Hartford Business Owner Thrives Amidst Uncertain Times
Hartford entrepreneur Jerry Fornarelli owns The Tavern Downtown, The Russian Lady, and Rocking Horse Saloon. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Jerry about his experience growing his businesses in Hartford and how he’s handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
NAN PRICE: Many business owners have taken COVID-19 as a time for reinvention and growth. How have your businesses adapted?
JERRY FORNARELLI: While we were closed during the pandemic, as business owners, we were obviously depressed. We kept thinking: How are we going to survive? How are we going to grow?
I had read an article that said one out of three restaurants or bars will close due to this pandemic. That made me determined to keep my three locations open and not become one of those three.
NAN: I appreciate that you acknowledged the melancholy feelings—and that determination and entrepreneurial spirit to push through.
JERRY: We had to push through. If I’m the leader of my team, I have to stay positive to keep all my staff positive, too. They take in my energy and passion, which makes them excited to come back to work.
This is a totally new situation and we’re going to have to think of ways to be smart about getting our product out there and maintaining a steady business.
NAN: How have you taken action?
JERRY: We had to figure out what we could do to offer more for customers and practice safety and social distancing at the same time. We started working on Tavern by rolling out new guidelines. It’s almost like we had to rebuild a whole new restaurant and come up with new approaches to get through the pandemic.
We took the time to refine our menu. We also worked closely together to clean up and get everything ready to reopen. Most important was keeping everyone positive, letting them know we’re going to open great—and we’re going to be safe about it.
Phase two for us is opening Russian Lady. We’re thinking about how we can entertain but be very safe without overcrowding. How do we become a cocktail lounge without relying on as many people coming in?
So, we looked at the area to see what food options are available and came up with the idea of making homemade ice cream, which we thought would work well because we could provide safe ordering at one of our windows. We have a small menu to cater for food as well.
I haven’t made ice cream before, but I’m practicing because I need to get good at it! That’s where my passion is coming out. My staff is feeling it and they’re excited. My team is growing strong, which helps make me strong.
And then phase three will be The Rocking Horse where, in the past, we haven’t really served food. We had to diversify and rebuild from being a bar to more of a restaurant. That’s what we’re trying to transform into. We do have a café license and I just got a permit for a pizza trailer so we can offer woodfired pizza. But I don’t want to rush opening. I want to take it in phases, where we’re smart about our approach.
NAN: During the pandemic, have you been forming collaborations within the city to help small business remain intact?
JERRY: I think the pandemic is going to bring people closer together and also focus on helping small businesses grow instead of going away.
The City of Hartford has been great during COVID-19 about letting local restaurants open to the street outside. I had been working with the MetroHartford Alliance and especially the Hartford Chamber of Commerce before, so our relationship is getting stronger. They’ve been actively reaching out asking: What can we do to help you?
I’m looking at the area as a whole, not just focused on my own restaurants. We want Hartford to be a destination where everyone knows they can get pizza, ice cream, and gastro pub food—and get Mexican from Agave or go to Fornarelli’s downtown, which is an Italian restaurant my brother operates.
With other businesses, we’re talking about how we can all work together and create a place for people to come downtown and feel comfortable, where it’s not overcrowded. We’re also working keeping our distancing and following all the guidelines, so when people do come, they have great things to say about Hartford.
NAN: What great things do you have to say about Hartford? What do you most enjoy about the city?
JERRY: I’ve spent about 30 years of my life working in downtown Hartford. I started as a bartender and began opening places in 2003. I like Hartford because it’s a quaint little city that’s really starting to grow. We need to continue building things downtown that are going to bring people to the city.
NAN Tell us a little about the evolution from bartender to business owner.
JERRY: When I first opened, I didn’t tap in the local businesses. I was on a really tight budget. I borrowed money and did a lot of the construction myself. There are a lot of things to learn when you go from being a bartender to opening a business and then getting a big impact. There are also things you have to learn as they come. You make mistakes, which is the only way you learn to operate well.
For example, I’ve been so engaged with my client base where maybe before I wasn’t when I was first opening the businesses. Now I’m focusing on every table, asking about their experience—and thanking everyone for coming out and supporting us during COVID-19.
I’ve learned that business ownership takes time. It’s a career. It’s a struggle to have your own business but I’ve learned how to grind it through and try to come out positive.
Also, you have to reinvent yourself every five years, because the trends change and what’s popular five years ago isn’t popular today. You have to learn how to make all those adjustments in your business and be willing to tweak things as you go.
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Rocking Horse Saloon