Last month, the National Restaurant Association reported that nearly 17% of U.S. restaurants were â€œclosed permanently or long-termâ€ due to the Covid-19 pandemic, representing more than 110,000 service-industry businesses across the country. But thatâ€™s not to say there were no startup eateries during this time. Indeed, last month saw the opening of Reef Shack, an independently owned business based in a former 7-Eleven at 257 Reef Road in Fairfield.
Jason and Bridget Lesizza signed the lease for the property on April 23, at a time when indoor dining was prohibited by government edict and restaurants could only offer takeout or delivery service. Despite the trauma being inflicted on the industry, the couple believed an opportunity existed for them.
â€œIn April, we saw so many people jogging around here, so many bikers and kids,â€ recalled Jason Lesizza. â€œAnd we were like, â€˜Why donâ€™t we do a takeout window over here?â€™â€
Lesizza previously ran his own office furniture business in Manhattan before deciding to switch careers, although the restaurant scene was not new to him â€” his father owned and operated a restaurant in Manhattan. His wife, Bridget, came from a marketing consulting background, which helped the couple create a business plan for Reef Shack.
â€œIt was pretty much sitting at the kitchen table and saying, â€˜What does the town need and how can we fill that need?â€™â€ she said. â€œThere was no place to get a great cheesesteak, so we saw the need and we looked to innovate on it.â€
Bridget Lesizza acknowledged there were â€œsome naysayersâ€ that tried to dissuade the couple, but they paled in numbers compared with those who offered encouragement.
â€œWhen we told people our concept, they said to just stayed focused,â€ she said. â€œAnd the two of us just worked together. We wanted to make sure it was not a committee of voices, so it was really just the two of us pushing through.â€
The Lesizzasâ€™ children attend St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School and the schoolâ€™s officers allowed them to use a test kitchen over the summer to experiment on recipes for their menu. The couple also studied the communityâ€™s demographics in adding other items for sale.
â€œThis is definitely a healthy neighborhood with people jogging, so we decided to do the salads,â€ Jason Lesizza said. â€œYou can make your own salad here. And we decided to make family-size options because this is a family neighborhood. And it is a beach community where most people around go away for the summer â€” theyâ€™re going to Nantucket and Cape Cod, but they come back and thereâ€™s no place that has that beach shack feel, so we decided to give it a little beach shack feel.â€
â€œWe also take into consideration that a lot of people have certain dietary issues, so we made sure that all of our sandwiches can be served over quinoa,â€ Bridget Lesizza noted. â€œFor people who have celiac and people who need a gluten-free options, we have gluten-free rolls. A lot of those things were taken in consideration.â€
Although Reef Shack has no restaurant as its next-door competition â€” the business is in a mostly residential area away from Fairfieldâ€™s busy Post Road thoroughfare â€” it is in a town that has a glut of eateries. But Bridget Lesizza stressed that the businessâ€™ emphasis on fresh ingredients plus an open kitchen space helps to make it stand out.
â€œWe are doing fresh and ready-to-go made-to-order sandwiches,â€ she said. â€œWe slice the meats in front of people â€” they can see our people cooking and prepping in front of them. And we have a significant staff right now â€” about 20 people, and weâ€™re going to probably go to more. And itâ€™s a great feeling because these people are so eager to work and it wasnâ€™t hard for us to find them, especially when they saw the concept.â€
Reef Shack offers a mix of sandwiches, salads, seafood platters and bowls for both takeout and indoor dining, as well as a small market offering grocery staples such as milk, bread and eggs. When it officially opened on Dec. 11, Reef Shack was positioned as a six-day-per-week business, with Mondays being closed. However, the Lesizzas turned it into a seven-day-per-week operation, citing strong customer demand.
â€œWe were blown away by the amount of people that came up to support us,â€ Bridget Lesizza said. â€œPeople in the neighborhood were coming up to say, â€˜Thank you for doing something for our community and giving us hope.â€™ And then, they just kept coming back because the food was good. Itâ€™s been amazing.â€
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