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Updated: September 22, 2020 Town Profile: West Hartford

West Hartford Center restaurants see steady business with expanded outdoor dining

Restaurants with outdoor seating along LaSalle Road in West Hartford Center. HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper Restaurants with outdoor seating along LaSalle Road in West Hartford Center.

COVID-19 has proven to be a death blow for some Connecticut restaurants, but not all eateries are on life support, particularly those located in the posh foodie destinations of West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square.

Photo | onnfoodandfarm
Union Kitchen chef and partner Zachary Shuman.

Union Kitchen chef and partner Zachary Shuman said his LaSalle Road restaurant, which serves American comfort fare, is only down about 10% to 12% in revenue compared to 2019, despite being shut down for a week in March and only doing takeout service during the early part of the pandemic.

While things haven’t been easy or certain — Union Kitchen was projecting up to a 30% spike in 2020 revenues coming into the year — expanded outdoor dining has provided the restaurant dozens of extra seats, to help curb the pain from being restricted to 50% indoor capacity.

Currently, Union Kitchen is operating with about 20 fewer seats, when outdoor dining is included, than its pre-COVID 131-seat capacity.

“Monday through Wednesdays are still a little soft in the Center, but on Thursdays through Sundays it’s packed,” Shuman said. “We are seeing hour-long waits on weekends. A lot of customers are putting their names on the wait lists of multiple restaurants in West Hartford Center and seeing who calls them first.”

Shuman credits the town of West Hartford for taking a proactive approach in laying out a coordinated expanded outdoor dining plan for the late spring and summer seasons, which seems to be working for many eateries there.

Kristen Gorski, the town’s economic development coordinator, has helped lead that effort, which started in April with the convergence of a working group made up of various town departments that began to develop a plan with input from local restaurants.

From there, the town created a fast-tracked outdoor seating permit, approving 43 applications with an average turnaround time of 2.8 days.

That added nearly 1,500 new outdoor dining seats in town, with the majority (about 75%) for restaurants in West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square, Gorski said.

Meantime, the town converted about 71 parking spaces on Farmington Avenue and LaSalle, Memorial and Isham roads into on-street dining areas, sectioned off by town-rented jersey barriers, while other parking spaces were reserved for take-out customers. In addition, LaSalle and Isham roads and a section of Memorial Road became one-way streets.

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper
Max's Oyster Bar on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford.

The end result was the creation of an outdoor dining town center that has received rave reviews from restaurateurs and patrons, Gorski said.

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon in West Hartford Center, clusters of restaurant goers were seen eagerly waiting for an automated text message from popular lunch spot Bartaco, alerting them that an outdoor table is ready.

Fully masked, a party of four was seated under an umbrella on Farmington Avenue surrounded by barricades protecting them from traffic.

“It’s a very neat place to go,” Gorski said. “We are hearing restaurants are doing really well based on the infrastructure that we’ve been able to set up in the area. Some are pretty close to pre-pandemic revenues or even exceeding pre-pandemic revenues.”

[Read more: HBJ examines developments in CT towns, cities]

Gorski said the number of outdoor seats allocated to each restaurant was based on their overall capacity, so the higher capacity an eatery had, the more outdoor seats they were given.

For now the plan is to keep the expanded outdoor seating infrastructure in place through the end of October, but there are talks about extending it further.

Shuman said outdoor dining has been so successful — both in attracting regulars and new clientele to West Hartford Center — that local merchants would like to see it brought back again next year, pandemic or no pandemic.

“I’d like to see LaSalle Road one-way from here on out,” he said. “I think it brought more people to the Center.”

But expanded outdoor dining alone hasn’t been the answer to these challenging times. Restaurants have also had to get creative with their offerings.

For example, Union Kitchen has adopted special themed pop-up events — like Peruvian or Korean food nights — that have garnered extra attention.

An Oktoberfest is being planned for next month.

“That’s helped us a lot,” he said.

Chilling effect

While outdoor dining has proven a success during the summer, that will change as we head toward fall and winter.

“My biggest fear right now is the cold,” Shuman said. “I don’t know what to expect come October.”

Shuman said he has already purchased four outdoor heaters with the hope of leveraging outdoor dining as long as possible. But in addition to eventually losing streetside business, he said he’s worried about indoor capacity shrinking from 50% to 25%, especially if the virus begins to spread more rapidly as people spend more time indoors.

“What happens November 1 if outdoor dining goes away and we are still at 50% occupancy — that’s only 60 seats for me,” said Shuman, whose kitchen still employs six to eight people less than it did pre-COVID. “If we go to 25% capacity inside that’s only 30 seats for me. That’s a big challenge.”

HBJ Web Editor Joe Cooper contributed to this story.

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