Stephanie Civitillo is on a mission to bring Louisiana food, music, and culture to New England. She’s opening Roux Cajun Eatery this spring. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Stephanie to learn more about her startup experience and why she’s so passionate about all things food-related.
NAN: You moved from Louisiana to Connecticut 15 years ago specifically to work in insurance. How and why did you transition to becoming an entrepreneur and opening a restaurant?
STEPHANIE CIVATILLO: It was time to move away from insurance. I had enjoyed that time and it was time to do something new. I have so much personality and passion about food. I decided I really want to do this. Also, I realized there’s very little Cajun in Connecticut and even nearby Massachusetts.
I’ve started a few other businesses while I was still in insurance. So, this is not the first time I’ve jumped into something different.
NAN: How has your experience helped to guide you through this process?
STEPHANIE: I gained a lot of knowledge managing and running huge, multimillion-dollar projects in insurance. I learned how to connect with people, understand their needs, and meet their needs. It also helped that I’d learned with a business mindset to question things like: How do we make profits? What are the actual margins? What do we really want to do?
NAN: What’s it like to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, particularly during COVID?
STEPHANIE: It’s scary. But being able to go out on my own is something I love doing. I don’t mind the risk. You have to be able to take risk if you’re going to open a restaurant, especially during COVID-19.
The cool thing about opening now though is, we can start with takeout and grab-and-go first, where a lot of people who open a brick-and-mortar have a lot of additional overhead. We’re able to think: What do we need to do for where we are today? What do our clients feel comfortable doing? We’re going to see how everything goes with vaccines before we open the rest of the restaurant, hopefully sometime in April or May. At that point, we can re-access.
Nan: Tell us about starting out. Did you write a business plan or meet with any local business advisors?
STEPHANIE: I created a business plan and I did a lot of online research. In July, I reached out to the Connecticut Small Business Development Center (CTSBDC). I got a lot of information about what steps do when, which really helped.
In addition, several people in my family own restaurants in the South. I got some input from them about how to run a restaurant, and recipes I’ll be using, but that’s not going to tell you what people will eat here in Connecticut. So, I’ve talked to a few other local restaurateurs to learn how it works in our area. I’ve used all the connections I have to try and figure out what to do. I’ve definitely networked. You cannot do this by yourself.
NAN: In what ways is your business innovative?
STEPHANIE: Roux Cajun Eatery is more than just a sit-down restaurant. We’ll also have a bar and we’ve been approved to create a large patio area. Our plan is to eventually have Louisiana-style jazz brunches, too.
What’s unique is the modern general store we’re creating, where we’ll offer takeout and grab-and-go meals and sell our own merchandise as well as items from local artisans and local farms, such as cutting boards, leather-bound notebooks, facemasks, maple syrup, ice cream, honey, and jams.
In addition to the brick-and-mortar, we’re also catering and something we’ve coined as “virtual catering.” I started this piece of the business because I can’t stand social distancing! I love cooking with people and I miss that interaction—and I know a lot of other people do, too. So, we created a branch of our Roux Cajun Eatery called Making Dinner. It’s a membership where we cook dinner together once a week. Soon we will have guest chefs helping us make food from different cultures: Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, Haitian, Mexican, French, Italian, and of course, Cajun.
The big thing for me is, my personal brand, who I am, is all about community and bringing people together and having people enjoy and share experiences. So, supporting local vendors and Making Dinner gives both community and a shared experience.
NAN: There’s a little backstory about the restaurant, too. You’re also building a legacy.
STEPHANIE: Yes! One of the big reasons I started this restaurant is because of my kids. I have two sons and two daughters. My daughter, Tara, has wanted to be a chef since she was four years old. When she was six, she created a plan for how she would own her own restaurant, starting with a food truck. So, this restaurant is her legacy. It will be hers when she’s ready.
My oldest son was at Louisiana State University studying computer science. After a year, he realized he wanted to go to culinary school in New Orleans. Getting my family involved with food and cooking is near and dear to my heart. It’s what my grandparents did with me. Actually, this restaurant is named after my grandmother, whose maiden name is Roux.
NAN: What’s the biggest challenge to opening a business during the pandemic? Any advice you’d give others?
STEPHANIE: Restaurants are high-risk—and they’re higher-risk during COVID-19, because so many are closing. I needed to have people around me who had the entrepreneurial mindset and believe you can still create new things, even now. If I didn’t have those people around me, I would’ve stopped, because there’s so much fear right now it can be overwhelming.
So many people have asked: You really want to do this? Have you thought about this? It’s been critical to find and create relationships with people who are encouraging. They may also tell you: That’s a stupid idea, stop going that direction. But they definitely have that think outside the box mentality, which has been very helpful. If I didn’t have that support, I wouldn’t be doing this.