Despite pandemic, Darien sees many new businesses this year
“You’re either bold or you fold,” said Joe Criscuolo, owner of Baja Joe’s Tex-Mex Bistro, which just opened on 23 Tokeneke Road.
While the Darien area has seen some businesses close their doors for good during the pandemic, others have taken their chances and opened.
Here’s a rundown of some of some that have opened over the past few months:
Baja Joe’s Tex-Mex Bistro
When the pandemic broke out, Meatball & Co. wasn’t doing too well, according to Criscuolo, so he decided to close it — but knew he needed to create a new business that would thrive.
“It was a pressure cooker of COVID and having to pay our rent. I needed to get something done rapidly,” he said. “I was on the hook and needed to pivot quickly. It was a make it or break it moment.”
So Criscuolo took action.
He did an analysis of the area, and learned that Latin and Mexican food was very under-represented in town.
He came up with a restaurant concept, developed the recipes, developed the menu and executed “the total product from soup to nuts in about a month and a half,” said Criscuolo, 48, who also owns Rowayton pizza, which has been in his family for more than 45 years.
Baja Joe’s specializes in tacos, burritos and quesadillas.
While he said many restaurants in town are “more dine in centric, we are geared specifically towards delivery and takeout.”
“I’ve taken European cooking methods and I fused them with authentic Mexican flavor and Tex Mex to create a very different flavor profile,” he added. “It’s more of a fusion restaurant, which makes it unique.”
“My personal motto is ‘business is for the bold,” he said. “I couldn’t accept failure.”
Pasta Vita, 364 Boston Post Road, opened in July, provides gourmet meals to go.
Pasta Vita is a franchise with locations throughout the state. Their original location opened 25 years ago in Old Saybrook.
All the dishes are fully cooked and prepared Italian specialty meals — “you just warm it up,” manager Carl Truance said.
“There are entrees for two people with simple heating instructions, and home-style meals for a family of four,” Truance said.
Items on the menu include chicken parmesan, beef tenderloin tips, and shrimp fajitas.
“You can get in and out and have dinner for the week within a few minutes,” he said.
“People are now starting to get out of their house and this type of business is what they are looking for,” Truance added. “They don’t have to go shopping. They get a complete meal for themselves.”
Barvida, 879 Post Road, is an organic based juice bar that’s opening in early October.
“This is a brand new concept, my concept, that we built from the ground up,” said owner Brennan Branca, 25, of Darien. “It’s a quick grab and go.”
The menu includes acai bowls, smoothies, salads, wraps, granola ball energy bites, and a full coffee bar.
“The rise of the juice bar business has spread into two camps of people,” Branca said. “One camp is juice bars that taste great but are loaded with sugar.”
Another camp, he said, is healthy foods that taste “like sandy cardboard.”
“My whole mission to take the best elements and create this super experience — incredibly healthy but it also tastes amazing,” he added.
To create the items on the menu, Branca worked with teams of nutritionists and world class athletes.
He said he wants to grow and create a brand, “something that can branch off into multiple avenues, and the best way to do it is to start when you are young.”
Darien Running Company, 14 Brook Street, is a running specialty shop that opened this summer. There is also a location in Ridgefield under the same owner.
Over the past few weeks, the store’s Sunday Shop runs have taken off, according to owner Megan Searfoss.
“Our four run courses cover different parts of Darien, from Weed Beach to the new Highland Farm,” Searfoss said. “They are from five to six miles and are all paces. It’s been really fun to run with Darien residents and follow up with coffee from NEAT.”
Searfoss added the Darien Running Company has been warmly welcomed by the running community in town.
“Athletes are excited to be able to come in and try on the latest shoe and its technology. Many had been shopping at The Runners Roost, owned by Steve Norris, or they ran for him at Darien High School — and we know we had big shoes to fill. It’s awesome to be in Darien where running is a key part of life.”
Playa Bowls, 1025 Post Road, is a franchise that will be opening a Darien location in several weeks.
They are a smoothie acai shop that sells fresh juices and smoothies. They also sell custom acai bowls with papaya and coconut, kale and fresh fruit.
“You can make your bowl to any way you like, co-owner Steve Dimovski said. “We always do some seasonal bowls, with apples, caramel and figs, and fresh juices.”
There are more than 100 locations.
“We opened the first store in Fairfield, and it’s been growing ever since,” Dimovski said, adding this is his second store.
Make Modern craft store, 1985 Post Road, opened at 1985 Post Road in March — and 10 days later, they had to close due to the pandemic.
They’re a craft studio, we do mostly textile based, sewing, knitting, crocheting, weaving, and felting.
Prior to the Post Road location, Allen operated her business on Grove Street for about a year.
“We were very well enrolled for classes and for parties and then we had to shut everything down,” owner Erika Allen said.
However, they reopened and had a thriving summer camp program, according to Allen. They sold out all180 spots and had a waiting list
When their was a shortage of personal protective equipment, the employees, including student assistants, made about 5,000 masks for front line workers
“The middle school kids that help here made all the masks from their homes for the children refugee population,” Allen said. “Faculty and members of the community were helping make the masks.”
When masks became more available, the shop shifted to kit making
“We did a lot of textile collages, lots of stitching animals onto hoops, and tote bags, “ Allen said.
In light of the pandemic, they’re often asked to do pod classes, “for an intact group to come as a group, such as a home school group, or a remote learning group,” Allen said.
She spoke about how the shop is benefiting from the textile industry.
“Textile manufacturers are selling their textiles with samples, and those end up in landfills when they’re done,” she said. “So we’ve developed a relationship with a couple of places where they are donating their really high end textiles, and we are using them in our classes this fall. We have very high quality silk velvets and leathers, and textiles by top designers.”
Allen added that customers can get creative by using “really amazing fabrics” to make clothing and accessories and items for the home.
New business “influx”
Darien developer David Genovese, who is behind the up and coming Corbin District in town, said after speaking with local realtors, there has been a “massive influx of young families to Darien. The housing market is on fire right now.”
He added how, in light of the ongoing pandemic, “It’s shocking to people to think this many new business are opening in Darien. These businesses are hearing about the housing market and hearing about all these families moving in.”
According to Genovese, a lot of towns are suffering with economic development and retail restaurants closing.
“We don’t really have any empty storefronts in downtown Darien, “ he said.
He said he has had many calls from New York City based restaurateurs and retailers “who want to follow their customers to Darien. They are coming to the conclusion that Darien could be a good place to open.”