INSIGHT: Olmo’s Pandemic Pivot
How experimentation, Snackpass and a whole lot of fresh bagels helped one New Haven restaurant through the pandemic and may have changed its identity for good.
Lukas Flippo, Photo Editor
Last March, when the coronavirus leapt from headlines and distant discussions to the forefront of American daily life, Olmo partner Jim Baronowski’s first reaction was simple: “Oh crap.”
The restaurant at the corner of Whitney Avenue and Trumbull Street was emerging from its most successful month yet in February 2020. Nearly 15 months after first opening its doors, Olmo was finally performing to its potential, serving about 400 tables each week. “It was impossible to get in the restaurant,” founder and chef-owner Craig Hutchinson said.
Months earlier in 2019, Hutchinson said the establishment was just two weeks away from closing permanently. In an overhaul, he and fellow partner Jason Sobocinski elevated Baronowski to their partnership, launched a catering campaign and sought to recreate a 40-seat dining room that served pastas, seafood, salads and other “local New England fare.” But when the pandemic suddenly forced restaurants to close, the trio’s work reviving their sit-down service was useless, and Hutchinson knew he needed to innovate again — fast.
“COVID wasn’t a problem, COVID was a reality,” Hutchinson said. “I mean, when COVID hit, you didn’t have a day. … People wanted the restaurants who were blazing the trail, they wanted the restaurants that were going to stand up and say, ‘We’re not afraid of this right now, we got this, we’re gonna attack this.’”
Today, a reimagining of Olmo — the elevation of bagels as its flagship product, a shift to earlier mornings and an embrace of experimentation — has cultivated a new identity for the establishment that may very well outlive the pandemic that necessitated it. According to its management, Olmo’s new concept has been profitable, cost-efficient and more predictable than the pre-pandemic restaurant Hutchinson oversaw previously.
The transition involved a literal flip. A basement marketplace that featured a limited batch of homemade bagels, coffee and provisions used to account for about 20 percent of Olmo’s revenue before the pandemic, said Baronowski, who oversees most of the financials. The upstairs restaurant contributed 70 percent, with catering bringing in the other tenth.
Today, bagels have become the restaurant’s main attraction. Olmo’s upstairs open-plan kitchen, now dubbed The Bagelry, has turned into a bagel assembly line that hums on weekend mornings but rests on once-packed weekend nights. Olmo@Home — a subscription delivery service for prepared meals born at the start of the pandemic — represents 30 percent of revenue today, while The Bagelry delivers 70 percent.
“If you told me a year and a half ago this is what would happen, I probably would have laughed and said, ‘There’s no way we’re gonna close the restaurant permanently and move the bagel shop upstairs,” said Zena Alexiades, manager of The Bagelry.
Stroll up to Olmo now on a Saturday or Sunday morning, and a line often stretches past the restaurant’s front gate. Bright patio furniture sets the scene for outdoor conversation over bagels, schmear and sandwiches, and a thin black fence separates sitting customers from those who wait outside for orders on the Trumbull Street sidewalk, their phones often open to sky-blue Snackpass receipts. Olmo was not on the platform before COVID-19, but Hutchinson said half of their orders now come from the app. According to Nick Marwell ’21, a product manager and data scientist working part time at Snackpass, Olmo’s total sales on the app in March 2021 ranked number one on the New Haven leaderboard, topping over 100 other Elm City restaurants active on the platform.
“Attitude is a mindset,” Hutchinson preached. His own carried him through a year that tested his business as well as his family. Last June, his then-7-month-old son Teddy was diagnosed with liver cancer. Alternating with his wife Cara, Craig spent three and a half days in the hospital each week, staying by Teddy’s side and supporting the Olmo team remotely as they tried to mold the restaurant into its new form. Teddy’s condition improved, Olmo now bakes more than 2,000 bagels each weekend and Craig still oozes with optimism: “We knew what everyone needed right now was something positive for people to look forward to, and we did it in the morning, the most important part of the day.”
OLMO’S INITIAL IDENTITY
Olmo, which means “elm” in Italian, officially opened on Oct. 20, 2018, but Hutchinson said the restaurant began a couple years before that in a Word document on his computer titled, “not another f—ing restaurant.” Olmo was only an idea at that point, a concept for a chef who was eager to take control of his own kitchen after creating food in others’ for years.
His idea for Olmo went through several iterations — he briefly explored a 2016 opening across from Mezcal in East Rock, for example — and it seems Hutchinson never passes on an opportunity to experiment, adapt or optimize.
“He’s really passionate about making sure every detail is perfect,” said Allie Liebmann ’23, who is on a gap year and working three days a week at Olmo this spring. “I think a lot of people are willing to let some things slide … but he would not do that. He wants to make sure everything is the best he can make it for people.”
A native of Bethany, Connecticut, Hutchinson graduated from Brown University in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. His first job out of college was in sales under Northwestern Mutual in Boston. He “hated everything about what [he] was doing professionally,” but loved the challenge of making ambitious meals during his hourlong lunch break.
His obsession with food led him to find a gig at a country club snack bar, which kicked off a career in food as he moved to other Boston eateries: Harvest, Radius, Citizen Public House, No. 9 Park, Salt and eventually Ribelle, where he served as chef de cuisine and “certifiably lost it.” Even though the team at Ribelle raked in accolades and a top four-star review from The Boston Globe, they prioritized chasing acclaim over connecting with Brookline’s Washington Square locals, he said. Hutchinson needed out.
“I had no understanding of what it was like to actually be human anymore, I was so obsessed with being the best,” Hutchinson said. “I didn’t feel right. … I went back to basics, which was being a part of my community again.”
Moving to New Haven was a return to Hutchinson’s roots — he attended Amity Regional High School, just past West Rock. He reconnected with his current co-partner Sobocinski through a mutual connection, and they shared a two-hour chat at Koffee?. Hutchinson then began working under Sobocinski at his restaurant Caseus, which occupied the storefront Olmo now uses for 10 years.
Sobocinski, who is also a partner at several other New Haven-area eateries like Haven Hot Chicken and Ordinary, ultimately decided to close Caseus and embrace Hutchinson’s brainchild: Olmo. Serving a nebulous mix of New England fare, Italian and other cuisines, the new restaurant’s identity remained fluid even after welcoming its first guests.
“What we really struggled with in the beginning was, what were we?” Baronowski said, recounting Monday “test kitchen” nights where Olmo experimented with Russian, Chinese and more. “Were we a bagelry? Were we a restaurant? What the hell is Olmo?”
In every version of Olmo Hutchinson concocted in his head, he envisioned a basement bakery supplying the main dining room with fresh pastas, breads and oils — and also selling them directly to customers from The Shop, the bottom-level morning marketplace. But in Olmo’s infancy, the two levels were disconnected, even when it became clear that customers kept coming back for the 80 artisan bagels The Shop sold each day.
When Hutchinson and his wife moved back to New Haven from New York and Cara wanted to grab a bagel, he remembers telling her, “New Haven doesn’t really do bagels. We do pizza.” When Olmo started selling bagels, despite their popularity, at first he didn’t adjust the restaurant or his business model to that demand.
“We made it very unapproachable to get this item that everybody was screaming, ‘Give me more of this,’ but we kept not listening, and we kept saying, ‘The restaurant is the restaurant, the bagel shop is the bagel shop, and that’s it,’” Hutchinson said. “It wasn’t community-oriented, it was selfish, artisan baking on my end.”
When the pandemic knocked the dining room out of commission, Hutchinson again tinkered with Olmo’s identity. Necessity drove new changes this time. Baronowski gave Hutchinson a revenue mandate — somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars, Hutchinson said — based on the outstanding costs of running a restaurant with a rolling business model: rent, ingredients, utilities and more. That target did not even include most staff wages. In the first few days of lockdown, Olmo released all but one member of its employee team — Alexiades, now The Bagelry manager — to decrease overhead and in the hopes that staff could sign up for unemployment benefits without delay.
With only Alexiades and Hutchinson to handle most of the cooking, Olmo stayed open. They rushed to convert the menu it would have served at late March lunches and dinners into the contents of a subscription meal box that customers could receive at their doorstep: Olmo@Home. From mid-March to mid-April, Hutchinson arrived between 2 and 3 a.m. to bake fresh bagels for The Shop’s morning customers — he remembers he passed zero cars one morning on the drive from Hamden in the thick of lockdown. People continued to show up in the morning for bagels (80 to 200 was an average bake on a given day that month), entering the basement nook one by one to order.
Pretty quickly, Hutchinson realized the place could not only hang on, but could cut down on costs and waste. Because customers were making Olmo@Home purchases days before receiving food, Hutchinson could order precise amounts of ingredients and plan ahead. Baking a set number of bagels every day also helped.
“In five days, we were alive,” Hutchinson said. “In five days, we were guaranteed to be able to operate again. … [One night] I went to sleep at like 9 o’clock and woke up at 3 and checked my phone reports of sales, and while I was sleeping, we made like $8,000.”
Prep cook Steve and baker Pancho re-joined the team after two weeks, and Olmo was able to cook other bulk orders in March through a partnership with World Central Kitchen, an organization that pays restaurants to make meals during disasters.
Olmo joined Snackpass around the same time, and Hutchinson posted a hand-drawn cardboard sign on the restaurant’s Trumbull window encouraging customers to order contactless through the platform. Benjamin Rubenstein, who leads business development and expansion at Snackpass, said that restaurants sign an agreement with the company, receive a tablet and send a version of their menu to Snackpass during the onboarding process. Hutchinson said Olmo jumped onto the app, in part because their onboarding process seemed quickest compared to other platforms.
With the foundation set, Olmo partners went about implementing what had become their pandemic vision. Hutchinson said they hired “an aggressive amount of” staff when their application for a Paycheck Protection Program loan was processed — according to FederalPay’s PPP database, Olmo received $87,500 in May 2020 and $219,544 at the end of January. They used the money as an investment, a way to scale the barebones pandemic model that pulled them through March and April.
“For a lot of our customers, this was their one face-to-face interaction all week, or every two weeks,” Alexiades said, recalling days working at Olmo during the early stretch of the pandemic. She has occasionally struggled to reconcile her recent professional success at Olmo with the industry-wide challenges the pandemic posed for friends and former colleagues working in food, but even over the phone, it seems she beams with pride when discussing her work. Alexiades, who started as a server at Caseus in 2017, keeps a freezer stash of Olmo bagels to eat at home on mornings off. “It’s something that in a devastating way was unifying. We are all stuck in this awful situation, and we get to be people that bring joy.”
Hutchinson and the team started to brainstorm how a full-on bagel shop could rise from the basement and replace the main dining room. With bagels, he thought they had found a “blue ocean,” a market where several customers are vying for products from the same vendor, in contrast to “red oceans” where businesses are competing against each other for the same customer. The innovating and optimizing extended from the spring into the summer. Sobocinski and Baronowski reshaped the dining room into a bagel shop themselves, building shelves, stripping walls and making trips to Home Depot.
Hutchinson orchestrated the cooking transition, testing out new systems and routines for how the restaurant could mesh as many staff as possible together on a bagel sandwich production chain. In addition to all the bagels, Olmo now uses 250 pounds of cream cheese and 40 pounds of lox a week, Alexiades said, plus 45 dozen eggs on an average Sunday. Sobocinski said the task was “not just how to make the bagels, but how to serve them,” maximizing speed, quality and customer service. “As crazy as it sounds, I’m competing with fast food joints like Dunkin’ Donuts,” he added, though chains like Dunkin’ lead on price: a half-dozen bagels at Olmo cost $11, while a half-dozen at the Dunkin’ across campus on Chapel Street cost $7.49.
“We take this very corporate approach to become faster, better and cheaper,” Hutchinson said. “People always say that I don’t have an off switch. It’s never good enough, the bagel is never good enough, the schmear is never right, the egg can always be cooked better with a little bit better seasoning. Every single little thing can always be better. … It’s just a truth. You could be better tomorrow.”
The perfectionism appears to be paying off. Every 15 minutes or so, a colleague popped their head into the room where Hutchinson was Zooming, and he paused to field a question — there are many that need answering when you run a kitchen as busy as Olmo’s has been these past few months. According to Snackpass employee and Yale student Marwell, who manages the relationship with Olmo and communicates with Hutchinson a few times a week, Olmo’s sales volume on the app doubled between December 2020 and March 2021. “When they first joined [Snackpass last March], their growth was good for a new restaurant, but it was nothing electric,” Marwell said. “But they were certainly growing and they were quickly in the top 25 percent of restaurants in New Haven. Once we started really trying to optimize his restaurant to work well with Snackpass … we just started to see really explosive growth.”
“In many ways, Olmo has become a testing ground for a lot of Snackpass stuff,” he added. A Snackpass electronic kiosk occasionally sits outside on the sidewalk for ordering. 50 users have signed up for a Snackpass subscription at Olmo, the first restaurant where the company is testing the model, paying $5 a month for exclusive discounts, merchandise, double points and the chance to have a menu item named after them.
Even for a restaurant that has often adjusted its flagship offering and business model, Olmo’s most recent identity seems more likely to stick. In December, Baronowski said Olmo spent $30,000 on a bagel shaper, another investment into a model that has proven more consistent than what they were accustomed to in the food industry. “[No pandemic anymore] sounds really lovely,” Hutchinson said. “[But] sounds to me like a lot of unknown variables again.”
The restaurant’s leadership are thinking big about the future of the bagel in New Haven and beyond. Sobocinski, who said growth is his goal with Olmo, hopes to explore opening satellite branches in different parts of Connecticut and selling Olmo bagels wholesale. “With the right team running everything, I don’t see why we couldn’t open an Olmo in Dubai,” he joked. Hutchinson, who mentioned he has looked into opening a Snackpass-only second location in New Haven, also wonders whether Olmo at 93 Whitney could evolve into a destination over the decades: “How cool would it be to be the next Sally’s? How cool would it be to be the next Pepe’s? … We’re onto something here, let’s see how far we can go.”
Last March, it was only Hutchinson and Alexiades, whom he calls Z, making bagels to keep Olmo breathing. Now, there are some weekend mornings on the cooking line, when the Snackpass tablet is unleashing a symphony of alerts and a small crowd has grown on the sidewalk outside, that Hutchinson looks to her to share in the stressful glee of Olmo’s recent success.
“It’s so cool,” he said. “We’re so busy that we’ve had people crying on our line, we have people having mental breakdowns, and we’re reeling it all in, [saying] ‘It’s okay guys, it’s gonna be fine, it’s gonna be fine.’ Z and I turn to each other, and we’re like, ‘Yo, how cool is this? We’re the busiest restaurant in New Haven.’”