When Cheshire resident Charlie Hague came home from work on February 15, he was looking to spend the night with his family. To his surprise, a phone call led to his face being put on the national stage.
In accepting a FaceTime video request from Dave Portnoy, Hague was informed that his restaurant, Aunt Chilada’s in Hamden, had been accepted into the Barstool Fund to support small businesses. The owner of Barstool Sports, Portnoy records his congratulatory calls and then puts them on social media.
“I don’t get FaceTime calls, so I knew that something was up,” Hague recalled. “It means so much that Barstool thought of this business.”
At the time of the video call, Hague was sitting on the couch with his wife Susan and daughter Caroline. His other daughters, Lauren and Emily, weren’t home at the time.
“They were all elated and excited to hear the news,” stated Hague. “I can’t thank Dave enough. It is nice to see that someone is trying to help small businesses survive everything.”
Portnoy has been vocal about the government needing to help people during the coronavirus pandemic. He started the Barstool Fund after businessman Marco Lemonis challenged him online to match a donation of $500,000 to start a relief fund for New York City restaurants.
Along with accepting the challenge, Portnoy expanded the reach to allow small businesses around the country to apply for Barstool’s assistance. Over the last three months, the media company has received 220,013 donations and raised $36,208,817.
As of press time, Aunt Chilada’s restaurant is among 295 businesses that have been approved to receive monetary relief.
“Dave started this fund with his own money,” said Hague, who opened Aunt Chilada’s in 1993. “It is nice to see people trying to help out the little guy.”
Hague heard about the Barstool fund through other local restaurants and started his application process with a video submission in early February. To qualify, businesses had to be continuing to pay their employees during the pandemic.
“Barstool asked about things such as your current sales and number of employees. You had to document your number of sales last year compared to this year,” explained Hague.
After proceeding through the first round, he had to fill out a second application and was then told that he might get a FaceTime call from Portnoy in the next two weeks.
“It is a pretty detailed process,” said Hague.
After being accepted by Barstool, Hague was told that money would be wired to him in 72 hours.
“It is almost gone already with the bills we had,” stated Hague, who had previously received help from his landlord. “Now that I can pay vendors, I don’t feel as bad about our situation.”
He added that the size of future payments will depend on the status of the economy and how much money is in the fund.
“Dave (Portnoy) started as a small business owner, too,” said Hague. “He said that if this (pandemic) had happened to him, he would have gone out of business.”
Hague said that a big portion of his fund donations will go toward paying employees.
“We are down to five people working right now,” stated Hague. “At this time of year, we are usually around 20.”
In reflection, Hague said that some of his employees have been filling roles at Aunt Chilada’s for 25 years. Members of the kitchen staff have also been working for 15 to 20 years.
“They need to pay bills, too,” said Hague. “It is a tough situation for a lot of people right now.”
Among the countless industries hit hard by the pandemic, restaurants have suffered due to health concerns over bringing people together. Aunt Chilada’s has followed orders from the state to keep people as safe as possible, but Hague feels that his foot traffic has gone down significantly due to restrictions and people not feeling comfortable about going out to eat yet.
“We had a decent summer and fall, but once our deck shut down and Sleeping Giant Golf Course closed right next to us, we felt the consequences of COVID,” recalled Hague. “Sales have been down by more than half this winter. We’ve cut back as much as we can.”
Located at 3931 Whitney Avenue in Hamden, Aunt Chilada’s is a converted farm house that dates back to the late 1800s or early 1900s. In his Barstool video, Hague said that the building has served as a restaurant for the last 75 years and added that his parents were also married there in the 1950s.
“The building means a lot to my family,” stated Hague. “My kids have grown up here.”
Prior to the pandemic, Aunt Chilada’s had become a popular hangout for students and alums from nearby Quinnipiac University. Hague said the outdoor deck gets used for many events.
“We usually get busy after ice hockey games,” reflected Hague. “We traditionally have a large crowd on Friday nights, but with the restrictions, it has really dried up.”
When he opened Aunt Chilada’s in 1993, Hague estimates that it took about four or five years to build a following at Quinnipiac.
“The schools gets bigger and bigger every year,” Hague said. “We have had a lot of students work here over the years. Since we got the funding from Barstool, it has been amazing to see how many former employees and students have texted me to congratulate us.”
Like a lot of restaurant owners, Hague started small in the industry. He worked at JJ Starts in Hamden before deciding to open his own business, the New York Deli, in Cheshire.
“I had been waiting tables and bartending and one thing led to another,” said Hague. “I still enjoy working in the (restaurant) business.”
In 1989, Hague opened Callahans, a restaurant that used to be located in what is now the Big Y plaza in Cheshire. Hague partnered with friend Thomas Bailey, who passed away in 2016, to run the business.
“Callahans was an American-style restaurant. We got a lot of support from the Cheshire community,” recalled Hague.
While still running Callahans, Hague and Bailey decided to branch outside of Cheshire. In 1993, they purchased the Aunt Chilada’s property.
“We thought it was a great spot for another restaurant, so we put a bid on it,” recalled Hague. “It needed to be renovated and that process took about four or five months.”
Since they couldn’t find any local Mexican restaurants at that time, Hague and Bailey decided to build their menu around that genre.
“We thought that Mexican was an up-and-coming cuisine. We did research, hired the right people, and made it work,” explained Hague. “When we first opened, the menu was almost all Mexican, but we’ve since added American food to attract more people.”
While not knowing what to expect when Aunt Chilada’s opened in the fall of 1993, Hague found that he learned on the fly.
“It was very hard starting a business in a different town. I was lucky that Cheshire was supportive of me even though Aunt Chilada’s is technically in Hamden,” said Hague. “We got busy pretty fast in the first year. We had a lot of Christmas parties and events to get our name out there.”
In 2000, Hague and Daly decided to sell Callahans.
“It was getting hard to run two businesses,” reflected Hague. “I also wanted to spend more time with my family.”
While work has kept Hague out of the house for many years, he feels fortunate to have been able to share Aunt Chilada’s with his family. His three daughters have all helped out in the restaurant at one time or another.
“They’ve washed dishes, bartended, and waited on tables,” said Hague. “It’s been a great experience sharing the business with them.”
Hague has also enjoyed building relationships with customers. In the past, he has brought in magicians to perform for children and had bands play for an older crowd.
“When we first opened, we saw parents bring their kids in, and now those kids are bringing their families in here,” stated Hague. “We’ve also had weddings here over the years.”
Like his following from Quinnipiac, Hague believes that he has developed a great relationship with Sleeping Giant Golf Course. He has seen many golfers stop by the restaurant to eat or drink after hitting a bucket of balls at the driving range or playing a round.
“We sponsor some leagues,” stated Hague. “The manager, Ray Hetherington, has done a lot of work over there like changing holes on the course.”
As spring approaches, Hague looks forward to the weather warming up, so that he can open the deck seating to patrons. In his video submission to Barstool, he said that Cinco de Mayo (May 5) is his busiest day of the year.
“As we get busy again, we can start bringing back employees. I would love to do that sooner rather than later,” said Hague. “When we get out of the pandemic, I think that people are going to go want to go outside and socialize. I feel that businesses are going to be crazy-packed by the end of the summer.”