September 22, 2023

Lecafe moustache

Delicious food

Hands on Hartford opens breakfast and lunch restaurant with a unique twist: Pay what you can

Tyler Anderson is at the top of Connecticut’s culinary world, but in the past he has experienced food insecurity.

“My family didn’t always have everything. And when I started working in restaurants, I was working poor. They didn’t pay me much. My friends and I who worked with me used food pantries to get by,” he said.

Anderson, owner of Millwright’s in Simsbury, is giving back, by teaming up with Hands on Hartford to open the state’s first “pay what you can” restaurant. The eatery, called Gather55, is at Hands on Hartford’s 55 Bartholomew Ave. offices.

The breakfast and lunch spot, which will expand to Wednesday-to-Saturday dinners on Oct. 5, had a soft opening in May. It officially launched, with an appearance by Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, on Thursday.

Bronin called Gather55 “a restaurant that belongs to everybody, that’s accessible to everybody, ’that makes healthy, fresh, delicious food available to everybody.”

Hands on Hartford has served meals to the area’s disadvantaged communities for 40 years. Milton Shannon is a frequent client. “It’s something to do, somewhere to go. Senior centers just aren’t as lively,” he said.

With the opening of Gather55, Hands on Hartford is inviting everyone in the region to dine. Cindi Bates, chair of the board of Hands on Hartford, called Gather55 “something bigger, something more profound, gathering everyone regardless of their means to enjoy good food and a common experience.”

All diners pay what they can afford. The bar inside the restaurant also offers food for sale at a fixed price.

Diners are given two choices per meal, changing daily. On Thursday, breakfast diners chose between a waffle with strawberry sauce and turkey sausage, and a bacon and cheddar scramble with biscuits and fruit. Lunch diners chose between pesto tortellini with sun-dried tomatoes and chicken, and spaghetti with meatballs.

Anderson does the menus and recipes. The chefs who whip up the meals are Jeremy Williams, Karl Robinson and James Edwards.

For 14 years, Williams owned the Berlin breakfast-lunch spot Even Stephens. The pandemic hurt his business and he sold it.

“This is a unique opportunity. Until now I’ve only worked for for-profit restaurants,” Williams said. “Now we’re serving restaurant-quality food to people who are really in need.”

Williams estimated that since the soft opening, he and the mostly volunteer crew have served 300 to 350 meals a day.

In anticipation of the opening, Hands on Hartford spiffed up the dining rooms, installing paneling in one and artworks on the walls, including a series of photos of street murals from around the country. Other artworks will be installed soon.

CT Foodshare also is a partner in the operation of Gather55.

In his remarks, Anderson joked that “I’ve always wanted to turn all of my restaurants into pay-what-you-can restaurants. Unfortunately I have business partners and they didn’t like the idea at all.

“So it’s nice to have business partners like this. Who let us do it and want to do it.”

Gather55, 55 Bartholomew Ave., is open for breakfast and lunch Monday to Thursday. Breakfast is served 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., with takeout available from 8:30 to 9:30. Lunch is served 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., with takeout available from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. will be launched soon.

Susan Dunne can be reached at [email protected].