Amid public health concerns, supply chain delays, individual sickness, and a host of other problems, the Covid-19 pandemic has taken an unimaginably large toll on corporate franchises and local vendors alike. The small businesses of New Haven are no exception. State mandates to close down businesses have had detrimental impacts on the local restaurant sector, causing many establishments to permanently close their doors. Walking down Chapel Street, passersby can see the skeletons of cafes past: Jojo’s put up a “For Rent” sign sometime within the last six months and went quietly, without a digital record of their demise. Panera is closed indefinitely, too.
Businesses that are still standing—among them Pizza at the Brick Oven and Book Trader Cafe—have faced unanticipated financial and logistical struggles, but have persevered thanks to well-founded business models and community support.
Brick Oven Pizza
At 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday, I walked up to Pizza at the Brick Oven at 122 Howe Street, commonly known among students as “Brick Oven” and referred to colloquially as “The Brick.” Owner Kadir Catalbasoglu was sitting at a table outside.
I introduced myself and asked if I should pull up one of the tree stumps situated near the table, stragglers from the enormous woodpile adjacent to the parking strip. He waved his hand “no,” as an employee came out with chairs.
“I’ve been here since 1998, about 21 years. This is a wood-burning brick oven, one of a kind, the best pizza in town,” Catalbasoglu proclaimed.
A Turkish immigrant hailing from Istanbul, Catalbasoglu said, “I represent my country here, proudly…Since we are not originally from Italy, we don’t get put on the best pizza list, but sometimes by mistake they think that I’m Italian and put me on the best pizza list.”
Catalbasoglu’s affable nature leaves no question as to why so many students have come to love the local eatery. Despite not having been back to his home country in twenty-odd years because the restaurant leaves little idle time, he took a break from his workday to speak with me.
In contrast to a majority of local businesses, Brick Oven did not close down at all for the pandemic, and the restaurant maintained the same number of employees. Even where restaurant hours are concerned—3 p.m. to 3 or 4 a.m. every day of the week—it was business as usual. The tumult of the past six months left Catalbasoglu seemingly unfazed.
“Over twenty years, I never closed this store, I was open every single day… No weather, no pandemic, nothing. I hope that I never close because I lost the key—no front door. That’s the joke—we never close,” he chuckled.
His regulars usually include the Yale population, spanning undergraduate to graduate students, with New Haven locals accounting for the rest of his customers. The usual suspects are always around, he mentioned, but his clientele has shifted with the times despite the relative normalcy in operations.
“We provided food for first responders, ambulance people, police, emergency people. We always have clients that come by and visit us,” he said. “We don’t have all the Yale crowd, that’s less, maybe 25 to 30 percent of the business is not there. But we’re still surviving without it.”
Yale students are normally a dependable crowd for Brick Oven, as the restaurant’s location at the intersection of Elm and Howe Streets is surrounded by off-campus housing. Despite public health concerns about Yale’s decision to allow students back in New Haven, the usual numbers of the student body are a constant for small business owners, who are having to find new ways to keep afloat.
While Catalbasoglu has a Facebook, Instagram, website, and promotes Brick Oven through Snackpass, he is adamant that, even in the midst of Covid-19, person-to-person recommendations remain his primary method of advertisement. “I did not change the business advertisement: word of mouth. If we have good pizza, you go tell a couple of your friends—that’s how we catch the customers. I don’t pay no TV, no radio, no newspapers.”
Although his original business model endures, Catalbasoglu has been receptive to new additions during an unusual year for the business due to the pandemic. He pointed toward the mural on the restaurant’s side wall, a black and white stippling of Muhammad Ali that was recently installed by a New York-based artist, Red Boots Ali.
“I’m glad I did it, it drew up a lot of attention; I really mean it,” Catalbasoglu said. “I got maybe ten, fifteen phone calls. They say, ‘Thank you very much for doing that, we need art in this side of the town,’ ‘Thank you for doing Muhammad Ali, he’s my favorite,’ ‘Oh, I remember that fight.’”
Catalbasoglu sees Ali as “a good example for humans, for the rest of the world,” and remarked that he likes Ali’s ideas. He briefly mentioned the boxer throwing his gold medal into the Ohio River as a political statement when, following his return from the Rome Olympics, a whites-only business denied him entry. “He affected me and I want to have his picture on my wall,” Catalbasoglu said matter-of-factly.
My thirty-minute conversation with Catalbasoglu ranged from anecdotes of teaching Yale students to make pizza at the restaurant to catering to loyal customers who are repeatedly drawn back to the community he has created at 122 Howe Street, bringing new additions to their circles along with them.
“I taught someone how to make pizza here. Guess what? He became a chef. Sometimes you don’t know, but you’re affecting people’s lives,” Catalbasoglu concluded.
Book Trader Cafe
On Sunday evening, I left my house and sprinted down Chapel. It was 5:57p.m.: three minutes until Book Trader Cafe closed. I was hoping that I’d catch the owner, David Duda, before he left for the day. An employee asked if I’d like a cup of coffee on the house while I waited, but I politely declined—I didn’t want the caffeine to keep me up.
Duda walked in the door a short time after, his arms overloaded with food and other supplies. His glasses were fogged up slightly. It looked like it had been a long day, yet he sat at the window countertop and readily struck up a conversation with me.
Duda worked for Atticus Bookstore Cafe, just a few blocks down Chapel Street, for several years in the ’90s when it was still a used bookstore. In this time, it was feasible to attain a decent living exclusively selling books, Duda said. He opened Book Trader Cafe 23 years ago. The unique duality of a used bookstore/cafe not only differentiates Book Trader from other businesses in the district, but has also proven beneficial in terms of staying afloat amidst fluctuations in the economy and unexpected obstacles like Covid-19.
Due to Book Trader Cafe’s emphasis on food as a source of revenue, the cozy nook has remained insulated from the effects of online commerce on the book business. The first cook “took [the store] into sandwiches, soups, pastries,” according to Duda. He remarked that it “was very helpful about ten years after that when Amazon came along and really started decimating the used bookstore market—we were able to survive that because we also sold food.”
Conversely, book sales acted as a safety net when the pandemic forced Duda to cease cafe operations (he closed his doors for six months starting on March 15th). Because Connecticut restaurant owners had to stop selling food, the alternative source of income gave Duda a financial leg up compared to establishments that relied solely on food production.
“I think the one clear way that we’re different from a lot of other cafes is that we sell books online and could do that even when we were closed,” Duda said. “So we really benefited from the nice, generous people who have continued to either donate or sell us books… Some people have donated collections knowing that times are tough.”
The pandemic forced Duda to temporarily lay off his entire 16-person staff for the period of closure, but he brought eight staff members back onto the payroll following Yale students’ return to campus.
My conversations with both Catalbasoglu and Duda revealed that the dangers of reopening campus are countered by the fact that the small businesses of New Haven rely on the students for financial stability. The interplay between local businesses and the Yale community, whose members serve as both patrons and part-time workers, is a beneficial aspect of the University’s position in New Haven. It was apparent that Duda—a socially conscious, responsible businessman—cares deeply about this very community.
“When it was time to flatten the curve, we shut down immediately. We closed right away on March 15th; I knew the staff were taken care of,” Duda remembers. He didn’t receive any Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) stimulus money. The forgivable loan–a government incentive to keep a minimum number of employees on payroll–had criteria that could not be met while the cafe was closed, causing Duda to believe his business was ineligible. Regrettably, he found out when it was too late to apply that he actually could have received a PPP loan.
In the past, Book Trader Cafe’s location nestled amongst the Yale art, architecture, and drama school buildings on Chapel Street made the spot a “go-to” for graduate students in the area. The news that the drama school would be closed until September 2022 forced Duda to confront the absence of the drama student cohort, who normally account for about a third of the cafe’s business.
“Our sales are down by 60%,” Duda shared. “It’s been a little better this month thankfully to Yale because they built us that bigger patio, and obviously outdoor seating is sought after these days.”
The preexisting patio section has been expanded past the pathway adjacent to the cafe, with fifteen new seats that customers can use for outdoor dining or as a workspace. Duda said the seating has been full recently, with warm weather extending well into late October.
Similar to Catalbasoglu, Duda has never done much marketing beyond establishing a social media presence and running the occasional campus newspaper advertisement, but he’s keeping an open mind should other advertising methods prove necessary. “We kind of exist by word of mouth and we’ve been here long enough that people have learned about us,” Duda commented. “Certainly in spring, if things are still this bad, I’ll publicise the outdoor seating more, but it’s gonna be a little cold soon.”
The need to socially distance has hindered usual cafe operations, pressing Duda to be innovative in his use of the cafe’s physical space. “We have a more limited menu because our kitchen is not big enough to really have two people in there like we used to,” Duda said. Additionally, Book Trader Cafe is not on Snackpass or Grubhub, since these services require a relatively fixed menu. “We are trying to be more creative with the sandwiches and stuff; it’s not always the same thing, so we don’t have any pickup or delivery,” Duda explained.
Duda is appreciative of customers’ continued patronage and empathy for independent businesses due to the struggles they have faced since reopening. That said, he misses the usual warm ambience of the cafe. “We kind of have a community that is built around the books and events we have and hanging out, talking to people. That is certainly something that people miss these days,” Duda said. “It’ll be great when people can sit everywhere, chat, and enjoy our food and books.” For the time being, however, customers who want to see the cafe survive the pandemic are “just thinking about protecting [the cafe] through their patronage.”
Both Catalbasoglu of Brick Oven and Duda of Book Trader Cafe genuinely appreciate the community that their small businesses foster—tokens of person-to-person connection that remain constant despite economic turmoil, the rise of technology, and now a pandemic. Local shops like Brick Oven and Book Trader Cafe possess a quiet fortitude, a testament to the resilience that has allowed them to weather the test of time.