NEW BRITAIN — Whether it was waiting in line in sub-freezing temperatures for hours, opening up a restaurant for a special lunch visit, or taking the opportunity to get across a political message, people had different experiences during President Barack Obama’s visit to Connecticut.
Obama, joined by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other New England governors, visited Central Connecticut State University Wednesday to make a speech about raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017. Those working at Café Beauregard on Main Street in New Britain, however, are already seeing those types of paychecks.
“We don’t pay anyone less than $10 an hour,” owner Rob Chiovoloni said. That’s likely one of the reasons the president and his gubernatorial group — “The New England patriots,” Obama jokingly dubbed them Wednesday — stopped in for lunch before heading to CCSU down the road.
Alice Bruno, Chiovoloni’s wife, explained that the restaurant, which opened about four months ago, hired local people and pays far more than the state’s minimum wage of $8.70 per hour.
“We really believe that you should be good neighbors in the community, and they’ll be good neighbors back,” Bruno said.
Bruno’s daughter, Lara Marie Edmonds, said she regularly stops at Café Beauregard on her way between Branford and UConn Law School in Hartford, but noticed something different Wednesday afternoon.
“There was just a different feel in the air — we got a little suspicious,” she said of herself and her boyfriend, Mike Heims, while they were having lunch.
Soon, Secret Service members were combing through the restaurant, rearranging tables and checking customers.
“They looked through my bag, and wanded me,” Edmonds said. “And the next thing I see is the motorcade outside.”
Obama walked through, and said hello to everyone before ordering a Korean barbecue sandwich, chili, and a half iced tea, half lemonade to drink, Edmonds said.
She had been reading through one of her law textbooks when Obama arrived, and “he threatened to quiz me about the law,” Edmonds said. “I was so nervous because I wasn’t sure if I’d know the answers yet.”
Neither Edmonds, Bruno, nor Chiovoloni were certain how their little restaurant got chosen for the “First Lunch,” however.
Chiovoloni said there had been a woman regularly stopping in over the past couple of weeks, ordering different things off the menu every time.
“Then one day she came in and ordered $70 worth of food to go,” Chiovoloni said, assuming at the time that she worked nearby.
He found out Wednesday that she actually worked at the White House.
“It’s like they had been getting vetted,” Edmonds said.
Another “suspicious” incident occurred Tuesday as well. Chiovoloni and Edmonds said the restaurant got a call from someone who said he was a University of Hartford student doing research for a paper.
Edmonds said he asked whether it was true that employees there made $10 an hour.
“But why would some kid at UHart be writing about that? And how did he know what we pay our employees?” Chiovoloni asked, with the suspicion that it was actually someone from the White House calling to confirm the information.
Either way, Chiovoloni — who was working in Washington, D.C., during both of Ronald Reagan’s inaugurations and cooked the food served at the events — said he was proud to have had the president stop by to eat. In fact, the chair Obama sat in is now displayed above a beverage cooler (Bruno’s idea), awaiting a sign to commemorate it as such.
What Chiovoloni said he’s most proud of, however, is the likely reason Obama stopped by.
“It’s much more important to me to go home knowing that we’ve done a good job here. Obama coming is a big deal, but that’s an even bigger deal,” Chiovoloni said.
Wait ‘totally worth it’
For CCSU students in New Britain on Wednesday, Obama’s arrival was the main event.
“It was awesome. He’s a great speaker,” said Juan Crespo, a sophomore from Bloomfield.
“Regardless of your political leaning, it’s such a great experience to see the president,” said Chris Murray, a freshman from Wallingford.
At a school where more than 75 percent of the students commute, it seemed many of those drivers made changes to their schedules so they wouldn’t be stuck in gridlock getting to New Britain.
Murray said he left in the morning, before highways were shut down, and was probably going to “grab some lunch” after the event ended, avoiding traffic caused by throngs of people leaving.
Renee Saunders, a sophomore from Bloomfield, said she left at 4 a.m. Wednesday, more than eight hours before the president touched down at Bradley International Airport in Air Force One.
“I just didn’t want to risk it,” Saunders said.
Similarly, Stephanie Cruz, a freshman from Windham, said she avoided the roads altogether, and slept over at a friend’s room Tuesday night.
“Plus, I had waited in line for seven hours to get my ticket, so I was exhausted,” said Cruz, expressing a sentiment felt by many on campus.
Janice Palmer, a media spokeswoman for the university, said earlier this week that though she hadn’t been given specific numbers by the White House, several thousand tickets were given out to students and faculty. Student tickets “more than doubled” those received by faculty.
The university set up an online raffle to distribute tickets to students. Winning one meant standing in line Monday to pick it up, then again Wednesday to get into the gymnasium to see Obama speak.
For those who didn’t win the raffle, like Cruz, there was an opportunity Tuesday to wait in line for one of the remaining tickets available to the public.
“Totally worth it, though,” Cruz said.
Others standing in the cold Wednesday included groups of protesters — one of which was a group of Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans, holding signs urging the president to do something about the conflict in the Eastern European region.
“We just want to get the word out, to inform people of what the real story is,” said Romana Thibodeau, of Wallingford.
“The real story,” as she tells it, is essentially that Ukrainians in Ukraine largely want to be further integrated into the European Union, a message that’s been lost in much of the news coming out of the region, Thibodeau said.
“I think in general we tend to think we’re in our own little world,” Thibodeau said. “But these issues affect everyone.”
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