March 3, 2007
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
Timothy Otte is taking the old meat cleaver, the art on the walls, and his parents' wedding table.
The rest of the stuff at the Zion Street restaurant where he has, as one customer put it, been "captain of a ship of fools" for three decades, stays.
It's not like he has a choice, Otte said as he pounded chicken breasts and baked vanilla coconut cakes on Timothy's Restaurant's last day Friday. The place's new owner bought all of the stuff inside, too.
But more to the point, as one customer finished her fifth "last lunch" at the restaurant and others took home last cookies and last cakes, Otte said he remains convinced that now is the perfect time to leave the restaurant, and its stuff, behind.
"I'm not that sentimental," said Otte, 62, smiling. "I've got pans at home."
He may be the only one who lacks sentiment. His business tripled in early February as diners came to get their last Farmer's Daughter Omelets and slices of Black Magic Cake.
But his breakfasts and lunches have been slow after his previously advertised mid-February closing dragged on until now. He stopped serving dinner when his night staff started to find other work. Friends, family, and patrons have volunteered at his counters and in his kitchen.
Felicia DeJesus wasn't one of the ones who left.
"I'll look for a job after," said DeJesus, who spent much of Friday keeping her tears out of the sweet potato enchiladas and the black bean burritos she was cooking on the grill. "I'm here till the end."
She could have worked other places for the past eight or 10 years, she could have made more money. But Timothy's offered her more than a job, even when Otte had to cancel her benefits because he couldn't afford them anymore.
"I did a lot of growing here," DeJesus said. "It helped me grow. I was a woman with an attitude. I didn't know other than what I knew. ... And I think I grew here. It made me a better person."
Not only that. But, as opposed to previous corporate cooking gigs, this one felt good.
"They praise me, you know what I mean?" she said of the customers who ate her food. "And if anything, if I'm having a bad day at home, I know I could come here and be who I really am. Felicia DeJesus."
Still, all the good feeling in the city couldn't get Otte past the financial reality of owning a building and running a restaurant that eventually persuaded him to sell. The neighborhood isn't what it once was. The regulars aren't, either. And 32 years is a long time to do the same thing. As a new owner comes in and plans to reopen a restaurant in the same place, Otte will move across the street to cook for a Trinity College fraternity and take time to figure out his next steps. He's sad to lose the restaurant, his wife, Gail Otte, said. But he's happy to lose the business.
John Alcorn, who teaches at Trinity College, came in just before closing Friday to pick up one of the last vanilla and coconut cakes. Alcorn says he's a regular, a once-a-week guy, and has been for 16 years.
"Timothy is the captain of the ship of fools," Alcorn said. "In the sense that he manages to keep everybody afloat who probably couldn't tread water on their own."
"It's partly that he's given employment to people who are struggling," Alcorn said. "But it's partly the clients like me. I think everybody's a little bit a misfit, and everyone feels at home at Timothy's."
As 2 p.m. approached and the last table of diners sat for lunch, Otte - still smiling, still unrepentant - shouted for DeJesus to turn off the "OPEN" sign.
"Pull your sign, Felicia," he said. "That's it."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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