BRISTOL – When city officials heard in late 2019 someone was starting new businesses in two large empty buildings downtown, they were pleased but a bit surprised at the same time.
It was positive news the former Super Natural building at 224 N. Main St. would become a new Italian restaurant called Foodies; and 200 Main St., former home of the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce, among other organizations, would be home to Baskets, a high end gift basket business.
But the city’s relationship with the two new businesses and their owner, Mark Roberts, was contentious nearly from the start and it culminated with a visit from the Department of Labor Tuesday.
“We met agents on Main Street and they informed us that the investigation was a multi-agency response involving consumer protection, revenue services, health and labor,” Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu said.
Zoppo-Sassu was notified ahead of time the Department of Labor was headed to Bristol by Manchester Mayor Jay Moran. Manchester also has Foodies (which has yet to open) and Baskets locations and Moran told Zoppo-Sassu they were closing their facilities due to wage complaints.
Both Bristol businesses now have signs on the doors that say “closed for renovations.”
“I’m not sure why a sign like that is at Baskets, but I can tell you that at Foodies, they do have building permits for something to do with the interior setup that they’d like to change,” Zoppo-Sassu said.
A call to Foodies went unanswered Wednesday.
“Both places are now in limbo,” Zoppo-Sassu said. “I have the business cards of two DOL employees that I’m supposed to call the minute I see any activity there. We’re keeping in touch with our Manchester counterparts. We are going to continue to forward any people that call our office, either customers or employees, to the appropriate state agencies that regulate these matters, and try to as best we can salvage what are two very important locations downtown.”
While city officials sought to establish a relationship, almost from the start, owner Mark Roberts was uncooperative when it came to following health and safety regulations, Zoppo-Sassu said.
“These are regulations in place that all businesses have to follow; that’s something we don’t compromise on,” she said. “It got to the point where he became somewhat bombastic and threatening to some of our enforcement and regulatory staff. It has been an erratic path, with multiple visits over time, resulting in a long list of requirements from Building, Fire, Health and Zoning.”
She and/or Justin Malley, the city’s economic and community development executive director, started attending the site “to ensure that the interactions remained professional and staff was not subject to verbal abuse. It seemed to work for a while,” Zoppo-Sassu said. All this time, “there has been a revolving door of managers and staff that has made communication and continuity difficult,” she said.
When the covid-19 pandemic hit, Foodies and Baskets were forced to make adjustments, like many other businesses. So Zoppo-Sassu said the city staff worked to allow Foodies to expedite the process of setting up outdoor dining, but there have been complaints about lack of masks and social distancing.
Zoppo-Sassu said her office and the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce have continued to receive complaints from both consumers and employees of the two businesses.
“Our advice to complainants was, and will continue to be, to contact the appropriate state agencies that regulate these matters,” Zoppo-Sassu said. “The majority of the complaints that we received have emanated from Baskets, in terms of quality of product, lack of receipt of product, those types of things.”
There have been no city grants or economic development incentives given to Foodies or Baskets, she said, noting Foodies has benefited from an equipment grant given to the Super Natural four years ago and which is linked to the physical space.
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org