‘Herd’ restaurateurs adapt to changing times
By Teresa M. Pelham / Photography by Winter Caplanson
If you’re a “Friends” fan, this word likely brings to mind a hilarious scene with Ross repeatedly shouting at Chandler and Rachel as they attempt to carry a sofa up a tight stairwell. But if you’re a restaurateur, pivot is something you’ve probably had to do several times over the past year, just to stay in business.
As owners of the popular restaurant Herd in Middletown, brothers David and Jonathan Shapiro worked hard to keep their restaurant alive during the first months of the pandemic, but ultimately had to embrace a whole new way of doing things – and it just might prove to be a brilliant move.
The business partners are now sharing space with a fellow restaurant owner at 102 Court St. in Middletown. While Sabrina Cortes’ Cafe 56 serves breakfast and lunch, Herd serves dinner – all from the same cozy kitchen. The resulting, rebranded Herd 56 is essentially two restaurants operating from one address but at different times of the day.
For four-and-a-half years, Herd on Main enjoyed a loyal following of customers who loved its eclectic mix of American fare with an Italian accent. The restaurant’s name, as “word nerd” David points out, is both a noun and a verb.
“A herd is a group of creatures who eat together,” David says. “And when we ‘herd’ people, we care for them, we provide for them.”
Now Herd’s loyal customers are both ordering takeout for the big game and signing up for private dining experiences. The takeout and catering option – ‘Herd at Home’ – includes minimal-contact pickup of its menu offerings.
For the private dining option, chef Pete Ruske works directly with patrons ahead of time, choosing foods compatible with preferences and allergies. Accommodating up to 20 guests at a time, the private dining experience – known as ‘Home at Herd’ – came in response to friends and family who wanted to dine out but still felt uncomfortable in a space with other people.
A reservation for private dining means you and your family and friends will have the restaurant to yourselves. Pricing depends on the menu and hours selected. Groups can range from two to 20 people, and reservations must be made at least two days in advance.
The restaurant is currently BYOB (Ruske will even help with wine pairing suggestions) but the Shapiros expect to apply for a beer and wine license in the coming year.
Life isn’t expected to go back to the pre-COVID normal anytime soon, they predict. For the time being, restaurant guests will need to follow protocols such as wearing masks until seated. But a successful restaurant business is possible, the Shapiros say, albeit on a smaller scale.
“We think this business is sustainable,” David says. “Takeout is going to continue to be big. We won’t be seeing crowded dining rooms a year from now, but if everyone is a good citizen, we can figure out this new normal.”
Ruske’s menu is described as “comfort food elevated.” His experience working in both Italian and French restaurants, combined with an Asian flair and time spent in his Italian grandmother’s kitchen, brings dishes such as the Herd steak sandwich and Dr. Dave’s meatball grinder to a new level of “new American” cuisine.
All in the Family
The Shapiro brothers come from a long line of Middletown business owners. As many in the area recall, Shapiro’s in downtown Middletown was the place to shop for many decades. What began at the start of the twentieth century as a men’s clothing store evolved to become a department store selling everything from women’s clothing to appliances. The business closed in the 1980s, when shopping malls began gaining popularity and cities became a less popular shopping destination. David and Jonathan’s aunt and uncle operated a law practice in the city for many years, and now Jonathan’s law firm is based there.
“The Shapiros have owned some sort of business in Middletown since 1900,” Jonathan says. “Family business is in the blood.”
David, a general surgeon in the trauma and critical care unit at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, and Jonathan, an attorney, poke fun at one another like typical brothers while chatting within the red painted tin walls of the old Brownstone building.
“A lot of people who own restaurants aren’t restaurateurs to begin with,” says Jonathan, who lives in Middletown with his wife and two children. “I was a business advisor and have been a business advisor for several restaurants and represent a lot of restaurants. As an attorney, you’ve got to understand your client’s business.”
David, who’s gay, is “in a monogamous relationship with an awesome guy,” and the restaurant is a member of the Connecticut Gay & Lesbian Chamber (CTGLC).
He says the LGBTQ community has been extremely supportive of Herd. “In our four-and-a-half years of being open, among our top three nights of attendance and fun was when we hosted a post-PRIDE party, including drag performances, after Middletown’s first PRIDE celebration in 2019,” he says. “It was amazing. We had a celebrity chef work with our team, had an incredible time, and even had a great Herd PRIDE T shirt we gave away that day!”
Plans for the Future
The two restaurant businesses will eventually collaborate, something Ruske is excited about. Cortes’ cuisine is described as the food of the people and the food of the Americas.
“Sabrina spent 20 years working on cruise ships,” Ruske says. “I’m looking forward to learning from her. There will definitely be some overlap.”
One of the innovative ideas Herd is offering is the Triple Play, which provides families of four with three separate meals to enjoy during the week for $100. Diners will have a choice of three entrees (lasagna, penne à la vodka, meatloaf, or chicken marsala, for example), along with sides of salad, vegetables, and potatoes.
“There are opportunities to pivot in every industry,” David says. “We’re taking baby steps and pivoting into a world we don’t know.”
For Herd 56’s menus, hours and contact information, visit herdonmain.com.