'We lost about 90% of our business': Restaurants in Little Poland struggling to survive amid coronavirus restrictions

Published on Wednesday, 25 March 2020 14:12
Written by Catherine Shen


NEW BRITAIN – It has been a week since Gov. Ned Lamont ordered the closure of all restaurant dining rooms and bars in the state to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, and restaurants in Little Poland are struggling to survive.

While most of the city’s Polish restaurants already practice a carryout business model, it’s a far cry from the usual business they get on a “normal” day along Broad Street.

“I don’t even know if we’re ever going to go back to the ‘normal days’ or what the new normal is going to be,” said Margaret Malinowski, owner of Staropolska, who wasted no time in saying how horrible the experience has been, not only for her restaurant, but for all neighboring restaurants and businesses.

“This whole thing just fell on us. At least if the restaurants could still be open with a restriction of 10 people, we can scatter them. But to close down dining in completely, it’s been terrible,” she said. “People are scared to come out or they’re preoccupied with shopping for supplies. And not everyone wants takeout or have the income to do that now.”

Since the ordered closure, Malinowski had to lay off some of her staff and reduce operating hours. Where it used to be a bustling crew of 10 workers in and out of the kitchen, it has now been whittled down to two.

“We lost about 90% of our business. There’s no production, so I don’t need my production staff. I had to lay off my dishwasher because there aren’t any dishes to wash,” she explained. “And we don’t know if they’ll come back.”

Her diners are typically comprised of 80% of English-speaking visitors that have Polish roots and about 60% are out-of-towners.

“We’ve lost all of those customers now. It’s a destination but no one can go anywhere,” Malinowski said. “The impact is great to us. Small businesses are the backbone of this country, but it’s hard to ask for support when you know it’s challenging for everyone.”

However, people are still generous during tough times. She said some patrons have been over-tipping her workers because everyone understands the struggle.

“We’ve raised their salaries, but we can only do so much,” Malinowski said. “But knowing that people are still kind and generous to our workers means a lot.”

A smaller crew, a reduction in operating hours and heightened sanitation standards has become the new norm for many restaurant owners, including Walter Radziwillowicz, owner of Euro Plate, who said the closure experience has been like a hurricane.

“Some clients understand while some clients remain skeptical and are upset with the changes. But for the most part, people do understand and try their best to support us,” Radziwillowicz said. “We’re all on edge. We’re staying open but not making any profits. My wife Ela and I are basically working for free and there’s not much we can do about it.”

Visitors from out of town who come to Little Poland simply for Polish food seems to be a memory in the faraway past. Radziwillowicz said they lost about 80% of tourist visits and what’s normally a very busy Easter holiday season has dwindled, losing about 90% of what orders they usually get.

“Even the 10% is suspended because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few weeks,” he said. “A lot of things can change.”

Despite the dramatic downturn in business, Radziwillowicz remains optimistic. He hopes the situation will turn around, the government will take good action, and people will continue to support each other.

“I know it’s bad business for me to tell people to stay home, but I strongly advise people to do it if they can,” he said. “It helps to cut the virus down and prevent a wider spread. We can get over this faster if everyone can do the right thing.”

Changing from a full-time restaurant with a busy catering schedule to working with a skeleton crew is a huge shift for Ela Konferowicz, general manager of Belvedere Café and Restaurant, who said the money coming in from takeout and delivery represents barely 20% of their usual income.

“We’re struggling like everyone else, but people still have to eat and we’re encouraging them to call in and order food,” she said. “We’re cutting prices and we also have daily specials for $10, which you can call to see what they are or check our social media.”

A rigorous hygienic routine has also taken root at the restaurants, from sanitizing bank cards to having customers leave money on the counter, to disinfecting all surfaces and high-touch areas constantly are ways the restaurants are keeping clean. All the restaurant owners emphasized everything is sanitized and if their workers are ill, they’re not allowed to work.

“We keep our space very secure and safe,” Konferowicz said. “Like everyone else, this has been very difficult. But we’re grateful that our regular customers are still buying from us. We’ve lost almost all of our out-of-towners, so it means a lot that our regulars are still coming in.”

Staropolska Restaurant, 252 Broad St., is now open from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. They are open for takeout, curbside and larger deliveries. Contact 860-612-1711 and check out the menu at www.staropolska.net

Euro Plate, 100 Broad St., is now open for takeout orders 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Contact 860-356-7427. Those that request curbside service can be accommodated but are asked to make the request when placing the takeout order. Visit their menu at: www.europlaterestaurant.com

Belvedere Café and Restaurant, 82 Broad St., is now open from noon to 6 p.m.

Curbside pickup is available and they can process payment over the phone or pay by cash at the pickup time. They can also prepare large orders to freeze for later and not worry about getting outside of the house. Customers can also place an order via Uber Eats.

Contact 860-826-1155. The menu is available at: www.belvederenewbritain.com

Posted in New Britain Herald, Business, New Britain on Wednesday, 25 March 2020 14:12. Updated: Wednesday, 25 March 2020 14:14.