Willimantic's Stone Row is the place for homegrown food

Tim Leininger
Journal Inquirer
Aug 27, 2020

WILLIMANTIC — After 10 years of running the successful Cafémantic, Andrew Gutt closed down the coffee shop for a 13-week remodel and rebranding, reopening as Stone Row Kitchen + Bar in June at 948-956 Main St.

A graduate from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in business administration, Gutt said he took his entrepreneurial drive and opened up the coffee shop just after he graduated.

“It’s hard to imagine what it used to look like in here,” he said. “It was the size of the front room. My partner at the time built the facade brick-by-brick.”

Named after the row of stone tenements that used to run along the railroad tracks on Riverside Drive — there are still a couple left — the building used to be the local news building housing the former Hartford Courant regional office and radio station WILI until the 1980s and was eventually gutted at the end of the millennium, Gutt said.

The homegrown nature of Willimantic, he said, is what brought initial success to Cafémantic and led to the birth of Stone Row.

“We kind of responded to what we thought the neighborhood was ready for,” Gutt said. “10 years ago, Main Street was still sketchy. The challenge back then was there was an energy with the stress of the neighborhood. The idea was of a very good local coffee shop. We were ready for this. Willimantic could have nice things too. People used to walk in here over and over and over again and say it doesn’t feel like they’re living in Willimantic. It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s exciting.”

He said that at the time there was zero chance that a restaurant would have succeeded, but as Willimantic grew, Cafémantic grew too.

“We did the coffeeshop, then another one opened,” he said. “So, we turned it into a restaurant. That was 2012. We launched the whole restaurant concept. We introduced beer and wine, we introduced cocktails. We would take a step forward and they would take a step with us.”

As the restaurant developed, Gutt said there was an idea to expand from just a café with appetizers and drinks to a full-fledged restaurant with entrees on the menu.

In 2017, though, Gutt’s life was rocked by a devastating explosion while catering at a party at Spring Hill Inn in Mansfield.

“When I was injured, that derailed all the plans,” he said. “We were in the kitchen and we smelled gas. There was a problem with something in the building. It exploded and blew up on me and my employees. 20% of my body had second- and third-degree burns. The recovery took a long time. I was a shell of myself.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it gave Gutt and his staff something they could really use for a renovation, time.

“It feels extraordinary,” he said. “I don’t think we could have done it as swiftly and cleanly if we weren’t closed. This horrible thing happened, but we were able to realize this goal, but at the same time we’re wounded. It’s awesome to see people in this building. It’s incredible to not be shoveling food in foil to go containers. That’s what we were reduced to for three months.”

The renaming to Stone Row also introduced entrees to the menu and with his commitment to their homegrown theme, Gutt said he does his best to have the menu locally sourced.

“It’s homegrown food driven by intentionality,” he said. “Sourcing local and eating with the seasons has always been a part of our culture here. We’re used to a vendor saying, ‘I don’t have that.’ There are food shortages. We’re used to that.”

The entrees are single item entrees, he said,

“You order a burger,” he said, “you just get a burger.”

At $19, he understands that it appears expensive, but he said that it is a crowd pleaser.

“A chef and his relationship with a burger can be a little contentious,” Gutt said, but said that chef Tyler May rose to the challenge.

“We have the 100% grass fed beef from Canterbury, the bun is a potato brioche roll made from Stonington, the ketchup is fermented tomatoes made in house,” he said. “We make our own ketchup. Cato Corner cheese. It’s $19, but after you eat it, you know why.”

When making recommendations to guests, he makes sure that they know what menu ingredients are in peak season to appeal to their palates.

“Right now, you see corn, peaches, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers popping up on the menu,” he said. “Every ingredient is from within 30 miles of here. They are in peak season. This is the best you’re going to taste them.

“We’re using chicken wings from a local farm with an ancho peach glaze,” he said. “We’re doing an heirloom tomato and peach salad. We’re doing a peach and almond pound cake. We’re doing a peach and whiskey sour. You only get a six-week window with peaches. Same with tomatoes. We have a tomato jam and home-made ketchup.”

Another change at the restaurant is that Gutt has done away with gratuity for staff.

“We eliminated tipping,” he said. “In this industry, there’s a massive pay disparity between the front and back of the house.”

He said that it isn’t right for a customer to be rewarding or punishing someone with their tip based on what they think their experience is; the idea of you paying what you feel the experience should be like versus what it cost.

“You go to a store and you buy, or you don’t,” he said. “You see what the price is. It’s not what you feel what the price is. It should never have existed in the first place.”

With the pandemic still ongoing, he said that customers are still nervous about eating indoors, with only 1 out of 5 guests choosing to eat inside.

Though business is down to a point where sustaining themselves is difficult, Gutt said there is a spirit in his team and in the town.

“The spirit is the team,” he said. “The spirit is the town. Many times, the best food travels the shortest. It’s not haute cuisine. It’s homegrown food.”