After a fire in 2019, COVID hitting in 2020 and now facing hiring difficulties, the popular Trafford Restuarant has defied odds and is looking ahead to a fall reopening with a warm new aesthetic inside their Water Street building.
Trafford Restaurant on Water Street has had a tough couple of years, to put it mildly.
In January of 2019, owner Russell Goyette made a calculated decision to temporarily close down for a month to comprehensively spruce up every nook and cranny in the place, only for a catastrophic hood fire to break out about a month later, on March 14, causing over $1 million in damages.
“Smoke was coming out of the roof and there was water everywhere,” Mr. Goyette recalled. “It was pouring from the ceilings in the kitchen and coming down the stairs in the dining room. I tried to get the water off the floor. I was hoping we could fix it quickly and re-open fast.”
But nothing could be touched. By the time the insurance company had completed its investigation to sort out the cause of the fire — which broke out in the hood system after a routine cleaning two days earlier — it was July. He didn’t start to receive money to begin reconstruction until November. Then, to make matters worse, once repairs began, more structural damage was revealed. More waiting. More runarounds by the insurance company.
It wasn’t until April of 2020, more than a year after the fire, that Mr. Goyette received the final insurance check — just in time for the full fury of the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Vendors were stretched thin, materials skyrocketed in price. Mr. Goyette and his fiancèe, Sherri Miles, could do little more than weather the storm, once again.
“The hardest time was when we were just waiting. Walking in here and the place is just a complete disaster and a mess and it’s not changing month after month,” Ms. Miles said. “Our hands were tied.”
Once insurance had been sorted and COVID restrictions began to loosen, reconstruction kicked into high gear. Many parts of the restaurant had to be rebuilt in some way, from the kitchen appliances and walk-in coolers to the storeroom and office area.
But crisis and chaos can open the door for opportunity, too. Noting that the restaurant, which was hopping in the summer months, had frequently lost about 60 percent of its customers during the fall and winter months, the duo worked with Rhode Island designer Kyla Coburn to reinvent the restaurant’s interior aesthetic into a warmer, more inviting space. Deep shades of blue now complement the wood furnishings throughout, with chic, molecular lighting fixtures that cast a romantic glow upon intimate table settings on the top and bottom floors.
“Even though we’re opening at what normally would not be a great time of the season for us, the new décor will make it welcoming all winter,” Ms. Miles said.
Staffing creates one more hurdle
As if a fire and a global pandemic weren’t enough of a challenge to overcome, now Mr. Goyette is dealing with the problem that has been felt nationally across the hospitality business, particularly in restaurants — staffing.
“I can’t open if I don’t have a kitchen staff,” he said.
Mr. Goyette pointed out that many of his staff remained loyal for as long as they could, but since the insurance process dragged on for so long, most have had to move on and look for opportunity elsewhere. He has been able to hire a new chef and general manager, and while bussers, wait staff and other front of house staff are applying daily, he has been unable to find line cooks anywhere.
“Sherri has done everything in the world to advertise for cooks. Social media, our website, online job boards,” he said. “I’ve talked to staff, asked everyone who has come in here if they know any line cooks looking for work.”
“How do you fix an industry shift? Ms. Miles said. “It’s time for restaurants to rethink staffing, and line cooks in particular, because it has all evolved since COVID. You can’t do anything but try to adapt.”
And Mr. Goyette isn’t opposed to changing with the times, either. But even the prospect of $20 an hour, health benefits and paid vacations hasn’t generated interest.
“And the thing is, there’s only so much money left,” Mr. Goyette added.
The pair hopes to have hiring figured out by Oct. 1, and are very cautiously eyeing mid-October for a grand reopening.
In a time where restaurants are closing at an alarming rate, the uphill battle Trafford has been slogging through for two and a half years might have taken down a less determined restaurateur. But Mr. Goyette said that his drive refuses to allow him to give up.
“It’s in my blood I guess. I’m going to do what I need to do,” he said. “I’m just so happy to be able to open again. I’m looking forward to welcoming our customers, friends and returning staff back to Trafford.”