WALLINGFORD — A nationally-known media entrepreneur who criticized coronavirus restrictions on restaurants and bars while raising millions to save them has donated to two Wallingford restaurants to help them survive the pandemic.
Barstool Sports’ founder David Portnoy has begun donating $17,000 per month to Laskara Restaurant and, possibly, $20,000 per month to Gaetano’s Tavern on Main, workers from both restaurants said.
Portnoy drew national attention early last month when he criticized New York City officials for driving restaurants and bars out of business by temporarily outlawing indoor dining to help limit the spread of COVID-19. He also launched The Barstool Fund, a gofundme-type web page that as of Monday had raised $22.4 million to support 110 businesses of all kinds.
“What do they think is going to happen? What do they think is going to happen to thousands of restaurants — they’re done,” Portnoy told marketwatch.com. “The bar and restaurant industry and small businesses have been squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, and they’ve tried everything.”
Two other Connecticut businesses, Piggy’s Cafe and Red Rock Tavern, both of Hartford, won Barstool Fund awards as of Monday afternoon. Businesses enter the fundraising competition by assembling short videos explaining why they need help.
Laskara and Gaetano’s both found the award timely.
“I was totally shocked when I found out,” Gaetano’s co-owner Debbie Pacileo said Monday. “I am sure a lot of restaurants or small business have applied for this. They responded to me pretty quickly too. This is nice. It will let me sleep better at night, that’s for sure.”
“I was pretty speechless when I learned of it,” Laskara manager Maria Riopel said. “My stress level was probably at about 5,000 percent. I still have stress because I am Greek and that’s what we do, but after this, it was like I could finally breathe. I actually can smile now and it’s a real one.”
Both Wallingford businesses have much in common. Both are small-staffed, family owned and have been in town for about the same length of time — 18 years for Gaetano’s and 21 for Laskara.
They each have loyal, long-time customers who urged them to apply to the fund, and both have suffered heavily due to the pandemic. Gaetano’s is probably down about $10,000 a week, while Laskara probably averages about 40 customers a day when it used to draw about 150. Gaetano’s learned of its win on Friday, while Portnoy contacted Laskara on New Year’s Day. Pacileo said she believes that her restaurant won $20,000 but wasn’t sure of the details.
Riopel said she has mixed feelings about Portnoy’s complaints about pandemic restrictions. She said she sees the need for social distancing but wonders why state government restricts restaurants with such a heavy hand while giving other businesses, such as big-box retail operations, more flexibility.
“I don’t want to discredit the disease,” Riopel said. “The restrictions are very hard without any aid. You have restrictions and you have to pay your bills and there is nothing you can do about it.”
Riopel will always welcome more customers, but advises people to keep going to their favorite local restaurants, not just hers.
“Just come in and visit them. Every local place,” she said. “They are all hurting.”