'Love from our customers:' Shelton's Caloroso eatery survives a year of upheaval

SHELTON — March 17, 2020, is a date that Mat Calandro will not soon forget.

That was the day he closed his restaurant, Caloroso Bar and Eatery — a Center Street staple since 2012 — as the pandemic took hold of the state. For Calandro and his wife, Kelly, and every other business owner in the city, March 2020 was the start of arguably the most tumultuous year of their financial lives.

Only now, a year later with restrictions to be lifted in only days, Calandro says the business has begun to turn around for the better.

And he credits the changes he has made during the past 12 months.

“We were closed for three weeks,” Calandro recalled. “Then one day, I went to the supermarket shopping. I saw people out and about. I decided that we were going to reopen.

“People really showed their support,” he said about the day he reopened his doors. “That Friday I opened, I must have cut more lettuce in that one night than I do in a normal week. It was really emotional … to feel that love from our customers.”

Months of offering just take out, then indoor dining — on a much smaller scale — forced him to lower his workforce from a high of about 30 in early 2020 to eight at the height of the pandemic.

Calandro admits takeout was never a staple of the restaurant in the past. That changed quickly for business survival.

When customers were allowed back, Calandro said he was lucky to have an outdoor patio area, but he was again forced to improvise. During the summer months, he brought in tents to allow patrons to eat — socially distanced — in the parking lot and along the sidewalks.

“We opened the patio with the roof over it,” Calandro said. “We were serving in the parking lot, on the sidewalk. It was totally bizarre, but we did what we had to do … and the customers came out. July and August were great — but then the cold hit. November, December and January were brutal.”

As spring approaches, Calandro said, so, too, is the completion of the new Sky Terrace, a 1,000-square-foot area with a roof which will be open air.

The hope is that the Sky Terrace, which allows for outdoor dining under cover and an area big enough to house parties of as many as 65 people, will recover the private party business that has been hardest hit. The old party area in the lower level wasn’t suited to pandemic restrictions and patron’s fears about indoor gatherings.

“This was a part of the business that has struggled,” Calandro said.

He said he hopes to have the Sky Terrace completed by April 1.

Calandro said he believes things are looking up, and business at the local eateries will pick up in short order. But the past year has also given him hope in general, despite its hardships.

“I am so impressed with the acts of kindness,” Calandro said about the past year.

He said once during the year, a patron at his restaurant left without paying. Afterward, he said, a chef at a neighboring eatery stopped by and put $100 in the server tip fund.

"These kindnesses are what helped get us all through this difficult time,” Calandro said. “I have a great crew, and it is great to be part of this community. People here really care about each other.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com