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On April 8, U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (right) visited Branford's Main Street to check in with small business owners working to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic. Here, she speaks with G Cafe Bakery owner Jane Frankenberger. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Branford First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove shares an update on local efforts to support small businesses with U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and DeLauro staffer Jennifer Lamb (center). Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Sarah Seward tells U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro about loan support and community support her bake shop and dessert cafe, Sweets on Main, has received during the pandemic. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Myers Flower Shop owner Lee Ellen Magna (right) talks with US Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who learned the Branford shop stayed open during the pandemic with help from first-round and second-round federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. At back, Myers employee Santha Martin listens in. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Home's Jared Schulefand provides insight to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro on how the restaurant industry has been changed by the pandemic. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
US Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro stopped in to talk with Pasta Cosi owner Billy DiLegge, who also thanked her for her support on behalf of his fellow first responders. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Branford Economic Development Commission chair Perry Maresca found a perfect way for US Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro to show her support of Branford small businesses with this photo taken inside one of downtown Branford's newest shops, Splash Boutique, which opened in May 2020. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Splash Boutique owner Karen Ragonese talks to US Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro about whether the business may be eligible for the latest round of federal Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) loans as First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove and Branford Economic Development Commission chair Perry Maresca listen in. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Down-Towne Medical Equipment owner Vincent Ragonese discusses the current state of business with US Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro inside his Main Street store. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
US Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro visits with Branford second-generation downtown business owner Sal Esposito at his store, PS Fine Stationers, on April 8. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-03) came to Main Street on April 8 to check in with Branford small business owners working to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic. The House Appropriations Committee chair was eager to learn if the work undertaken in Washington to assist small businesses, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) established by the CARES Act, is making an impact here.
DeLauro was welcomed to Branford by First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove (R), Economic Development Commission chair Perry Maresca and several pleasantly surprised residents sitting at tables outside cafes on Main Street on a sunny spring day.
"I've been trying to get around to all of the communities, and I'm delighted to be here in Branford with Jamie Cosgrove and the Economic Development chairman," DeLauro told Zip06/The Sound. "I want to see how businesses are doing. In the last century, we haven't seen a crisis like this, both on the economic side and the health side, and the small businesses have really been seriously hurt."
One business that's seen over a century of change, Myers Flower Shop at 1008 Main St., was the first stop on DeLauro's downtown tour. Myers has been in operation since 1913.
"Thank goodness for PPP," owner Lee Ellen Magna told DeLauro. "It really, really helped. We were able to get the first [loan], and now we've got the second."
"We're hearing that a lot," said DeLauro, noting she'd recently visited with small companies and businesses including those in Milford and Wallingford who told her, "...PPP was a lifesaver. Their loans kept them afloat. PPP loans really work. It's funny...they said the government has really stepped in and done a great job. You don't hear that!"
First established in 2020, the PPP program was later extended to allow certain eligible borrowers to apply for a second-draw PPP loan in 2021, with the same general loan terms as their first PPP loan. PPP loans can be used to help fund payroll costs, including benefits, pay for mortgage interest, rent, utilities, worker protection costs related to COVID-19 and other certain operation expenses. The loans are forgiven if criteria for use is met by the businesses receiving the funding.
Magna said PPP assistance helped her to bring back most of her staff, including her top people; while a few have elected to remain on unemployment for the time being. She also said that, despite the loss of weddings and proms in 2020; business was up for Mother's Day 2020; and a continued flow of people sending flowers as a way to stay in touch has also helped during the pandemic.
"People, thank goodness, are sending flowers," said Magna. "They can't visit, so they're sending flowers."
In addition to Myers Flower Shop, DeLauro checked in at G Cafe Bakery, Splash Boutique, Down-Towne Medical Equipment, Pasta Cosi, P.S. Fine Stationers, Sweets on Main and Home Restaurant. DeLauro said she was pleased to learn most of the business owners feel they are "doing well," but she also encouraged them to give her input on what else can be done to assist.
Answering a query from DeLauro, Jane Frankenberger of G Cafe said her bakery license isn't the same as a restaurant license so she wasn't sure if the bakery might be eligible for some restaurant-based relief. DeLauro said she would check in and get back to Frankenberger with an update. Frankenberger also shared that customer support has been steady for the bakery-café, helping it to weather the pandemic.
Cosgrove said he was pleased that DeLauro was making the time and effort to visit with and hear from the Branford business owners on April 8.
"This is good government," said Cosgrove. "Having a representative coming through and check in on the businesses, and not only how it's helping; how they can improve and further support it, is truly appreciated. That's what people want to see in their elected officials; that connection, that follow up."
A few doors down, Splash Boutique owner Karen Ragonese said she could use some help from DeLauro's office to determine if her new shop at 1010 Main St. is eligible for PPP assistance.
"I wasn't open in February, and when I went to open in March I couldn't, because the state had shut down until they said we could open in May," said Ragonese, who opened for business in May, 2020.
"Let's find out," said DeLauro, taking Ragonese's business card – and a quick look around the boutique, where she picked out a colorful jacket evocative of those trademark ensembles that make this New Haven native recognizable nationwide.
Maresca, who managed to grab a great photo of DeLauro holding up decorative "06405" and "Branford" throw pillows at Splash Boutique, said her visit was a shot in the arm for the community and business owners.
"I think it shows that the concern for the small business is active in government as opposed to not caring for the mom and pop shops," said Maresca. "I think the fact that she came to Branford tells a lot about Branford. We've had these small businesses in the center of town forever and they've survived. Some of these businesses said they could not have done it without the assistance of the PPP. It helped them work on the payroll aspect of it so they could concentrate on the sales of the business."
Ragonese may have a new business here, but she and her family have been in business in downtown Branford for over four decades. She was the second generation owner/pharmacist of the former Towne Pharmacy, which closed in 2019. Her new shop neighbors Down-Towne Medical Equipment, owned and operated by her husband, Vincent Ragonese, at 1012 Main St.
"Things are starting to change, no doubt, but it's been a bit of a struggle," Vincent Ragonese told DeLauro, after she stepped inside the equipment shop to meet him.
Ragonese said he's recently started to see business pick up, possibly due to vaccinations making more customers comfortable with coming inside for consultations.
DeLauro also took a moment to catch up with Sal Esposito, owner of P.S. Fine Stationers at 1028 Main St., who's the son of her friend, Robert Esposito, owner of the former Branford Book and Card Shoppe. DeLauro next stopped in at Sweets on Main, 1044 Main St., where owner Sarah Seward greeted DeLauro and reported her small bake shoppe and dessert café had indeed benefited from CARES Act, with a loan secured through the Small Business Administration.
"So far, things have been going okay," said Seward, who is still operating on a curbside basis but is working on plans to re-open fully as vaccinations ramp up.
Seward said her customers helped support the business throughout pandemic. Many picked up on a pandemic-pivot the shop made, creating take-away kits for kids to decorate baked goods for holidays, events and just plain fun. Instagram posts and other social media shared by Sweets on Main helped the kits sell out quickly.
"People were wonderful, and our community was fantastic to us," said Seward. "And they purchased trays to bring to the [Community] Dining Room; so things like that helped us as well."
DeLauro greeted a gaggle of community members enjoying the afternoon at tables outside of Common Grounds Café (1096 Main St.) as she headed to her next stop, Home Restaurant, at 1114 Main St., known for its comfort food and comfortable atmosphere.
Home Restaurant owner Jared Schulefand said customer support has been steady, while legislative changes, such as allowing restaurants to provide alcohol as take-out, has helped to increase that side of the business. But he also said things have definitely changed since the pandemic.
"Pre-Covid we were open for lunch and dinner; but right now, it's dinner, and part of the reason we're not open for lunch right now is there's not enough staff," said Schulefand. "In this industry, staffing has always been an issue, but it's gotten even worse. It seems like people just don't really want to come back to work."
Even the prospect of earning a bit more by coming back to work isn't enticing for some on current unemployment, Schulefand told Zip06/The Sound.
"People are looking at it where you can maybe make $50 more, but you have to go to work," he said.
Pasta Cosi owner Billy DiLegge was at the door of his restaurant to greet DeLauro on April 8. DiLegge said he was seeing more customers returning for in-person visits to the Italian eatery, located at 1018 Main St.
"People are getting a little more comfortable, with the vaccine," said DiLegge. "If you think about it, this time last year, everything was shut down. So we're very grateful to be open."
DiLegge, who is also a New Haven Fire Department first responder, was an early vaccine recipient.
"I would say everybody take advantage of it," DiLegge said of the state's free vaccination program, which is now open to all residents ages 16 and up.
He said patrons also feel comfortable with the way Pasta Cosi has been organized for in-person service during the pandemic, with plexiglass separations and a few tables removed for social distancing. The restaurant also offers a self-scan temperature monitor and hand sanitizer station inside the entrance.
"It makes everybody feel good to come inside, and that's the number one plan here," DiLegge told DeLauro. "So we're coming back, we're going to get by this, and we'll be stronger than ever."
DiLegge also thanked DeLauro as well as the CT state government for helping support his fellow first responders throughout the pandemic.
"You've done tremendous things for firefighters. They're very grateful," he said.
During her downtown visit, Cosgrove also took a moment to show DeLauro some of the efforts in place to promote vitality in the town center during the pandemic, including the Town's installation of very popular public café seating areas on the Branford green (where the Town also provides free WiFi access) and Branford Arts and Cultural Alliance (BACA) show-stopping window galleries of art currently in windows of the former Denali at 1004 Main St. BACA co-founder Frank Carrano shared information with DeLauro about the current display, which shares dozens of works in several mediums, all created by shoreline artists.
"Downtown Branford is so fabulous," said DeLauro, who spent well over an hour on Main Street as she visited with the eight Branford business owners on April 8.
"What I wanted to do is check in with those who have been able to avail themselves of the PPP program and the loans -- those who have been singing its praises and saying it's been a lifeline for them; and those who haven't been able to access it yet, because we're happy to help try to do that," said DeLauro. "This is what's critically important. These businesses are the life-blood of our community, and I wanted to see how people are doing, and what else we might be able to do to bring some relief and to get the economy back on track."