Gov. Ned Lamont played the role of unabashed promoter Tuesday, drawing television news crews to Coracora, a one-time McDonald’s transformed by a Peruvian family into a finalist for this year’s James Beard Award as outstanding restaurant in the U.S.
“We haven’t celebrated a national championship in over a week,” said Lamont, who traveled to Houston and Tampa earlier this month to witness UConn and Quinnipiac win national collegiate titles in men’s basketball and hockey.
On Tuesday, he only had to go to a shopping center off New Britain Avenue in the Elmwood section of West Hartford, where Macarena Ludena is executive chef at the restaurant her parents, Hector Ludena and Luisa Jimenez, opened in 2011. It is now owned by Macarena and her sister, Grecia.
The celebration came as the restaurant industry, which says it still is recovering from the losses sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic, is lobbying Lamont and lawmakers to reject a bill that would shift labor costs from tips offered by patrons to hourly wages paid by restaurants.
“This is not easy,” Lamont said at the restaurant. “You know, we went through an awful lot, and Coracora and each and every one of you went through an awful lot over the last three years.”
Lamont developed a close, if at times contentious, relationship with the industry in 2020 after initially issuing a broad closure order, then working with owners on the terms for reopening in phases, as well as providing financial assistance to help offset lost revenue.
The state Department of Economic and Community Development extended a $37,000 bridge loan to Coracora.
“We’re so thrilled to have been able to do that for this restaurant, and for so many other small businesses around the state,” said Alexandra Daum, the deputy who took over as commissioner of DECD in January after the departure of David Lehman.
Daum said she was happy to help Coracora to celebrate and publicize a nomination that already has resulted in more reservations since the finalists were announced on March 29. The winner will be named at a ceremony in June.
“A big part of our mandate is to market the state and represent the state to the outside world. And it’s important to us to represent the whole state. We have so many different cultures represented in Connecticut, and sometimes people think of Connecticut as stuffy or a certain way that we used to be. We’re not stuffy,” Daum said. “This is really cool.”
DECD has an annual tourism marketing budget of $4.3 million, though it had more money for marketing through funds from ARPA, the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Scott Dolch, the executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, mingled with Lamont and Daum before sitting down to a celebratory lunch at a restaurant that offers empanadas, ceviche, paella and other dishes that Grecia Ludena called “Peruvian comfort food.”
Dolch said he did no lobbying, though the governor said he was well aware of the minimum wage bill and a second measure of concern to the industry — legislation that would set a standard for predictive scheduling in the retail, hotel and restaurant, and nursing home industries.
The Lamont administration has signaled support for a predictive scheduling law but only if the parameters are narrowed.
As currently written, it would apply to retailers that employ at least 500 workers, plus restaurants that are part of national chains, whether owned by franchisees or major companies. It would require compensation for hourly employees whose shifts are canceled with less than a week’s notice.
“We’re going to have to reach a compromise there,” Lamont said.
The minimum wage bill would end the separate rules for tipped workers.
The hourly minimum wage currently is $14 and goes to $15 on June 1 under a law signed by Lamont in 2019, but the minimums paid by restaurants will stay where they’ve been for four years: $6.38 for wait staff and $8.23 for bartenders.
Restaurants are required by law to make up the difference if the tipped wage and tips fall short of the $14 hourly minimum.
At a public hearing on the bill, proponents offered no data on how frequently wait staff are shortchanged.
In response to a query by CT Mirror, the Department of Labor said a dozen of the 503 wage-and-hour complaints in the first three months of 2023 involved the tip credit or minimum wage for tipped workers. With limited staff, it currently takes four to six months before a complaint is investigated.
“I think this piece of legislation is trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” Dolch said. “Our servers aren’t asking for this. You’re not seeing servers up at the public hearing and testifying.”
Proponents of the bill said the delay in investigations may discourage complaints.