On March 24 I started working on a project called Take Out Only in response to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on restaurants in my area. In my work as a food photographer, I work with a lot of restaurants, both established and new. This is a huge hit for them. When most restaurants fail in the first year, something like this can put even a restaurant that has been in business for years out of business...fast. The impact of this virus has touched so many industries, my own included.
I wanted to bring attention to the places that I've worked with, and the ones that I have never even been to. To let people know what they're dealing with, how they're still
operating, what they're doing to stay safe, both for themselves and their customers. Using what I can out of my talent set, this is my way of saying thank you, we know you're struggling, how can I help.
My friend Ruvin tagged me in a post on Facebook for a restaurant seeking a photographer willing to help them create some images of some new stuff they were doing. I reached out and quickly connected with Dustin John of Conspiracy in MIddletown.
I lived in Middletown from age 12 until I went to college in Maine, so I knew the location. They are located where the old Capitol Theater once was, then a liquor store. It's right in the middle of Main Street. A sweet location.
Dustin met me outside as I parked and I was struck right away by his big smile and kind energy. He had a light aqua-blue shirt on that had a tropical fish pattern and a baseball hat. He greeted me warmly and I followed him in the door and up the stairs to the second floor.
It was like walking back in time, entering the space that is Conspiracy. Tall ceilings cover the large center bar that has an island in the middle. Piled high with bottles that reach into a pyramid, a large metallic owl keeps watch from the bottom most row. The bar is surrounded by curvaceous bar stools that are light blue with studded tacks. An open kitchen is located in the back, placed behind a half-wall that has an art deco pressed tin front. It's funky and cool all in one.
Dustin introduces me to the others that are busily moving about the space. First I meet Suzie. She so fits in this place with her glory-rolled red hair and 50's style dress. Bright red lipstick perfectly matches the red scarf wrapped around her head. She greets me brightly and then immediately has to run to the curb outside to deliver an order to a waiting car. I bet that was never something she expected to do as a bartender. I follow and get some shots of her moving down Main Street.
Back in the bar, I meet Mark Sabo, one of the owners. He's at a small stove in the kitchen, stirring a pot that contains the staff dinner for the night. He has a black knit cap and a black shirt on and looks up to greet me quickly before turning his attention back to the chicken chili. I stay way back from everyone. Social distancing, always.
Also in the kitchen is Chef Chris Sassi. He's at the prep table and looks a little uncomfortable, and actually states as much, when he sees my camera. The other staff say he doesn't like having his picture taken. I tell him not to worry, I'll be gentle.
He goes back to his work, he and Mark open the fridge and seem to confer over it's contents, seeing what it may offer to the night's menu. Dustin invites me to join them for staff dinner and I gladly accept. I'm given a plate of steaming hot chili that is hearty and flavorful. I take spoonfuls as I work. I feel very welcomed.
Dustin invited me to come to shoot a new thing they're trying out. Now that customers can't gather in numbers greater than, what is it now...two?, they've had to be creative. So they've created cocktail kits. Customers can purchase kits that contain all the ingredients needed to make 4 drinks at home. Very reasonably priced, and with a wide amount of cocktails to choose from. It's a great idea. Along with the kit, you can tune in on Facebook and attend a virtual cocktail class to learn how to make your drink. Follow along with Dustin as he explains the nuances of the ingredients and techniques to create your drink at home. Viewers ask questions and comment, it's very interactive. It was impressive to hear Dustin talk. For such a young guy, he knows his stuff.
Suzie makes a drink for me to photograph. A creamy and smooth soft-yellow drink called a Wild Style. I wander towards the front of the building, towards the windows that face the old marquee. There's tall windows in a whitewashed brick room. Large brightly colored paintings hang on opposite walls. A large 50's-style buffet covers the wall opposite the windows. A variety of glasses sit in close arrangement on one side, with a brandy snifter full of gold and red orbs. Empty black upholstered benches and wing chairs are arranged around small round tables. I can imagine this place filled with music and people. Sitting in groups with drinks and good food, close to one another, glasses clinking. So different than it is now. It's quiet and muted, filled with only the sounds of my camera shutter and the jovial voices of the staff working in back.
The cocktail class was scheduled to start at 7PM. Dustin was set up with his iPhone on a newly purchased tripod.. He was stationed behind the bar, ready to go, ingredients at the ready. When the 25 purchasers of the kits had all given a shout-out on the stream, class was in session. Dustin poured and mixed, stirred and shook, while answering questions from the class. He offered a comparison of the ingredients of the drink to other possible choices, touting the virtues of the liquors for this kit. I loved seeing the hearts bubbling up to give love to the bar. It felt like a party, the only kind of party that we can have right now.
Conspiracy found a way to offer something original and bring people together at the same time...all while being at least over 6-feet apart.
From their website:
"At its heart, Conspiracy is a craft cocktail bar focusing on and inspired by Pre-Prohibition classics. With an aesthetic nod to turn of the century secret societies, Conspiracy has the feel of an exclusive club, just one where everyone happens to be invited! We at Conspiracy believe that food and drink are an expression of art, culture and history - worthy of the time and attention paid to other crafts and as such require utmost respect and attention to detail. That is what you will get from us each and every day - our most earnest attempt to provide an experience designed for maximal enjoyment, comfort and conviviality.
Find our entrance underneath the marquee, take the stairs to the second floor.
Please note: I practice social distancing guidelines, shoot with long lenses to look like I'm closer than I am, get in and get out to stay out of the way and do not go in to kitchen's unless invited, stay far back from food and I check my temperature before going out