When the pandemic hit, many businesses in Connecticut simply shut their doors.
C.J. Sparrow Pub & Eatery never did.
When the virus arrived in mid-March, the restaurant, located at 908 South Main St., took a day to formulate a plan and then returned to business … though not business as usual.
“At first, we didn’t know what to expect,” said John Miller, owner of C.J. Sparrow. “There was concern. There was concern financially for our family. There was concern for our staff. We just didn’t know what to was going to happen.”
“We had always done good takeout business. Our food is great … we know that,” continued Miller, “but we just weren’t equipped for high-volume to-go business. We had to do some rearranging.”
The statewide shutdown meant that restaurants could no longer offer in-house dining to patrons. Only takeout or delivery would be allowed, restrictions that remained in place until May 20, when Connecticut moved into its first phase of reopening that allowed restaurants to offer outdoor seating only.
Miller, his wife Tara, and his staff, all of whom were offered the chance to stay on during the pandemic, although in different capacities and altered hours, immediately went to work. New safety protocols were put in place. The restaurant adhered to a one person in, one person out rule for those picking up takeout.
“We had a sign that said, ‘Halt, or we’ll taser you,’” laughed Miller.
A barricade was set up to make sure people didn’t fully enter the dining area, and new strict sanitizing protocols were put in place almost immediately.
“We wanted to make sure our staff felt comfortable and our customers felt comfortable,” said Miller. “Safety was and is our first priority.”
“(Chesprocott Health District) said they were very happy with how we were doing things, right from the beginning,” continued Miller.
All the hard work paid off. Takeout sales started almost immediately and didn’t waver and, while C.J. Sparrow wasn’t doing nearly the business it had pre-pandemic, a steady stream of loyal customers, and some new ones, kept the restaurant moving forward.
“It really kept us afloat,” said Miller. “I can’t say the response was surprising, but the support from our customers, from our community, has been overwhelming. One guy, he had never come to the restaurant before. Now, he’s a regular. He said that (C.J. Sparrow) is one of the few places he’ll go to because of the way in which we handled everything.”
Though the business has continued to do well, Miller admits that, at first, the restaurant “was crushed” by the loss of revenue. Things were made even more precarious by the fact that C.J. Sparrow isn’t the only business owned by the Miller family. John’s wife, Tara, runs The Bean Coffee Roasters, located at 118 South Main St.
“She got crushed, too,” said Miller. “It was a really rough time.”
However, even though The Bean Coffee Roasters shut its doors for a while, Tara Miller continued to produce home-roasted beans and began selling more to customers in bulk. In fact, over a period of time, Miller estimates that his wife was able to gain even more customers.
“She went in there every day and fought,” said Miller. “She roasted every day. She is the only roaster in the area — you aren’t going to be able to find that anywhere else.”
“She definitely has a loyal following and, when she opened back up, she probably did have a few new customers,” he continued. “She probably saw a small uptick in business.”
Miller has owned C.J. Sparrow since 2015, but still works a “day job” for an alcohol distributor. As such, Miller usually arrives at the restaurant later on in the evening, as will Tara, once The Bean Coffee Roasters is closed for the day.
That means Miller has to rely on his staff to keep things going — a staff he calls “awesome.”
“They have been amazing. I have people doing things now they never did before,” he said. “I have bartenders who are answering phones. We started up a delivery service. We have bussers who became great servers, and that’s where they are going to stay now. It just reinforced what we already knew — that we had amazing people who allow me to work my other job and allow Tara to be at (The Bean Coffee Roasters).”
As the state has slowly begun to open back up, C.J. Sparrow has as well. Indoor dining is available again, but the restaurant has expanded its outdoor dining areas, all while ensuring that social distancing protocols are maintained and that mask guidelines are followed.
A new area — what Miller is calling a “beer garden” — has become very popular and, if the weather is good, Miller states, C.J. Sparrow remains busy.
Live music is on the menu most Sundays.
Now, Miller, Tara, and the staff at the restaurant are preparing for what comes next. Miller has already looked into ways to keep outdoor dining an attractive option even when the weather begins to turn colder, with the possibility of installing heaters that would provide patrons a comfortable (and warm) environment in which to eat.
But he admits that, as of now, no one really knows what to expect.
“It’s tough,” he admitted. “It’s tough for everyone right now. But we will be here. We will see what the future brings and be ready for it.”
“I am just so thankful for our town and for our staff, who continue to provide such great service,” he continued.