Opening Up

Opening Up

Ephrat and Benny Lieblich had already signed a lease for their new Whalley Avenue restaurant, Ladle and Loaf, and gutted their space when suddenly, last March, everything shut down. Eventually, construction resumed and was finished in May, but approvals and inspections had stalled. It took the couple another six months to open their doors, which they finally did the day after Thanksgiving.

Ladle and Loaf is one of dozens of new businesses in New Haven that, seemingly against the odds, have opened amid the pandemic, offering signs of hope during an otherwise bleak time. In fact, new businesses outnumbered those that closed in 2020, says Steve Fontana, a deputy director of the city’s Economic Development Administration. The same appears to be true at the state level. The Connecticut Data Collaborative records a net gain of more than 16,000 businesses statewide between March and December of 2020.

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As the sun was sinking one recent afternoon, bands of sunlight striped the floor and bisected the barn door hung between Ladle and Loaf’s dining area and kitchen. Benny Lieblich sat at one of the restaurant’s five spread-out tables, catching a bite in the lull between lunch and dinner. Ladle and Loaf’s menu spans Middle Eastern, North African and Indian flavors with street food for inspiration. In an earlier conversation, Benny, a certified chef, had rattled off the spices—cumin, coriander, ginger, turmeric, cardamom—that dominate those regions. “Although we are street food… we’re not fast food,” Ephrat added. For example, rather than buying frozen falafel balls or making them from a mix, the Liebliches grind and season their own chick peas to make falafel. Kosher with some vegetarian options, Ladle and Loaf also plans to offer Shabbos catering in the future.

While the Liebliches were held back by the shutdown, the pandemic offered new opportunities for others. Laid off from his job as a chef at The Study at Yale, Edgar Garcia-Salas was working a maintenance job to pay the bills when he stopped in for lunch at Manjares Bistro in Westville last summer and struck up a conversation with owner Ana De Los Angeles. He told her he was a chef, and his dream was to cook Peruvian food. She had traveled in Peru—and she had an existing space next door that she wanted to reboot. The result is Amaru Peruvian Bistro, which opened in September.

Trained at The Study and in his own kitchen, where he learned from his Peruvian mother-in-law, Garcia-Salas, along with sous-chef Robert Micho, serves up what he describes as “Peruvian food through my eyes”—a blend of Peruvian, French and Mediterranean cuisine, “almost traditional but with a little twist.” Garcia-Salas’s signature dish is Scallops Tiradito—thinly sliced scallops seared to crispiness on one side and bathed in a yellow pepper sauce and lime juice that “cooks” the other side. The entire generous portion is balanced with slices of avocado and garnished with furikake and scallions.

“All the bones were already here,” Garcia-Salas says of the space, which used to be a tapas bar. “We’ve turned that little place had into something beautiful.” As for business? So far, so good, according to Garcia-Salas. Being a chef isn’t easy, he says, but “I love what I do… It’s rewarding to me in the weirdest of ways.”

Ladle and Loaf and Amaru are not alone. About two dozen businesses, including new branches of larger companies and stand-alone shops, have opened in downtown New Haven alone since the start of the pandemic, many of them restaurants. Fair Haven is home to several new businesses including a taco restaurant, a smokehouse, a supermarket, a pet day care, a custom frame factory and an industrial pumps manufacturer. In addition to Amaru, Westville has welcomed three additional new restaurants and the reopening in a new location of Delaney’s, which had been closed since a 2014 fire. At Long Wharf, Yale New Haven Hospital, Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center and Fair Haven Community Health Care opened the brand-new Primary Care Medical Center. And in the Hill, Jammin’ Jamaican Cuisine has been serving up Caribbean specialties like jerk chicken and curried goat since October.

Despite the flurry of openings, local businesses remain threatened by the economic downturn over the past year. So are many nonprofits. Doreen Abubakar and Jeanette Sykes, both leaders of local nonprofits, responded to the challenge by founding the Urban Nonprofit Network to raise up struggling local organizations led by people of color with budgets of under $50,000.

The first question UNN asked was, “What’s the barrier?” Abubakar says. The answer, they found, was a lack of training. UNN recruited Jackie Downing of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven to run a series of workshops on mission, vision, program design, developing a board, finances and fundraising for a cohort of nine small New Haven nonprofits. Upon completion, each participating organization was given a $400 grant and eight additional hours of personal consulting. Those groups are now moving on to a second level of training, and a new cohort is open for applications. The goal, Abubakar says, is “not only getting support for nonprofits but also being able to tell our side of the story in regards to how the systemic barriers are affecting us.” Ultimately, she hopes, with more knowledge and support, these nonprofits will be “sustainable and fundable.” UNN plans to expand its support to local minority-led businesses as well.

Fontana of Economic Development was “very pleasantly surprised” to see business openings outnumbering closures—and yet, in a way, not so surprised at all. Following the Great Recession, he says, people “made a virtue of a necessity… They were unemployed, they needed to do something, they had a dream, they had an idea, so they stepped into the world of entrepreneurship.” The same appears to be true of New Haven today. Existing businesses, particularly restaurants, have successfully adapted, Fontana says, by diversifying their revenue streams with food carts, online classes, prepared meals, catering or other offerings that may sustain them through future challenges.

Of course, not every business or nonprofit that opened or retooled in 2020 did so in reaction to the pandemic. Some, like Ladle and Loaf, simply powered through. They’re representative of what Fontana sees as another success story: the “fostering and supporting and developing the entrepreneurial and small business community” over the last several years. New Haven, he says, has had a “huge influx of creative, innovative people coming here” to start their businesses.

“They were determined to do it,” Fontana says, “pandemic or no pandemic.”

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Clockwise from upper left, image features the Grain Bowl at Ladle and Loaf; Benny and Ephrat Lieblich; the Lomo Saltado at Amaru; and Edgar Garcia-Salas.

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