Hwang Taps Into COVID Challenges Facing Brewery, Diner
Learn why State Senator Tony Hwang spent the morning of April 13 enjoying a late breakfast at Sandy Hook Diner and a pre-lunch sample of freshly brewed suds at the Reverie Brewing Company.
The plucky lawmaker was not there as a consumer, but to listen and help find ways to drive more consumers through the doors of these and other businesses negatively impacted by COVID-19 restrictions imposed over the past year by executive orders.
Hwang, who serves as the ranking member of the Housing, Higher Education, and Public Safety & Security committees, and as a member of the Transportation Committee, heard the frustrated cries of Sandy Hook Diner owner Ellie Lewis, and the trio of Reverie co-founders Tony Lockwood and Mark and Ryan Broderick.
So this week he visited both local businesses and committed himself to providing or advocating for assistance from Governor Ned Lamont, and agencies including the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD).
During the press briefing at Connecticut’s oldest continually operating diner where she was joined by Msgr Robert Weiss of St Rose of Lima Parish, Lewis related that because she had just reacquired the business after selling it to another owner four years earlier, she did not have the documentation required to get assistance under federal initiatives, including the Paycheck Protection Program or PPP.
She also admitted that her expertise is running a small food service operation, so the computer skills required to navigate the complex electronic application process for state-run assistance programs was also beyond her ability to successfully navigate.
That’s where Hwang stepped in.
“I spoke with the commissioner of the DECD, and we have made the connection to be readily available and a resource to business people like Ellie,” Hwang said. “We will serve as a liaison for her, to look at potential grants as a result of the American Rescue Plan and PPP that Ellie did not get access to. I made a direct contact through the commissioner’s office to have a direct contact to help Ellie get through the paperwork.”
Lewis added that she is equally hampered by restrictions that force her to serve a fraction of the number of patrons she might otherwise entertain because the physical layout of the diner restricts the number of tables she can fill. Just the previous weekend, she said, she opened a small outdoor patio that can hold an additional six properly distanced tables, but it still constricts her earning potential.
That limited revenue stream also affects servers and others who might otherwise choose to work at her diner. She told Hwang that it has been extremely difficult to keep waitstaff since pandemic restrictions went into effect.
An Esteemed Regular
Weiss talked about how the diner represented more than a place to grab a meal or quick cup of coffee.
“This is the place where everybody knows your name, and a place where it’s really about family,” Weiss said. “It’s so reflective of the entire Newtown/Sandy Hook community.”
The local church leader said he happened to stop into the diner on his first day of assignment at St Rose, “and from that day forward, I come back every day I can get down here. This really is a home in the morning.” He also talked about how the diner became a hub of consolation during the days following the Sandy Hook tragedy.
“That’s why it’s so important to support this business, and Ellie, and the good work she does,” Weiss added. “This is a woman with a heart — and a spatula — and she’s a woman of great faith. I’m proud to say I support Ellie, and it’s worth the support of everyone else in this community.”
After visiting with Lewis a bit longer, Hwang moved a mile or so up Church Hill Road to the Reverie microbrewery, where he was joined by its founders and First Selectman Dan Rosenthal; Christal Preszler, Newtown’s deputy director of Economic & Community Development; and Newtown Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Helen Brickfield.
Hwang touted the fact that despite potentially having to close because of virus restrictions because Reverie was not a food-serving establishment, and regarded more as a bar, its operators worked creatively to find a way to serve patrons appropriately to avoid closing their doors.
The senator noted that Reverie not only continued to face and overcome the challenges posed by sweeping executive orders, but that they did it while establishing a grant fund to help other struggling Newtown businesses also affected by virus restrictions.
“We’re here to offer our support,” Hwang said. “And if money comes from the federal government or the state, we will be able to provide economic assistance to small businesses like this or any other business.”
Rosenthal remarked that he has seen the challenges Reverie has faced, first in its effort to open just two years earlier, and then under the strain of ill-fitting virus related restrictions.
“It’s been great to see how so many of our businesses have had to pivot, and our business community has pivoted really well — and I think our greater community has shown a lot of support for these businesses, too,” the first selectman said.
He pointed out there have been a number of unintended consequences of Governor Ned Lamont’s executive orders, while praising the governor for his willingness to allow or keep businesses functioning at some level so they could survive the worst of the pandemic fallout.
Community Gathering Place
Ryan Broderick talked about how he and his father and Lockwood always envisioned Reverie to be more of a community gathering place than just a business where folks could enjoy some fresh brewed ales and other products.
“I think our challenge from the beginning was being lumped in with bars and restaurants, of which we are neither,” he said. “We welcome families and encourage people to bring their families here, and we limit what we serve because we’re conscious that one bad egg can spoil everything.”
Lockwood asserted, “We take COVID seriously,” and detailed the many ways Reverie is enforcing virus safety and distancing protocols, including providing only table service and roping off their bar area from patron access.
“It’s put a strain on our business,” he said. “We have to have a lot more staff, and put a lot more energy into cleaning and disinfecting, on top of actual capacity limitations.”
Hwang noted that the “lumping in” of micro breweries like Reverie, and making them subject to restrictions specifically facing bars and restaurants has given him energy to pursue amendments to the executive orders that he committed to addressing with the governor using the Newtown brewery as a prime example.
“I think it’s due to a lack of understanding about the culture of your business,” Hwang remarked. “And you’ve taken great pains to maintain spacing and distancing. People are here for family gatherings, and this is a dynamic setting. There are no TVs — people actually sit and talk to each other.”
Hwang said businesses like Reverie should not be punished for maintaining such a unique business model.
“You follow the law, and it’s been an incredible burden,” he added, “and my hope is through our efforts today, we’ll make [state leaders] understand this unique model.”