Then he got close. With relief, he read the small print: The popular Riverside Avenue spot wasn’t closing for good. It was just taking a well-deserved couple of days off after 16 months of working tirelessly through the pandemic.
From the sign, Marc says, it sounded like owner Eric Johnson got married some time ago. He was so busy keeping Westport fed during COVID that he never had a chance to celebrate with his family and friends.
“If hw has been going full-speed for a year and a half without getting to celebrate his wedding, could I please nominate Eric Johnson at JR’s Deli as an Unsung Hero?” Marc asks.
Of course! And not only for Eric’s non-stop work during the pandemic, but for all he’s done, for all these years. Eric keeps Westport happily fed, and creates a congenial community while doing so.
Thanks, Eric. And thank you Marc, for noticing.
(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email firstname.lastname@example.org)
In the year after David Martin broke his femur skating at Longshore, he worked with physical therapist Paddy Jarit.
At every session, Martin was enticed by the aroma of coffee. Jarit roasted it at home, then brought it to the office to enjoy.
“I’m a coffee snob,” Martin says. “But I’d never tasted anything like that.”
Martin — a Westporter since 1999, whose 2 children graduated from Staples High School — is a real estate developer. But he developed a new idea: opening a local coffee roaster. Every bag would be roasted to order,
Better yet, the business would give back to the community, in every way it could.
In 2015, Solude Coffee opened on Sylvan Road South. The name evokes “solitude” — having a peaceful coffee in the morning before starting the day — and also sounds like “salut” in Italian.
From the start — continuing through a recent move to a larger facility on Norwalk’s Knight Street — coffee beans have come from the 3 main coffee- producing regions of the world: Latin America, Africa and Asia Pacific.
Experts examine each shipment. They roast, brew and taste small batches. They use “hot air roasting,” a process using computer controlled ovens that brings out the full flavor of each bean without burning the edges (which creates a bitter aftertaste).
Every bag is roasted to order without chemicals, then delivered to customers in air-sealed bags. All coffee is certified fair trade, organic, and kosher.
Roasting Solute coffee is a serious business.
Solude produces 58 different types of coffee. Each is special to the customer. The coffee delivered to Jr’s Deli on Riverside Avenue, for example, is unlike any other.
Solude’s customers include restaurants and coffee shops, senior and eldercare centers, golf courses, churches and synagogues, and colleges. Several schools have signed contracts after students selected Solude in taste tests.
The roaster also provides all advertising and graphics — and single-serve cups. (There are 2 types: all-recyclable and biodegradable.)
Solude’s “Coffee for Causes” program allows consultants and small business partners to contribute to causes they believe in: Circle of Care, Kids in Crisis, Norwalk Power Squadron and many more. Solude matches those contributions. Local clubs, PTAs, booster organizations and the like that purchase Solude coffee also receive contributions from the roaster.
The company offers jobs to people “others have forgotten.” Right now, for example, one of the 5 full-time employees is a client of STAR, which serves people with developmental disabilities.
David Martin (far right) and his Solute staff.
David Martin has long since recovered from his broken hip. He no longer sips coffee at his physical therapist’s office.
He’s got all he needs, at his own special roaster.
Since 1976, Jr’s Deli & Grille has welcomed everyone in the neighborhood — and beyond — with its good food and friendly vibe.
Founded on Riverside Avenue by Saugatuck native Junior Bieling as a hot dog stand, it grew under his nephew Jeff Arciola into a full-scale deli, plus catering and a food truck.
Owned for the last 6 years by Eric Johnson, Jr’s is legendary for its diverse crowd. CEOs and hedge fund titans share the tables and — especially — the counter with teachers, masons, plumbers and working moms.
There’s plenty of banter, on both sides of that counter. It truly is “where everyone knows your name” (and a lot more about you).
Jr’s owner Eric Johnson (left), and loyal employee Staples High School student Sam Seideman.
Earlier this month, Johnson was planning his next project: an outdoor patio in back, along the Saugatuck River.
He’s still working on it. When people will get to enjoy it is anyone’s guess.
Jr’s is one of hundreds of small business in Westport slammed by the coronavirus. There are millions more across the country.
Each is special. But the Jr’s experience — scary and ongoing — opens a window into all.
Heeding a statewide order, Johnson can no longer serve inside. Jr’s offers curbside pickup and delivery owner only. They’re still in business — and sanitizing like crazy.
The Jr’s window says it all.
“It’s so much quieter than usual,” Johnson says. “But the locals have been fantastic. They’re buying lots of gift certificate. Whoever had that idea, it’s great.”
More than that, regulars call to check in. They ask how he and his staff are doing. They order takeout and delivery. They promise to be back as soon as they can. Their words and deeds lift the owners and employees’ spirits.
They do other things too. Someone ordered a 6-foot sub — and asked that it be delivered to the Gillespie Center.
That’s a win-win. It helps Jr’s stay alive — and feeds some of Westport’s most vulnerable citizens.
Jr’s is giving back too. Several part-time employees are Staples High School rugby players. (Johnson is an assistant coach for the Wreckers.) He knows how hard it is for students who are quarantined.
So he’s offering 15% off all deliveries for any youngsters stuck at home.
Johnson speaks for all small business owners when he tells Westporters, “It doesn’t matter who. Pick your favorite place. Buy a gift certificate. Buy a pizza. Let them know you’re there for them.”
“As long as the community keeps helping, I think we can make it,” he says.
(Click here for Jr’s’ website. The phone number is 203-227-9803. For the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce list of restaurants with curbside takeout and delivery, click here.)
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