NORTH STONINGTON — When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. a year ago, it brought the restaurant industry to a screeching halt before causing a shift in the food industry from in-person dining to takeout and prepared family meals.

Rather than dwell on the difficulty of new challenges created by the pandemic, North Stonington residents Mariah Pfiffner and Nicole Jenkins and Executive Chef Julian Elfeydani-Connell saw the change as an opportunity to meet a niche local need and go into business for themselves.

The longtime food service professionals recently opened The Tin Peddler, a specialty market and grocery store along Norwich-Westerly Road that is focused on providing locally sourced meats, dry goods and produce while showcasing farmers, fishermen and artisans from eastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island. The business, which opened in mid-February, also offers a hand-crafted menu that changes daily and includes soups, salads, sandwiches and other meal options for takeaway.

“After seeing the shift in the restaurant industry, I think we all knew that moving forward we would need an environment and model that would be more pandemic-proof,” Pfiffner said. “All three of us were fortunate to work through the shutdown and we felt that there was a specific need for this type of business along the Route 2 corridor.”

Tucked in a lot just south of the town’s schools between the Red Onion and Jake’s Restaurant, the store was filled Thursday morning with fresh meats and cheeses from local farms. Those shopping could find products from numerous local organizations, including Beriah Lewis Farm, Firefly Farms, Terra Firma Farms, Sweet Grass Creamery, Hillandale Farms and more.

Patrons were able to enjoy a moment at a couple socially distanced tables in the corner of the market, browse merchandise without fear of backing into another customer or even use the market’s drive-thru service, available by placing an order online at www.thetinpeddler.com. Behind the counter, Elfeydani-Connell worked to fill sandwich orders and meal requests as Pfiffner and Jenkins waited on customers, served soups and gathered the orders together.

The concept for the business came together last summer when Pfiffner and Elfeydani-Connell said all three shared ideas about professional goals and interests, which led them to develop a plan to go into business together. All three were working for the 85th Day Food Community, a Mystic-based restaurant group, and believed they could use their relationships to help get their own business off the ground.

For those seeking specialty markets in the area, Pfiffner and Jenkins said the available choices just didn’t serve those coming from Ledyard, Ashaway and other surrounding communities who use the corridor daily. Area residents would either need to travel to Mystic or head down Route 1 into Westerly to Sandy’s Fine Food Emporium.

There was plenty of experience and expertise among the three partners to draw from. Pfiffner, 40, is a 17-year restaurant professional who started her career on the island of St. John in the Caribbean; Jenkins, 31, is a 12-year food services veteran with vast experience from hostess to restaurant manager; and Elfeydani-Connell, 29, a Gales Ferry resident with his girlfriend Leah and their 15-month daughter Ophelia, is a 15-year professional chef who was raised watching his Moroccan immigrant father, Aziz Elfeydani, cook for numerous high-end corporate hotels in the region.

“For me, going into business was about fulfilling a passion I had to create something for myself, to work for myself and to create my own rules,” Elfeydani-Connell said. “I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t until we all got together and shared our ideas that we realized we had something we could truly build a business around.”

The only question was where the store should be, and Pfiffner said she and her partners found the right place just a mile from her home, at 230 Norwich-Westerly Road. Pffifner lives on a shared property along Main Street with Jenkins, 31, and Pfiffer’s brother Wesley, who are engaged to one another.

“We heard about this location and it was kind of the final piece we needed to move forward,” Pfiffner said. “It was centrally located, and it was an empty storefront that gave us the opportunity to truly build everything from the ground up.”

Building from the ground up is exactly what they did.

The three formally entered their partnership on Oct. 4 when they signed a lease at the Norwich-Westerly Road property. The next step was to turn the space into a usable store, which the partners worked on largely by themselves with the help of family and friends, save for technical issues such as electrical work that was completed by contractors.

The work was completed and inspections were passed earlier this year, making way for The Tin Peddler to formally open its doors in mid-February. The business also celebrated with a grand-opening celebration last weekend.

In the coming year, Jenkins said The Tin Peddler hopes to continue expanding offerings to include products from a wider range of regional farms and a larger variety to allow area residents and visitors to buy anything from all-natural, organic foods to Heinz ketchup. Jenkins, who is a vegetarian, also said the business is committed to only providing the highest-quality products from farms that treat the animals with care and are invested in their communities.

“People have many different lifestyles and diets, so for me it is important to know that the animals were treated properly and that we are doing our part to minimize the environmental impact,” she said. “I would like to see us continue to grow our local partnerships and be an active part of the community.”

Pfiffner said the business is also exploring other opportunities for growth, including acquiring equipment to take part in festivals at Olde Mistick Village or the North Stonington Fairgrounds.

The business is also exploring whether it would be beneficial to obtain a liquor permit, which would allow them to partner with area breweries and vineyards to offer local microbrews and wine selections.

“There’s a lot we feel like we could do, but really our main goal is to be an active partner in this community for years to come,” Pfiffner said.

jvallee@thewesterlysun.com

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