When students arrived on campus this semester, they were welcomed with a shiny new restaurant in the same storefront that Bonchon occupied until the pandemic hit. The Fresh Fork Cafe joins a burgeoning business community that is excited to revitalize its operations with UConn’s return to in-person learning. The restaurant benefits from its owner not only adapting the restaurant’s operations to the demands of the pandemic, but also from his connections to the school.
“I graduated in 2008, born and raised in Connecticut, met my wife at UConn, who graduated from the business school here,” Matt Tetrault, class of 2008, said. He graduated with a degree in economics from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. During our interview at the cafe, he rattled off UConn landmarks that students are still familiar with and frequent today. He lived in Carriage House, hung out with friends in Celeron and cooked at Ted’s, signaling a connection to food since his college days. “I cooked in West Hartford at The Elbow Room as I finished up my degree. I’ve been in insurance for the last 13 years and still am, still doing insurance and finance.”
The cafe is actually Tetrault’s second foray into the food industry, the second being GBury2Go in South Glastonbury, which was created in response to the lack of food options he wanted for his family, which includes a five-year-old and eight-year-old.
“We felt there was a shortage of good takeout food, a lot of vegan things we were looking for, gluten-free options,” Tetrault said. “A lot of restaurants switched to takeout, they had to adapt their menus, and a lot of restaurant’s food is not meant to sit for more than two to three minutes, which made me think of fast casual.”
Tetrault’s takes the same dining experience approach to Fresh Fork Cafe.
“I think fast casual is the way to go,” he said. “Most of our dishes take five to ten minutes…Everything is a quick turnaround time, and I think that this works for everybody’s lifestyles these days. You know, being on the go.”
Although GBury2Go is a takeout place, the cafe is more of a sit-down, casual environment, and seeks to fit into the UConn community.
“So the idea with the place in Glastonbury and here is, there’s something for everyone,” Tetrault said. “Up here, there’s a big shortage of places like this. You know, there’s really just a lot of chain restaurants and pizza places.”
The menu selection was based on what Tetrault saw as a lack of variation and healthy options in general.
“I think a lot of the students that go here, when they go home, they have access to all of this type of food, and then when they come back up to UConn, they don’t. You have your typical college fare. Not to pick on it, but I think after a while, you get a little sick of, you know, just getting pizza. So we figured, why not bring fast casual here, which is upscale with very fresh ingredients. I mean, our vegetables really don’t last longer than 24 hours. They’re coming in daily and we cut them up and make everything to order. We do our own house-pulled pork and the fried chicken and chicken sandwich are freshly fried. Everything can be de-veganized, for lack of a better term. You can add chicken into something, you can make it not plant-based anymore.”
Tetrault acknowledges that such is the staple of college campuses, and there is a time and place for what is currently offered at UConn, but that he’s hoping Fresh Fork Cafe diversifies the food ecosystem in Storrs.
“It feels much needed,” he said. “I feel like Storrs has always been its own little bubble, its own little city, but all the people here come from all over the country. And there’s this demand for high-end fast food, yet there is no offering for it.”
Compared to Tetrault’s other operation, they were able to expand the menu beyond what works best for take-out.
“There are a few more mainstream items up here, a lot more breakfast because breakfast all-day seems perfect for the college campus,” he said, commenting on how he now wakes up at the time he used to go to bed. “With the sit-down operation, we were able to do a bit more with stuff that might not travel as far.”
The interior of the restaurant is what Bonchon had, but more conducive for a quick lunch or staying longer to study.
“I want to create a very welcoming, warm environment where friends and really anybody can come in and get something they’re excited to get, it’s an inclusive environment you are supposed to have in college,” Tetrault said. “We also wanted to create a cafe atmosphere, if you wanted to hang out and do some work, feel free.”
Instead of being daunted by the changing face of the food industry last summer during the pandemic – no indoor dining leading to takeout only operations, less customers and employment layoffs – Tetrault saw the unprecedented changes as a chance to start a business that directly adapted to these concerns.
“I mean, we’ve done it twice now,” Tetrault said about opening a restaurant during COVID-19. “Every day is a good day for us. We’ve only known it to be hard. I believe that if you start a business in a very tough climate, the chances for it to survive when times are good is therefore that much better. It really forces you to pay attention to the stuff I learned in economics, you know, supply and demand. Is there a demand for it? I believe there is.”
And to the other side of the “fresh” in its name, the Fresh Fork Cafe keeps environmental responsibility in mind with its sourcing.
“I think just being an agricultural college, and then also a liberal arts college, that’s how having this kind of food and we serve everything with sustainability in mind,” Tetrault said. “None of our forks or spoons are plastic. Everything plant, fiber, compostable, etc. if you’re eating in, your food is served on a mini sheet pan. It’s less paper, so it’s easy for us to clean up. And then also the bowls that we serve stuff in for takeout is made out of plant fiber and is microwaveable. Everything we give is microwave safe, which is good for kids in the dorms and apartments to have. Even our smoothie cups are not actually plastic, they’re made from plant fiber in the USA. You know, we’re just doing our best to have really high quality stuff while also trying to stay away from as much plastic as possible.”
In its second month of operation, Tetrault continues to improve how the cafe can serve its customers.
“My favorite part is really just refining the process every day, you know, what can we do a little bit better,” he said. “I’m a big believer in a whole bunch of little things done well is what makes something great. So I mean, I’m changing little things constantly that people might not notice, but whether it’s the way we cook something or how we serve, I want to improve.”
Check out my review of some of Fresh Fork Cafe’s food tomorrow in Hollieats!