Over cupcakes and lemonade, Claire’s Corner Copia celebrated its 40 years in business as a unique local establishment and a model for the dynamic New Haven restaurant industry.
On Wednesday, city officials praised the restaurant and its owner, Claire Criscuolo, as a pioneer in the restaurant industry for cooking healthy, local and sustainable food. Although most restaurants in the U.S. stay open for roughly five to 10 years, according to the National Restaurant Association, Claire’s has occupied the same space since Criscuolo opened the restaurant with her late husband Frank in 1975. Today, as Yale’s University Properties division looks to open more local and regional shops in its storefront properties downtown, city officials cited Claire’s as an example of a well-run small business with strong ties to the community.
“The words local, organic, sustainable and healthy were not part of the dining lexicon [before Claire’s opened],” Assistant Director for New Haven and State Affairs Lauren Zucker said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
When Claire and Frank Criscuolo turned an old caramel corn shop into a family restaurant, they took up the entire corner of Chapel and College streets. With a four-burner stove and a few pans, Claire’s soups, breads and falafel were instant hits, Kathy Lapia, Criscuolo’s sister-in-law, said in an interview with the News. Claire’s now offers financial support to other small businesses in the city and is a member of the Chapel Street Merchants Association.
“Claire’s recipe for success for the past 40 years make it a staple for anyone downtown,” Mayor Toni Harp said at the event. “You have transformed this street corner into a destination crossroads.”
Criscuolo attributed the success of her restaurant to the quality of food and the continual support of the community. Although Claire’s has higher prices than other restaurants, Criscuolo said she pays her staff members fair wages and uses healthy ingredients, leading to a strong sense of loyalty among her customers and staff. Some employees at Claire’s have been working there for nearly two decades.
Louis Mangini presented Criscuolo with a congressional record from Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who will honor Claire’s on the floor of the U.S. Congress, thereby putting Claire’s into the Library of Congress Congressional Records.
When Claire’s came to New Haven, Chapel was a blighted street, according to Criscuolo’s brother Jim Lapia. But the shops around Claire’s have changed: A greasy luncheonette that was once next door to Claire’s is now the Italian restaurant Basta, and the New Haven Information Center shares the corner with Claire’s.
City Economic Development Director Matthew Nemerson SOM ’81 said New Haven has a large number of small “mom and pop” stores relative to other cities of its size. It is important for a city to feature national chains, like Chipotle and Shake Shack, which draw people to the city, but also to offer regional stores like Thom Brown, Nemerson added.
Over 70 percent of UP’s 90 tenants are local or regional businesses, said Bruce Alexander ’65, the vice president for the Office of New Haven and State Affairs. The retail industry has changed tremendously since Claire’s opened, Alexander added. The popularity of malls and big box stores outside the city has driven many small retailers out of business, he said.
“We have to draw people past the shopping malls,” Alexander said.
Workers in the shops near Claire’s tell a still bleaker story of business in the Elm City. Kyla Pitruzzello, a bartender at the Owl Shop who has lived in New Haven for 15 years, said New Haven is not a good city for starting a small business because rent prices are too high and Connecticut’s tax incentives are not as good as in other states.
Pitruzzello bemoaned the loss of many locally run businesses over the past 15 years. Places like the Daily Café, Richter’s Bar and Educated Burgher have all closed down since she came to the city. These empty lots have paved the way for national chains including Panera Bread and most recently Five Guys. The Owl Shop, which Pitruzzello said serves a niche market, is an exception to the trend.
“Some small businesses do alright over here, but it seems to be becoming more commercialized,” Pitruzzello said.
Claire’s is holding an anniversary party today during which the store will give away gifts and prizes.