Outdoor dining, inside cleansing — Route 7 cafe keeps the faith

Sundays are when Ron Herman gets the starkest reminders of life before coronavirus. The brunch crowd that would normally filter in to his Wooster Hollow Cafe in Ridgefield after church now arrives in smaller numbers as church closures snapped a Sabbath habit for some regulars. And himself.

But Herman is keeping the faith. He’s hoping Sunday brunches will be bustling again before too long — and though he would not want to go through another pandemic, he believes he’s a better person because of it, and that his business and staff will emerge stronger for it.

A former head of private-equity investments for GE Capital, Herman bought Wooster Hollow six years ago. Late last year he purchased Fairfield’s CT Crab Co., which makes crab cakes for online and wholesale distribution. On the side, he chairs the board of the Ridgefield Chamber of Commerce.

In Ridgefield, Fairfield and farther afield across Connecticut, a number of restaurants have closed permanently, whether due to an inability to convert to outdoor dining and delivery; businesses already being on the edge of insolvency; or proprietors simply choosing to walk away rather than burdening themselves with risks in the coronavirus era.

Herman was among many who chose to tackle the nuanced problems cropping up throughout the pandemic — from tasking staff to produce meals for distribution to local charities to lining up financing for Wooster Hollow Cafe — until customers regained confidence in dining out.

“Before the pandemic, the restaurant business was a hard business,” Herman said. “You get restrictions on the number of people that can be there, and it makes a hard business tougher.”

When Gov. Ned Lamont issued his first emergency order in mid-March, closing dining rooms in Connecticut eateries, Herman already had been thinking about online ordering. He added that option quickly, he said, by adding GrubHub and Uber Eats to his own process for home delivery. Wooster Hollow delivery volumes have kept up even after Lamont allowed outdoor dining to resume May 20 and (limited) indoor service a month later.

“In the beginning we offered takeout only, and the first month was really, really tough,” Herman said. “We put a lot of stuff in high gear, turning on the online ordering, and [delivery]. When they started to allow outside dining, we had a small patio out back, so we enlarged it ... and we went out and bought picnic tables.”

Herman took out a loan from People’s United Financial under the Paycheck Protection Program of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, with loans forgiven if borrowers do not lay off employees. He said he had no difficulties getting the loan, given an existing relationship with the Bridgeport-based bank.

“It came at the right time, because we had totally wiped out our cash reserves,” Herman said. “I think we were at $8,000 left when the PPP loan arrived ... we kept people working.”

Between the larger patio and an additional “picnic glade” that Wooster Hollow’s staff created, the cafe is able to seat 60 people outside and another 40 indoors at half capacity.

After Lamont allowed indoor dining to resume with spacing between tables and other measures to lessen the chances of any customers transmitting the virus, Herman took every other booth at Wooster Hollow out of service. In advance of any allowances for additional capacity, he plans to extend Wooster Hollow’s booth-backs vertically with transparent shields for an extra sense of security.

Herman said most customers are more than happy to take the outdoor option, save for the hottest afternoons when one or two parties head into the restaurant to dine in air conditioning.

According to the state’s commissioner of economic development, Wooster Hollow Cafe matches the statwide customer profile in the summer of 2020.

“Anecdotally, [restaurateurs] say there’s still an overwhelming preference to sit outside,” said David Lehman, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development.

Herman said he has been largely supportive of the state’s phased approach for allowing restaurants to resume operations, saying that the state’s low rate of new cases suggests it is working and that it has allowed venues large and small to learn the steps needed to heighten customer and worker safety.

But he said restaurant-profit margins do not allow for an extended period of limited capacity, with only a few months to go of warm weather. Herman he is an optimist at heart, however, and says his staff has kept up morale throughout the crisis.

“We’re going to figure this out — it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Herman said. “When problem-issues come up, you just face reality, come up with a plan. One of the things I always say to the team is, ‘let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let’s get this up and running.’ ”