Romanacci restaurant owner Maurizio Ricci, right, along with Chef Rolando Guardado, gives a thumbs up to the success of his newest restaurant on Railroad Place in Saugatuck. / Photo by Gretchen Webster

 By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Running a business takes time, resources and, during a pandemic, courage. 

Several Westport businesses have closed over the past 18 pandemic months, while others are struggling to stay open. And some brave entrepreneurs have taken on the challenge of opening new establishments in town during this time of uncertainty.

“It was tough,” said Jason Varga, manager of Shearwater Coffee Roaster, 833 Post Road East, which had been open at that location for only a few months when the pandemic hit. “But as soon as things started up again, we bounced back.”

Brick-and-mortar retail businesses were already losing ground before the pandemic struck because of an uptick in online ordering, according to Matthew Mandell, executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce. “Prior to the pandemic we were seeing issues regarding retail. Some people call it the Amazon effect,” he said.

Westport is ‘open for business’

Despite retail struggles before and after the pandemic, “We’re open for business,” Mandell said of Westport retail stores and restaurants. “There’s always and ebb and flow of businesses opening and closing.”

In fact, there were ribbon-cutting ceremonies for three new businesses on Railroad Place in Saugatuck in the past few months, Mandell said. They are: Romanacci restaurant, Blossom and Stem Floral Design and the Steam Coffee Tea shop.

Restaurateur Maurizio Ricci, and his brother Graziano opened Romanacci, precisely because of the pandemic. With the commuter clientele at their corner coffee bar disappearing suddenly when train travel to Manhattan declined drastically, they had to do something to keep loyal customersa — and their business afloat. 

They remodeled a larger space down the block and re-opened as a full service restaurant and pizzeria at 46 Railroad Place, with both inside and outside seating. The owners of five other restaurants and food services in Norwalk, Monroe and Trumbull, the brothers have been working hard to keep them all open during the pandemic. They may not be able to keep an express food counter open at the SoNo Collection mall, which has not fared well during the pandemic, he said, but the others are doing better. 

Bartender Melissa Burke tends to the crowd Saturday at the new Romanacci restaurant. / Photo by Gretchen Webster

Judging by the crowd at the Roamanacci in Saugatuck on a recent Saturday morning, opening a new restaurant in a larger spot has paid off. “We’re going to start serving brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. to bring back some of the business we lost during the pandemic,” Ricci said. 

Running restaurants is always stressful, Maurizio said, but he and his brother were brought up in the business, starting with their parents’ restaurant in Rome, Italy. It’s not an easy job, and definitely not the right business for everyone, he noted. But for those who love it, it’s worth it. “The restaurant business is a passion,” he said.

Down the street, Bob Glaser, who was also hurt by the loss of commuter customers at his coffee bar at the Greens Farms Railroad Station, decided to open in a new location, with an added focus. Steam Coffee Tea, 16 Railroad Place, has been open just a few weeks, and serves not only coffee, tea and doughnuts,  but also is a mailing depot. The shop will handle mail, UPS, and Amazon deliveries, among others, via rented mail boxes.

Glaser had planned to open on Railroad Place for a while, but his plan was temporarily derailed by the pandemic. “It took a year and a half to get the place ready; then COVID hit,” Glaser said. He is also hoping to reopen his shop at the Green Farms station soon, he said.

Bob Glaser has added mail services to his newly opened Steam Coffee Tea shop across from the Westport Railroad Station. The business also features Uncle Leo’s Donuts. / Photo by Gretchen Webster

Small business owners seize unexpected opportunities

The economic problems for local retailers caused by online shopping over the past few years actually helped some smaller Westport businesses open, and survive the pandemic, especially in the Main, Elm and Church street area, according to Mandell. 

Just prior to the pandemic, chain retail shops were closing many locations, including on Westport’s Main Street, leaving vacant stores, the chamber director said. That drove down rents, opening opportunities for smaller, independent stores to come in. “People were bemoaning the fact that there were no more Mom and Pop stores — now there are,” he said.

The pandemic was tough for Ed Freedman, who owns the Shearwater Coffee bars in Westport and Fairfield; a wholesale coffee roasting business, and another business supplying specialty coffees to restaurants and food stores.

“It came to a screeching halt,” he said of the coffee bar business. The Westport location had been open less than six months, but was quickly building a customer base when the pandemic closed down the shop. “It hurt the business. It stopped the momentum,” he said. So Freedman took steps to keep the shop going by opening just for takeout and adding outdoor seating.

Eighty percent of the volume is back now at the Westport store, he said, and his wholesale business is doing better than before. He had half a dozen new wholesale customers sign up during the pandemic.

Looming COVID concerns: Masks, workers’ safety

Although many businesses are welcoming more customers again, concerns about COVID variants, and the possible return of mask and other public health mandates, still has many business owners worried.

Varga, the Shearwater manager, called the mask mandate one of the most difficult problems service staff had to cope with – the first time around. “It’s going to be a huge problem,” if mask rules return, he said. “Getting people to wear masks again will be very difficult.”

Varga was interviewed shortly before First Selectman Jim Marpe issued a statement Tuesday that “strongly” recommends Westporters wear masks again in all indoor places open to the public, such as restaurants and stores, because the contagious Delta variant is spreading. Marpe, however, did not mandate that indoor mask recommendation, even though he previously made mask-wearing a requirement for those entering all municipal buildings.

Mandell said he is concerned about the safety of the wait staffs and others working in the town’s restaurants in the coming weeks and months. “My view is that wait staff should be masked to protect themselves,” he said. “We don’t know who’s sitting at the tables, are they vaccinated at all? … It’s two steps forward and one step back.”