Richmond restaurateur determined to stay open despite soaring food prices

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For 15 years, Richmond resident Jim Burns dreamed of opening his own restaurant. As a longtime delivery driver for a local food distributor, Jim spent many days on the road, researching possible locations and considering what he put on his menu. Then one day in March 2021, Jim noticed a small building was available on Route 138 in Voluntown, Connecticut, at the Exeter/Hopkinton border. He called the landlord, signed a three-year lease, and started buying kitchen equipment and other supplies with a few credit cards and $30,000 in savings.

“I thought it was my chance,” Jim said. “I’m going to be 57 this year. This, for me, was my shot. So I said, ‘I’m just going to do it and let the cards fall where they go.’

Jim hoped to open in the summer, but was unable to due to major structural issues with the building. It also took a few months for its owner to install a new hood and a fire extinguishing system. Finally, last September, Jim opened its doors to the public. J&J’s Pizza Shack is a diner-style restaurant that serves comfort food like burgers, chicken tenders, and pizza. The walls are filled with vinyl records and old movie posters. It was difficult at first; Jim struggled to keep up with customer orders, and he often had to give up his own paycheck to compensate his servers. Then, last February, the furnace broke down, forcing it to shut down temporarily.

“People were having breakfast in their winter coats,” Jim said. “It was 50 (degrees) here. That’s when I said I need to shut down a bit and figure this out. So now September isn’t that far away. You know those crisp mornings are coming I’m not going to ask people to eat breakfast in their coats again. We have to fix it.

Jim says he is confident the owner will replace the furnace by the end of August. But even if that happens, the rising cost of food becomes a more pressing concern. Jim says the price of a case of bacon has gone up 20% in recent months; he goes through two cases a week at $95 each. Cooking oil is up 30%; it costs him $110 a week. As a result, Jim raised the price of his dishes by a dollar. For the most part, he says his customers have been understanding, at least so far.

“They’re good people,” Jim said. “These are hard working people. They know I’ll never raise (the prices) because I drive a Lexus, you know? I drive a van, like them.

As a small-town restaurant owner, Jim gets to know his customers on a personal level, which has helped him retain a significant number of regulars. It also receives out-of-town clients who stay at local campgrounds. But although he had some success at first, he fears he may have to raise dish prices again if the cost of food continues to rise.

“My biggest fear is that I have to raise prices beyond what this city will pay,” Jim said. “Because when you do these raises, sometimes people are just going to accept it, but other times they’re going to be like ‘Hey, we’re hurting ourselves too. We can’t afford it. “One more raise across the board will do it for me. I’ll be in big trouble. That’s when I know it might not work out.”

Jim says he’s not afraid of what the future holds. He had a serious heart attack in 2014 and underwent open-heart surgery. The father of two adult children says the experience reminded him of how tenuous life is and made him even more determined to open his own restaurant. Now that he’s in business, Jim says the next step is to make a profit. He thinks he needs to bring in about $1,000 a day in income to be in the black; right now he’s pulling around $700. And while escalating food prices are a considerable obstacle, Jim is fearless.

“I love a challenge,” Jim said. “It’s kind of like sports. It kinda reminds me of that, you know? There’s a goal. To win, to win that client. I’m one of those guys where, I’m like at 8:30 am I’m not taking another order, but if someone calls at 8:55, if I haven’t turned off that pizza oven, I will. That’s what it’s all about. Making people happy.

Jim says no matter what, he doesn’t regret opening his restaurant. If he is forced to close, he does not know what work he would do; maybe he would go back to driving a delivery truck. Despite the uncertainty, Jim says he loves living his dream, no matter how long it lasts.

Joe Tasca can be contacted at jtasca@ripr.org

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