Q&A | After 34 years, Claire’s still going strong

Today, Claire’s Corner Copia is celebrating its 35th anniversary a year early. Claire Criscuolo, the owner of the Chapel Street mainstay, said her secret to longevity — the store opened in 1975 and has been on the same block since — is that nothing compares to high-quality home cooking. “I know that when I went to college,” she laughed, “I missed my mom’s food.”

Although the restaurant started out serving tuna, it has since transitioned to an all-vegetarian and largely organic establishment, known for its coffee cake, Mexican cuisine and kitchen-table ambiance. To celebrate the start of its 35th year, Criscuolo said she is planning monthly festivities in the style of Disney’s “Happiest Homecoming on Earth,” which commemorated 50 years of Disney with an 18-month celebration. Festivities begin today, and each customer will be invited to draw a present from a jar of gifts.

The News caught up with Criscuolo to talk food, Yale and the changes to New Haven since she served her first latte.

QHow would you describe the New Haven of 35 years ago? What changes have you witnessed during this time?

AThere’s such a camaraderie now between the Yale community and the city, and that didn’t exist years ago. Yale was sort of this fortress behind the gates. When people complain about things, I wish they would think about how they once were. I can’t say it enough that [University President] Richard Levin and [Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development] Bruce Alexander [’65] love the city, and they’ve shown it. There’s much more hope, and I think that hope exists because of Yale’s scholarship and outreach projects.

QWhat has helped Claire’s stay in business for these 34 years?

ATenacity. I think also because we’re not a big corporation: When you’re a big corporation, you have one bad quarter and it doesn’t work out they way you expected, you just close the store. When you’re a small business, you suck it up a little more. It goes back to the support of the community. We stay because the community wants us to stay.

QAs Yale and New Haven have changed, have you deviated from the restaurant’s original concept?

AI’m not really good at deviating from dreams. We may have had some modifications, but these are all things that are true to our mission. I just don’t want to do this if I can’t stay true.

QThe past year, as you know, has been a difficult time for businesses of all sizes. How has the economic downturn impacted Claire’s?

AOur expenses are very high, and they’ve gotten higher. Our electric bill has gone up 48 percent. We don’t waste —my staff will tell you — I’m neurotic. We are downright cheap: We’re looking at things and saying, “OK, guys, where can we save some money?” Maybe we won’t use as many pine nuts as we’d like to use. It’s that sort of stuff that we’re looking at. You could say, “Well, do you really need to have roses on the table?” Well, yes, I do. We’ll be fine. It always works out.

QWhat’s in store for Claire’s down the road?

AWe look at items that are healthier, and we look at ways to get people to enjoy them more — we look at what’s new and fun and try it. If something could bring more health and it’s already more delicious, why not try it? I would love to remodel the place, to just put a new floor that’s level.

QWhat is your favorite dish at Claire’s?

AThat is the hardest thing. Today, the stuffed artichokes. I’m coming for supper.

QWhat does it mean to you to have occupied the same location on Chapel and College streets since Claire’s opened?

AIt’s amazing. We’re exactly where we should be. We’ve had so many opportunities to open in other places. I think if you have more than one location, you dilute it and your focus is different. I either have really deep roots or no creativity whatsoever. I just feel as though this is what I’m supposed to be doing and this is where I’m supposed to be doing it. Do I wish sometimes I had started out in Southern California, where I’d have access to amazing produce year-round? Sure, that’d be nice. But this is where we started, and this is where we belong.

Comments

  • Hieronymus

    I. Love. Claire’s!

  • Paul’79

    My twin brother and I arrived at Yale in August of 1975 and after 34 years it is still one of my favorite places in New Haven. Every time I visit the Yale campus I make a point of stopping by for Lithuanian coffee cake. I also love the fact that Claire is still as wonderfully outgoing as when she first opened.

  • hah

    way to ask obscenely boring questions…

  • Just as good

    I know this is a story about Claire’s, but they should have at least mentioned or asked her about her husband’s restaurant “Basta”next door, which is easily the best restaurant in New Haven, and one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. They have the same commitment to local organic food, but they also have organic free range meat and line caught fish – and it’s delicious of course! If you’re ever in the mood for something a little more substantial than coffee cake, definitely head on over to Basta – you won’t regret it.

  • long memory

    No mention of the little criminal conviction for that pesky tax problem?

  • LOVESSSS CLAIRE’SSSSS!!!!!!!!

    ’nuff said.