Jason Sobocinski was struggling with the toughest financial quarter Caseus has had yet. Downtown at Zinc New Haven, Donna Curran was applying lessons learned from the 2008 recession. Half a mile away at Ninth Square Caribbean Style, Elisha Hazel and her partner Qulen Wright were planning new recipes with vegan macaroni and cheese, jerk tofu, and tender jackfruit — and wondering if running a restaurant would get any easier.
Representing three generations of New Haven eateries, those chef-owners came together at the New Haven Free Public Library’s (NHFPL) Mitchell branch in Westville to talk about the good, bad, and ugly of running a restaurant in New Haven.
Recorded for WNHH’s “Kitchen Sync” program, the panel last week was part of an ongoing collaboration between the NHFPL and Long Wharf Theatre promoting The Most Beautiful Room In New York. The play, about food, family, and New York City’s cutthroat culinary scene, runs from May 3 through the 28.
Zinc was established in 1999 (with the addition of Kitchen Zinc in 2009), Caseus is nine years old, and Ninth Square Caribbean Style is a young three months, although it has been in the works for three years. Discussing how their time on the New Haven restaurant scene has prepared them for some unexpected economic bumps along the way, the three navigated quiet summers, disastrous financial quarters, unforeseen fiscal consequences of the 2017 presidential election, and how to keep patrons with rising food prices.
And then they offered some advice to each other: stay in the game. It’s terrifying, but it’s also worth it.
Getting Through Lean Months
In The Most Beautiful Room in New York, a family business struggles to keep its lights on as gentrification vampires take over parts of the city. While Hazel is still figuring out what it means to be a new restaurateur on the block, Curran and Sobocinski spoke at last week’s forum about getting through economic downturns that the city and its establishments have seen, including a recent one for Caseus.
Following are excerpts from the conversation, which I moderated.
I’m wondering if you can address how you’ve seen ... economic development in the city impact your establishments—and how those changes have very immediately affected your restaurants, and then how the community has evolved around them.
Sobocinski: This last quarter was really terrible. I’m going to blame Trump. But things, things go up and down, and for me, where I am, I’m lucky. I’m just on the outskirts of downtown. ... Summertime is really hard in this town. And it ebbs and flows, because Yale leaves and then stuff gets really really empty.
But we’ve made it through by just staying really involved in the community, it’s something that I do cross the board with all of my businesses. Give to the community, the community will give back. And just ... being lucky, I think. I’ve been doing OK. Through it all.
Curran: We do OK, but we’ve struggled at times. During the ‘08 [recession], it was pretty rough. It was lean. You just have to cut back, you have to find ways to save money, you try not to take it out on the backs of your staff as much as you can, and make it work. Typically I wouldn’t get paid or my business partner wouldn’t get paid. And then you just ... see how long you can do that, until things turn around and go on ‘til the next day.
Town and gown relations, I think, have generally been pretty good. I think Mayor Harp’s done a great job in terms on keeping on board with Yale.
Economically the city, I think, if we get some of the housing that is going up, will be a lot better for all of us. I think we’re at this really weird point right now where all of these housing units, apartment buildings are being built, but they’re not here yet, and so we have a lot of new businesses flooding, and so you have a lot less people coming to your place maybe than you would necessarily [think] would be so. We’re really looking forward to the economic development that’s happening across the city. It’ll be good for everyone.
Hazel: We are in a quieter area, kind of on the outskirts of downtown New Haven. We as well are excited because there are new things that are going to be constructed across the street from us. I think we’re excited about people moving in next year. So I think we’re excited for that, we’re also ... we believe that business could be better if more people knew we were down there, so that’s an area where we definitely can strengthen ourselves. But we’ve been lucky to have a lot of new faces in every day, so I’m grateful to see that happen.
Can I Get A Side Of Beta Testing With That?
The three also pointed to the importance of culinary experimentation in both keeping their restaurants afloat, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Sobocinski recalled getting “smashed” on Facebook when he posted a photograph of lamb necks that had come in with the heads still attached—something patrons seemed suddenly not to mind when they tried head cheese for the first time, because Caseus works not to waste food. Hazel’s seen the same thing when new visitors see dishes like fish tea and peanut punch on the menu.
Sobocinski: There are no more smoke and mirrors when it comes to food ... I purposely put things on our menu that I’m expecting guests to ask questions about, because then you get a nice dialogue back and forth with your server, and it’s not just someone who is taking an order, and bringing a piece of food from point A to B. You’re actually forming a relationship with the person who is feeding you, and we go out of our way to kind of confuse you a little bit, so you can go ahead and ask those questions and have that dialogue.
I’m nine years in. I’ve built up trust, so that we can throw a pig’s foot on the menu as a special. I can do offal, and tripe, and weird stuff, and people will buy it because they trust us. They trust that no matter what it is, it’s gonna be good—because they’ve come and they’ve eaten, and it’s been good. I think that takes time though, to build that trust. To get people to try, you know, duck tongues.
Curran: Yeah, it’s a door. It opens a door to start a conversation. We do the same thing ... almost every item on our menu has one thing that you would want to ask about—that I would ask about!
It takes time. The longer you’re into it, the more people who have self-selected. So if they’re not really the adventurous type, or if they know they don’t like spicy food, maybe they just choose to go someplace else at this point.
Hazel: We have to do a lot of explaining, so we have like a little skit that we do when you come in to sort of explain everything, how it works. People are able to try, so they know ... how things taste before they invest in them. So we try to be as transparent as possible, we do focus a lot on fresh, natural, organic ingredients.
We’re getting more creative as we go along. We’re actually asking people what they’d like to see at our food bar, because we have a limited food bar, but as the seasons change, we do want to bring in new items. Hopefully they will get some good ideas to go off of.
To listen to the episode, click on or download the above audio or check out Kitchen Sync as a podcast on iTunes.