some losers," Gamble said. "If everyone is good, how many times can you eat out?"

New concepts

Other restaurateurs expected to be debuting new eateries in the Hartford area include Jamie McDonald, who owns Bear's Smokehouse BBQ in Hartford, and two other restaurants in the Hartford area. He opened The Blind Pig, a pizzeria in Hartford in January, and is also part owner in a restaurant that is expected to open soon in West Hartford called Cook and The Bear, which will be a "craft barbecue" concept.

He's partnering with Tyler Anderson, chef-owner of Millwright's in Simsbury, on that new venture.

Another new restaurant on the horizon is a health-conscious Mediterranean eatery called Zohara, which is expected to open in West Hartford this month. It's being developed by DORO Restaurant Group's Dorjan Puka and Scott Miller, who own several well-known restaurants in Greater Hartford, including Treva and Avert, both in West Hartford, and Artisanal Burger Co., which serves handcrafted burgers, and got off the ground in 2014.

Zohara is expected to be reasonable in price, with small plates going for about $5 each.

Miller said West Hartford has become a "food mecca," attracting sophisticated diners from as far away as Massachusetts and New York City.

"It's become a destination for foodies. There are so many restaurants in such a small place," he said.

The excitement has also created competition that has forced restaurants to constantly improve and evolve, or risk being left behind, restaurateurs say.

"We feel that today in 2017 the general restaurant guest or customer especially, in our market, is more savvy than they were a few years back," Miller said. "Honestly, I feel like restaurants are better, the food is better. People are more educated about it."

Declining numbers

While Greater Hartford restaurateurs take stock of the competitive landscape, nationally, signs point to the fact that the restaurant bubble may have already burst.

A research firm, The NPD Group, which does twice yearly restaurant counts, found that there were 620,807 restaurants across the country last fall, down 1.6 percent compared with a year ago, according to Restaurant Hospitality, an industry news site. That's the largest decrease since 1998, when the count began, the site said, quoting NPD.

Gamble said he's confident his restaurant will make it through, even if the bubble bursts locally, just like his eateries made it through the Great Recession.

Butchers & Bakers will be located near UConn Health Center, where there are ample potential patrons, and the restaurant will be reasonably priced, he said.

"We believe this area has a need," Gamble said.

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