Out of Politics but In to Pasta

How have you seen Hartford change since you’ve been in the restaurant industry?

The 80’s were such a different time from where we are now. People would get out of work and stay downtown for the rest of the day. A lot of stock brokers and lawyers. Weekends were a lot busier. Saturdays and Sundays were booming - there were a lot of stores there. The biggest thing was when people got out of work, they stayed downtown. When the Whalers left town in the late 90s….it actually helped our business. Opened up parking so people would come in on Wednesday night.

In time, you grew to miss the Whalers because it was a guaranteed two nights a week of a full house. From 2000s, business went up and down.

James Howard Cosgrove, Co-Owner of Salute

James Howard Cosgrove, Co-Owner of Salute

Any good stories?

A couple weeks ago we had Kobe Bryant in who was visiting Hartford with his daughter. As far as politicians go, we have a lot of fundraisers. We’ve had US Senators, the Governor….they are all nice guys. I don’t know their politics but they are nice guys. But one thing we’ve always tried to do here is never get involved in politics.

How did you end up owning Salute restaurant?

I’ve been working downtown since 1981. My first job was as a bartender at a Japanese restaurant in the Civic Center. I stayed in the Civic Center until 1995 at which point I went to work for a restaurant called Hot Tomatoes. Hot Tomatoes in the early 90s was the spot. The owner got in a lot of trouble and went to jail. Another guy came in and bought him out and that is who I went to work for as a bartender. Within a couple months I was running the restaurant. We went from being bankrupt in 1996 and by 2000 we had quadrupled our sales. I stayed working there until 2009. The owner committed suicide in 2005 and his wife took over the business and gradually ran it into the ground, which is sad but I thank God everyday she did because I never would have come down here.

The story is, the restaurant at 100 Trumbull Street, was built for Geno Auriemma- supposedly at the last minute he backed out. The next guy they brought in didn’t have a lot of experience. He lasted about a year. Once he left, we came in.

What has made this restaurant successful?

We try to treat everyone who walks in the door the same way. The biggest thing we try to do is try to treat them like we’ve known them for a long time. We learn their  names, we know what they want to eat. My biggest thing is that I like to try to treat people how I want my wife treated, my daughter treated...my mom treated. That, to me, is more important than anything else.

What do you see for the future of Hartford?

Hartford has enormous potential….I think Luke is phenomenal. He’s the smartest guy in the room, let him do his job. The city has enormous potential. Where does it start? I don’t know. Look at the Yard Goats! The last two years have been a dream come true. They have brought good business but also good will to the city. People walking around in downtown in the middle of August. The NCAA tournament was great...better than anyone thought it was going to be.

What are some words you live by?

Treat everybody like family. Treat people how you want to be treated.  We aren’t the smartest people in the business but we are the hardest working.

Some of the staff that are here have worked here for over 30 years. A few of the waiters and waitresses have been here 30 years.

Favorite menu item?

The chicken gnocci.

Where are you from?

I’ve from a mile down the street. Originally I grew up on Marshall Street then we moved to Oxford Street when I was a little kid. My dad worked for the City of Hartford - he was the Corporation Counsel for over 30 years. He retired as the City Manager.

What is nice here...I’ve been downtown for over 40 years and in the last 10 years, I have reconnected with more people that I knew when I was a little kid than you can imagine. People I played little league with or went to kindergarten with. People treat us really well in the City of Hartford. What’s nice, you can walk in on a Friday night and half the people we know their names. That’s a unique experience.

My partners are Andy Rizzo - he does all the business and catering; Dave Caudill, he is a chef. Both worked for me at Hot Tomatoes. When I was walking out the door the day they let me go - Andy literally called me up and said “Let’s do a restaurant.”

It took a little while to find a location.

A bunch of guys I knew from visiting Hot Tomatoes every Tuesday made a couple calls on my behalf and got me a location.