In Greenwich, recovery from the pandemic recession came quickly

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Many communities have struggled to stay afloat following the pandemic recession, but Greenwich was buoyant.

Last spring, the pandemic abruptly shuttered dining, personal services and retail shops everywhere, putting millions of people out of work and forcing small businesses to pivot. Pastry chef Raphaël Dequeker — a fixture at high-end Italian eatery Valbella in Old Greenwich — quickly converted the restaurant’s kitchen into a pop-up bakery, offering two simple-but-perfected confections: fresh croissant and pain au chocolat.

What happened next might not have happened at all if the business were anywhere else in Connecticut.

Almost immediately, Dequeker’s devoted Valbella customers, many of whom work in the financial services sector, were strongly encouraging him to open his own shop. Investors stepped up, including health care venture capitalist and hedge fund manager David Eigen. At the time, Raphaël’s wife Charlotte worked for Eigen, and Eigen’s son Jack was apprenticing with Raphaël at Valbella. Eigen and a few other business-savvy locals and investors sat down with the Dequekers. Within a week, the startup bakery had a business plan with financial projections and marketing objectives.

Across the country and around the state of Connecticut, small businesses turned to their communities for support during the pandemic. Patrons raised emergency funds, nonprofit groups offered technical assistance, and federal and state governments disbursed loans and grants to keep the doors open. Still, roughly 200,000 more businesses closed permanently in 2020 than in an average year, according to the Federal Reserve, and it remains unclear whether 2021 will show any improvement. A recent survey of small businesses by Goldman Sachs found that 44 percent of proprietors have less than three months’ worth of cash on hand, and 31 percent aren’t confident they’d be able to access capital if there’s another emergency lockdown.

Raphaël’s Bakery, which opened its doors for the first time in late December of 2020, has been an exception. “The ball started rolling,” said Charlotte, who now runs the operation while Raphaël bakes. “When the investors started getting really excited and lined up, and the place started coming together, we were like, ‘OK, if we don’t do it now, we’re never going to do it.’”

Eigen said he thought the business plan was aggressive, but he was confident. “I invest in great people,” he said. “Raph is a master pastry chef. They told me their plan was to import all the flour and do it right. Seemed like a no-brainer.” The investors structured a deal, and Eigen went out and raised money from friends in Westport, where he lives.

By the end of this summer, Charlotte said they were already looking for a second location. “We had such tremendous reception from people — and help,” she said. “We had that business plan, and we are blowing everything out of the park.”

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