Category Archives: Local business

Toys R Tariffs: The Melissa & Doug Connection

President Trump’s on-again, off-again tariff decisions have rattled the global economy.

Here in the US, sectors ranging from aluminum to footwear have felt whipsawed by decisions made and remade in the White House. The latest industry is a big one: toys.

Earlier this week, the president delayed a new 10 percent tariff on some Chinese imports, from September 1 to December 15. That gives toy manufacturers some breathing room, before and during the make-or-break holiday season.

Melissa and Doug Bernstein

Westport has an important dog in this hunt. Melissa & Doug was founded in 1988 by Doug and Melissa Bernstein, in his parents’ garage on Guyer Road. Over the past 31 years it’s become a highly respected creator, manufacturer and distributor of educational toys, including wooden puzzles, arts and crafts products and more.

Bernstein breathed a sigh of relief at the tariff delay. But, he said yesterday, the larger question is the entire concept of a “trade war.”

“Wars are not good,” he said. “They cause casualties: human, social and economic. Calling this a ‘war’ is not a good thing.” He would prefer to see trade policy discussed “amicably.”

Like most American toy companies, the vast majority — 85 to 90% — of Melissa & Doug’s products are made in China.

This founders did not set out to manufacture overseas. Years ago, Bernstein said, he brought prototypes to factories across in the US. No one wanted the job.

The issue was not price. Rather, it was the “massive amount of handiwork” that goes into each Melissa & Doug item. “They can’t be stamped out” — and American factories could not do it at a price that would be reasonable for consumers.

A small selection of Melissa & Doug toys.

Over the years, Melissa & Doug built strong relationships in China. Today, around 200 or so employees oversee quality and inspection there. “They work for us,” he said. “They’re not 3rd-party contractors.”

While other companies talk about moving production to other parts of the world — Vietnam and India are often mentioned — Melissa & Doug worries about losing quality control.

“We have 3 tenets,” the co-founder says. “We make educational products for children; we make them with the absolute best quality we can, and we price them as affordably as possible. We don’t want them accessible only to kids who grow up in a place like Westport.”

So — even with higher tariffs — Bernstein and his wife are committed to “not passing on higher pricing to consumers. Other companies say that if the tariffs take effect on December 15, they’ll have to raise prices by 10, 20 or 25% in 2020. We’re working very hard not to do that. We would probably absorb most, if not all, of the cost.”

They’ve already been tested. In addition to toys, Melissa & Doug produce items like chalk and markers. They’ve already been hit with several million dollars in tariffs — and have not raised prices.

Bernstein sounds a hopeful note, though. “Honestly, I didn’t think the tariffs would happen on September 1. And I think there’s a high likelihood they won’t happen on December 15. This is a game of chess, and we’re pawns. No one gains from a trade war. I think agreements will be reached.”

Besides chess, Bernstein uses another analogy to describe the last few months.

“We’ve been on a roller coaster,” he says. “It would be one thing if there were transparent discussions. But for us — and everyone in the industry — it’s been up and down, on and off, 10%, 25%, September 1, December 15.”

That’s one game the Westport toy manufacturer has no desire to play.

Bag It!

Westporters may not have noticed, because over a decade ago we were the first town east of the Mississippi River to ban plastic bags.

But a state law that went into effect August 1 mandates a charge of 10 cents for every single-use plastic bag.

In 2021, they’ll be outlawed completely.

There is no state-mandated charge for paper bags — which, by some estimates, cost up to 10 times more than plastic bags. Paper bags have their own environmental impacts too.

So although we haven’t noticed the plastic bag charge here, we’re seeing its ripple effects.

Many stores — including CVS and Fresh Market — have switched to paper bags without handles. They’re inconvenient, and perhaps a subliminal way to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags.

An “06880” reader reports that Walgreens is charging 10 cents for each paper bag.

Meanwhile — reading between the lines of this sign — it looks like Stop & Shop will start charging for paper bags next month.

“May Your Dreams Be Bigger Than Trader Joe’s Parking Lot”

As much as Westporters love Trader Joe’s, we hate its parking lot.

We’re happy to buy our organic Caesar salad kit, chile spiced dried mangoes and Ethiopian peaberry coffee. We love chatting with the chatty checkout folks in their Hawaiian shirts, as foot-tapping music plays gently in the background.

We despise backing out of the of the narrow spaces, praying we don’t hit another vehicle, pedestrian or shopping cart. We loathe the Post Road light, playing bumper cars with drivers racing through the red or leaving CVS. We congratulate ourselves every time we make it home, promptly rewarding ourselves with a quart of cookie butter ice cream.

Fortunately — actually, not — ours is not the only killer Trader Joe’s parking lot. In fact, our country seems to be filled with them.

How else to explain BuzzFeed’s recent listicle: “17 Jokes About Trader Joe’s Parking Lots That You’ll 100% Relate To.”

How’s this for schadenfreude? They come from across America.

  • Oh, so you’re into BDSM? Have you ever tried to find parking at Trader Joe’s on a Saturday afternoon?
  • The Job Interview. Employer: “What was your last job?” Applicant: “I designed parking lots for Trader Joe’s.” Employer: “Get out of my office!”
  • Daughter was being annoying so I threatened to make her practice driving in the  Trader Joe’s parking lot.
  • Trader Joe’s Real Estate Agent: “How’s the parking lot?” Landlord: “Terrible.” Trader Joe’s Real Estate Agent: “We’ll take it!”

  • My car insurance doesn’t cover Trader Joe’s parking lot.
  • I don’t wear my wedding ring when I go to Trader Joe’s, because I need every motherf***er in that parking lot to believe I got nothing to lose.
  • If you didn’t have a near-death experience in a parking lot, did you even go to Trader Joe’s?
  • “Every hour the universe expands by a billion miles in all directions.” Trader Joe’s will still find a way to make sure there’s no parking.
  • May your dreams always be bigger than a Trader Joe’s parking lot.

(Click here for the full BuzzFeed piece. Hat tip: Richard Fogel)

Friday Flashback #154

The opening of the transformed Westport Library brought back memories of the original — and reminders, once again, that it was built on what was once the “town dump.”

Alert — and historic minded — “06880” reader Fred Cantor found a fascinating aerial photo, published by the Town Crier in 1965

(Photo/Robert Lentini)

Back then, the library was located in the building at the lower left of the photo. Today it’s the site of Starbucks, Freshii and other tenants.

Across the Post Road — at the foot of what we now call the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge — is a block of shops and apartments that burned in the late 1960s or early ’70s. Today it’s South Moon Under, and other stores.

But the most fascinating part of the photo is seen beyond Jesup Green and the Taylor Place parking lot. There — in the center of town — sat the Rogers Little League baseball diamond. The dugouts are about where the upper entrance to the library lot is today. (Why is it so bumpy now? Landfill.)

Unfortunately, the photo does not show what lies beyond left and center field. That was the town dump.

It smelled. It attracted seagulls. It was not uncommon for the birds to swoop near unsuspecting outfielders, attempting to catch flies (the baseball variety).

Around that time — perhaps a few years later — Westport artist Arthur Cady drew a series of Westport scenes.

(Illustration by Arthur Cady/courtesy of Jim Ezzes)

This one may have been a bit of artistic license. I don’t think the dump was quite that close to downtown.

But it sure was near to what is now Tiffany, nestling right behind on Taylor Place.

Like A Good Neighbor, Gault Is There

Last Saturday, Carolanne Curry noticed some workers bustling about in a West Ferry Lane parking lot near the train station. It’s owned by the town, but is a convenient spot for Gault customers.

After years of being on edge about potential development of Hiawatha Lane — her neighborhood — the longtime resident worried something was up.

The West Ferry Lane parking lot, after some work was done. (Photo/Carolanne Curry)

Something was up. But she needn’t have worried.

Yesterday, Gault Family Companies president Sam Gault replied to her email. He said:

Carolanne, thanks for reaching out. I offered to do a clean-up of this parking lot for the town, to make it look presentable for our neighborhood.

This has been an eyesore for many years (overgrown bush, dead trees, leaves, sand from plowing, etc.). The soil that you see is sand buildup over the years leveled out.

We have a few more trees [in poor shape] to take down. We are distributing wood chips over the entire area, and re-installing a nice black chain link fence that will disappear to the eye (as opposed to the rusted, dented, broken fence that was there).

This will upgrade the entrance to our neighborhood that has been neglected for years. Any questions, please reach out. If you want a tour, let me know.

The jury is still out on Summit Saugatuck’s proposal to build 187 units of housing nearby.

But the verdict is in on Gault. After 156 years in the area, they’re still at the top of their game.

Broad Horizons At Wakeman Town Farm

It always feels good to attend a fundraiser for a local organization. (And there are many fundraisers and groups in Westport.)

You eat and drink well. You’re entertained, and can win cool auction and raffle items. Plus, you’re contributing to a worthy cause.

However, you don’t always know exactly where your money goes.

If you attended last fall’s Harvest Fest at Wakeman Town Farm though, read on. (Keep reading if you didn’t go too, of course.)

Some of those funds went to support Horizons at Sacred Heart University. The tuition-free academic enrichment program serves low-income Bridgeport students in kindergarten through 8th grade. It’s one of 60 national chapters.

Thanks to Harvest Fest, more than 170 youngsters came to WTF last week. They learned about life on a farm, and got hands-on experiences with animals and plants.

Learning about life at Wakeman Town Farm.

On Friday, they had a huge pizza party. Volunteers fired up the new wood oven, donated by Robin Tauck (with stone from the Gault Family, and a gas grill by the Wormser family). Transportation was underwritten by Bankwell Westport.

But none of it would have been possible without help from Harvest Fest.

Remember that the next time you head to a fundraiser. The catered food and fancy wine is wonderful. Tickets to a Yankees Stadium suite, or a vacation at someone’s Caribbean home, is nice.

But the true joy comes when your money is put to good, real, important use.

Every kid loves pizza. Every counselor worries about the time. (Photos/Robert Osgood)

Sewage Spill: Monday Update

The Westport Fire Department has just issued this press release, regarding Saturday’s sewage spill in the Saugatuck River:

The town has continued to work closely with the Department of Public Health and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

The Westport Weston Health District took multiple samples this morning from various beaches. They were sent to the state lab for testing. This test typically takes 24 hours, as it requires culturing the bacterial samples. Westport has requested that the state lab expedite the return of the results.

The WWHD made great efforts to ensure the safety of residents. They checked for private wells in the area of, and downstream from, the spill. They were unable to find any private wells in the area, and believe the properties to be on the public water supply.

Quick action on Saturday helped prevent a more dire situation.

As stated in yesterday’s update, there has been no further evidence of an additional leak since the evening of the break. It appears that the efforts by the Department of Public Works to mitigate and eliminate the spill were successful.

It is not possible to quantify the spill due to the number of variables that contribute to the dynamic flow volume. We believe that quick action by the DPW to shut down the pumps, isolate the area by closing valves, and immediately using vacuum trucks, followed by larger trailer-mounted pumps, was a contributing factor to minimizing the spill.

We will wait for results of the water test to come back. The town will confer with the state DPH and review the results. Residents and visitors should be assured that their health and well-being is paramount. The WWHD will not clear the water for swimming until it is deemed safe by them, as well as by state health officials. Officials remain optimistic that should the tests come back with a clean bill of health, the beaches could be reopened for swimming as soon as tomorrow afternoon.

Right now, this is as close as anyone should get to the water. (Photos/Mark Alex Maidique)

The new permanent pumps were on schedule to be completed in 2 weeks. Westport DPW is working to expedite this completion. In the meantime, the temporary solution is adequate, and will remain in place until the new pumps are operational.

Town officials certainly understand the impact that closing the waters has had on residents and businesses. We felt it necessary to do everything within our power to observe an abundance of caution to protect the health and well-being of everyone in the impacted area, and are doing everything possible to ensure that the waters are restored to their normal state.

We thank the residents and businesses for their understanding and cooperation through this process.

Bye Bye, Boat

Eight months ago during a strong storm, a boat lost its Saugatuck Shores mooring. Ever since, it’s been wedged between the sea wall and a dock.

Yesterday, it was finally removed.

Norwalk-based G&C Marine Services did the job — pro bono.

Shores residents are now G&C fans for life.

(Photo/Tom Risch)

New Pizza Place Rising In Old Bertucci’s

If you’ve been waiting for Ignazio’s — the new pizza place in the old Bertucci’s — to open…

… you’ll have to wait a little longer.

The build-out is taking a while. Owner Louis Termini hopes for September.

Meanwhile, here’s the antipasto.

Termini — a Brooklyn native — says he opened the first oven-fired oven in the Hartford area, in 1990. Luna Pizza soon expanded to 7 locations in Hartford County.

He returned to his native borough when he found a great location underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

There was one problem: It was around the corner from the legendary Grimaldi’s.

No problem! Ignazio’s — named after his father — has been a huge hit.

So Termini is not fazed by coming into a town that has more than its share of excellent Italian restaurants.

It’s a town he knows well. On drives between Brooklyn and Hartford, he stopped here often for lunch.

“I enjoy eating out,” he says. “I think I tried every place in Westport.”

Termini grew up on the water. In February he rented a house on Saugatuck Shores. He loved sitting in his grandmother’s rocking chair on the heated porch.

This summer, he’s enjoying it even more.

A realtor friend from the Bronx helped find the Bertucci’s site. “He’s Jewish, I’m Italian,” Termini says. “But we have the same childhood memories.”

There’s another New York connection: the Westport landlord knows the Brooklyn restaurant well. His sister lives around the corner from it.

Termini learned pizza-making from his mother and grandmother. He tweaked their recipes, so his pies are “a little different” than the standard neighborhood pizzerias of his youth.

He is proud of his fresh mozzarella. And he uses the same olive oils, cheeses, plum tomatoes and sauces he grew up with.

The doors are open. But Ignazio’s is still a few weeks away from welcoming customers.

Yet Termini is more than just a pizzeria owner. He’s also an artist. He got into the restaurant business after his first child was born — because, he says, of the type of artist he was: “starving.”

So he’s pleased to share Ignazio’s space with One River Art + Design. Shearwater — the popular Fairfield coffee bar, where Termini gets his java — will be there too.

Termini will offer both thin crust and Sicilian pizza from his wood-fired oven. Of course he’ll serve other dishes, like calzones — “and a few surprises we don’t have in Brooklyn.”

He’s discovered Connecticut Farm Fresh Express, which delivers produce. He’s looking for a good Connecticut beer to serve too.

Termini definitely knows the territory. The other day, he had dinner at the new Meatball Shop. He enjoyed it.

Of course, he notes, “there’s room for more than one meatball in town.”

The View From Hillspoint

Last week’s story about the new house rising on the site of the old Positano restaurant drew many comments. The site — kitty corner from Elvira Mae’s — is one of the most cherished in Westport.

One reader complained that the new structure blocks views of the public water. She implied that it ruined “a half mile of a walk along the beach on a sidewalk.”

Artists’ rendering of the house going up at 233 Hillspoint Road.

In fact, that ship sailed long ago.

What once was a lovely view — from Schlaet’s Point at the end of Soundview (where Hillspoint Road turns into South Compo), along the gentle curve and on toward Old Mill — has been privatized.

A large home at 261 Hillspoint replaced an open-air boathouse. One of Westport’s first mammoth faux stone walls sealed the house — and the view — off from passersby. (It’s now on the market. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.)

The stone wall at 261 Hillspoint Road.

More recently, a wooden fence and high hedge have hidden all of Old Mill Beach, and that part of the Sound, from nearly everyone’s eyes.

A small section of beach — owned by Hillspoint residents across the street — has always been private. But until the last few years — 10, maybe? — it was bordered only by an unobtrusive chain link fence. Now there’s a green equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

There are a few breaks in the obstructed view from #261 to Old Mill, of course. A small public access road provides relief; so does the clear view from #254 across the street.

The unobstructed view across from 254 Hillspoint.

A break for a beach view.

But that’s it, until you get to the public Old Mill Beach.

Last week’s “06880” story also generated comments about the sidewalk. Readers worried that it will be removed from the new house, forcing walkers into the street.

The property owner assures Westporters there will be a sidewalk in front.

Sidewalks have concerned residents and visitors for years.

A couple of years ago, Robin Tauck — who owns the beautiful new beach house directly across from Elvira Mae’s — paid for a sidewalk survey. She worried about people walking in the road, right past her driveway.

The roadway opposite Elvira Mae’s.

A sidewalk extension from 233 Hillspoint Road to Old Mill Beach is in the works. Plans are done. The town is waiting for a state grant.

Hundreds of folks walk in that area daily. With the opening of Elvira Mae’s ice cream window, foot traffic has increased dramatically. When — er, if — a sidewalk is built there, it will be an important safety addition.

Meanwhile, folks will continue to stroll from there to Compo Beach. They can say what they want about the view — when Positano was there, and now during residential construction.

But they can’t say it’s the only thing blocking their view.