Milford saw record-setting business openings during pandemic year

Owner Sandra DeRosa Briggs stands with members of her staff in front of Hair of the Dog, in Milford on Friday.

Owner Sandra DeRosa Briggs stands with members of her staff in front of Hair of the Dog, in Milford on Friday.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

MILFORD — Residents looking for a drink, a haircut, a used car, legal representation or dozens of other products and services have more choices than ever, following a 2020 which saw a record 473 new businesses open in the city, according to data from the Secretary of the State’s office.

“It was a tough year for everybody, and overall, many people were on the brink of ruin, but there were many new businesses that were very successful,” said Mayor Ben Blake. “I think overall Milford has done very well.”

The trend of business openings remained steady for the first half of the year, before accelerating in the summer. In January, the state recorded 33 new business openings. That number grew to 53 by December.

Tracy Bonosconi, president of the Downtown Milford Business association, called the news exciting, but not surprising.

"Those of us in the DMBA have long known that the Milford community and the downtown landscape, in particular, has many amenities that attract both residents and visitors,” she said. “The success of our current established businesses only attracts more businesses to the area.”

Bonosconi credited the city’s proximity to Interstate 95, beaches, schools and “New England charm” for drawing businesses.

“Our small organization has seen eight new businesses join over the year, which is noteworthy during the pandemic,”

Over at the Milford Regional Chamber of Commerce, Director of Membership and Marketing Simon McDonald said his organization had seen more than 50 businesses join in the past year.

McDonald said Milford is probably in the top five business-friendly cities in Connecticut, and it has been for a long time.

“That reputation has grown for a long time, and because of the growth that we were able to have last year. It proves the reputation is real,” he said. “Milford doesn't put up a ton of unnecessary barriers for business to open, and that’s a problem that other small cities will have across Connecticut. I think Ben has done an amazing job in creating a better business environment here in Milford, and I’d like to think the chamber has something to do with that as well.”

Blake said the 473 new businesses in 2020 was the most in any year in Milford history. He credited tax stability, with the city projecting a sixth straight year of lower mill rate.

“Business can expect that conservative budget in practice,” he said.

The new businesses range across every field, including residential property management, law offices, computer services, graphic designers, florists, breweries, fitness centers, beauty salons, used car dealers and more.

Blake added that the pandemic had also forced local businesses and business owners to reinvent themselves.

The Corner Brunch was one of those businesses. The company is currently testing its biodegradable, ecologically friendly takeout box. Owner Amer Lebel said when the pandemic started, he couldn’t find carryout boxes, so he decided the Milford coffee shop would start making its own.

Lebel said he tested the market by ordering carryout boxes from overseas and selling them. Now, he is nearly ready to start production.

“Right now, we only have one machine, and we are testing it,” Lebel said. “We want to make sure that we do it the right way because we don’t want to have any problems down the road.”

The waterproof and grease-proof boxes will be ready in about a month, he said.

“We don’t want to put out a product that is not satisfactory,” he said.

Another business, Hair of the Dog in Devon, is heading into 2021 with a new first-time business owner who reinvented herself in 2020.

Sandra DeRosa Briggs said she had lived nearby since for her whole life, and had worked at the place under different owners and different names. When the opportunity came to buy the bar and grill, which she describes as the neighborhood bar you wish was in your neighborhood, she took it. The only problem is she had no means to do it.

“I talked to my mom, and she told me I can help you now or I can help you when I’m gone. So the time was right, and the price was right,” said Briggs.

Before Briggs bought the location, she worked at a different bar during the pandemic, so she would have some experience running a business during a pandemic. She said the pandemic, with its limits on customer capacity, helped her ease into her new responsibility.

“Being at 50 percent (capacity) made it like a long soft opening where we had more time and opportunity where my kitchen was able to keep up, and my staff was able to learn as we went, and it’s been amazing ever since,” she said.

Because of the pandemic, many of her connections in the food industry were able to help her because they had the time. Many of her friends, who work in other sectors, were also able to help her read over contracts, go over legal documents, and set up a website.

“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I don’t know if I could’ve done what I did,” she said. “It actually was beneficial to me in quite a few ways.”