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New Haven is ready to welcome a full economic recovery with restaurant week

A man sits at a table in a restaurant. He's wearing a black long sleeve shirt with red lettering that reads "Ricky D's Rib Shack. He sits in front of a counter.
Ali Oshinskie
Connecticut Public Radio
Most of Ricky Evans' business has been takeout and delivery for the past two years. But he wants his restaurant, Ricky D's Rib Shack, to be full of people. "But when it’s just grab-and-go, it becomes a job," he said. Evans is participating in New Haven Restaurant Week, which runs from March 27 through April 9. The city sees revival in the hospitality sector as central to its pandemic economic recovery.

In the kitchen of Ricky D’s Rib Shack on Winchester Avenue in New Haven on Friday, the scents of sweet cornbread, baked beans and barbecue sauce mingled in the air as the restaurant reached a milestone for the COVID era.

“This is the most people that’s been in the restaurant in a long time,” said owner Ricky D. Evans. “It feels good.”

The occasion was the kickoff to Restaurant Week in New Haven. It’s celebrating its 14th year with two weeks of restaurant promotions from Sunday, March 27, through Saturday, April 9. Over 50 restaurants are participating, including Ricky D’s Rib Shack.

Local restaurants are poised to make a comeback this spring. Legislation signed by Gov. Ned Lamont last week gave Connecticut restaurants the right to offer outdoor dining through the end of April 2023. Indoor dining capacity limits are a thing of the past, and many restaurants have lifted their mask mandates. And restaurant jobs are coming back. The latest employment data show that the hospitality industry — which includes restaurant jobs — has recovered 16.6% since February 2021, according to the Connecticut Department of Labor.

Mayor Justin Elicker said restaurant week is a time to show that New Haven is open for business.

“It’s been a really challenging time for our restaurants, in particular the early part of 2022,” he said.

The state’s hospitality sector lost jobs in January, as the omicron surge took hold.

But there are signs of hope. Michael Piscitelli, New Haven’s economic development administrator, said construction downtown is a promising sign of recovery, and he’s seeing evidence that New Haveners are back to work. Unemployment claims in the city are now lower than pre-pandemic levels.

“Hospitality, arts, culture, tourism is a significant part of our economic mix,” Piscitelli said.

Before the pandemic, he said, local restaurants saw a lot of indoor dining and workday lunches. Most restaurants, he said, pivoted to takeout and delivery during the COVID lockdowns.

Ricky Evans said in the past two years, most of his business has been takeout.

“But … that kind of defeats the purpose of this whole thing,” Evans said. “My whole thing is to have that cookout vibe, have families down here, have people down here interacting with customers. But when it’s just grab-and-go, takeout and delivery … it becomes a job.”

Evans said he left a desk job to start a food truck business in 2013; he opened up his storefront on Winchester Avenue in 2016, selling ribs, brisket and mac ’n cheese, among other items on the menu. He also has his own line of barbecue and dry rub.

For now, Evans is putting that brisket and mac ’n cheese into takeout containers.

“Realistically I’m not expecting the world to go back to how it was because so much has changed,” he said.

So he’s pivoting. He’s even building a virtual rib shack app with an online game. Users can play the “rib shack game,” where they can run their own restaurant: They have to prepare customers’ orders in a timely fashion or they‘ll lose the level.

“I can only fit 22 people in here,” Evans said, looking around his restaurant, but in the virtual world, there’s no limit to who can come to the cookout.