For New London’s Rod Cornish, the path to success with his popular Bank Street restaurant Hot Rod Cafe was shrouded in darkness. Literally.
“About 18 years ago, I was sitting at work at Merrill Lynch in New York City and kind of realized I was wasting my life in an office. I’d wake up to go to work, and it was dark; I’d leave to go home from work, and it was dark.” Cornish, sitting on the enclosed upstairs deck at Hot Rod on a recent and humid weekday morning, smiles and looks out across the train tracks to the Thames River. Just inside, in the restaurant’s main bar area, preparation is underway for a taping of “Winging It! with Carlos and Rod,” a new YouTube cooking show hosted by Cornish and his close friend and longtime Hot Rod chef Carlos Pauear.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Cornish continues. “I was making good money, and bonuses were really good. I had a group of friends, and we’d go out and, whatever we made, we’d spend. It was a lot of fun, and there were no complaints.
“But I’d been doing it a while, and it occurred to me that, for what I’d spent on a tiny condominium or on having fun, I could come home (to New London) and have a nice beach house and maybe a local business. I was ready for some time off to relax and think about how to do all this.”
Conveniently, about that time, Merrill Lynch offered downsizing packages to employees based on months accrued, and Cornish took the package. He spent some time in Europe pondering his future and decided that, having always loved the bar and restaurant scene and the social possibilities therein, he wanted to go in that direction.
Returning home to spend time with his family, he also wanted to talk to his father, local businessman Bill Cornish, about the restaurant plans.
“I was nervous to tell my father because education and a career are real big in my family,” Rod Cornish says. “But I’d gone to college and grad school and worked in corporate and done all the things I was supposed to do. And spent a year doing what I’d wanted to do — traveling and dreaming — and it was time to move forward. And my father and family were happy for me and happy to have me home.”
In preparation, Rod Cornish attended the Grasso Tech culinary program for nine months. He worked with chef Mario Longer and at several local bars and restaurants, including New London’s Recovery Room and Outback Steakhouse and Groton’s 99.
“I learned a lot, and I enjoyed each experience,” Rod Cornish says, “and most importantly, I learned that this is what I love.”
Giving himself every option, Cornish says he considered opening a McDonald’s or a similar franchise outfit.
“Nothing wrong with those places, and you can make money with a national chain,” he says, “but I wanted to be one of those restaurants that are a presence in the community. I wanted a bar where you go to celebrate someone’s retirement or a birthday or someone getting engaged. Last week, we had a wedding reception upstairs.”
Cornish pauses and says, “You saw those pictures, right?”
He’s referring to dozens of framed photographs that line the walls inside the restaurant — frozen moments capturing folks enjoying themselves on site. And if they’re similar to photos one might find in taverns and family restaurants in any community, it’s also true such things exist in time-honored testimony to a joint’s personality and popularity — and in this case the magic of Hot Rod Cafe.
“That’s what this is about,” he says. “Our staff? We’re all friends. We socialize together. We go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans together. And our customers are family.”
Look no further
Cornish knew the sort of relaxed ambience and broad appeal he was after, but he wasn’t quite sure how to get there. For inspiration, he looked to local legend Steve “Stash” Schiavone, who for years ran Stash’s — a quasi-biker bar on Pequot Avenue that nonetheless appealed to octogenarian book clubs, professionals and rockers, students and townsfolk, across demographics — and over the last decade, the more upscale and equally popular On the Waterfront.
Once Cornish had started gaining experience in the business and was aiming at opening his own place, he’d pick Schiavone’s brain.
“Whenever I went to see him, he was always very cordial and friendly and happy to talk the business. He never actually hired me, so I went on and did my own thing. Maybe that’s what he was trying to tell me. And now he’s always very cool about (coming to Hot Rod) and spending money here and talking about the businesses we built up.”
“I remember talking to Rod back at the original Stash’s over a few beers, and he told me what he was planning on doing,” Schiavone says. “I told him, ‘Run your restaurant as you run your life. If something’s wrong, it’s wrong. Don’t put up with nonsense, and don’t chase the dollar. If you do this right, you’ll never work another day because you’ll love what you’re doing.’
“And look where Rod is now. He runs a good shop. He’s a really good guy, and people love going to his restaurant.”
Cornish also speaks fondly and admiringly of Carol Kanabis (Bravo Bravo, Red 36), Jack Chaplin (Daddy Jack’s), and the late Huey Devlin (Huey’s) as restauranteurs and businesspeople he looks up to and considers inspirations.
“Wow. Huey. He was so supportive when we opened,” Cornish says. “He would come in — he was probably in his 70s then — and would buy everybody drinks and tell stories and jokes. And we all loved it. Huey was THAT beloved a character in town. I wish he was still here, but in one way it doesn’t matter how long he’s been gone because people STILL talk about what a wonderful person he was and how much garlic was in his salad. So you have his personality and his food imprinted in your mind. I’m sure it will be that way when Stash and Carol and Jack are gone. People will speak fondly because they and their restaurants are part of the fabric of the community.”
On the wings of wings
One of the main sources in the alchemical success formula for Hot Rod is the restaurant’s signature wings. Yes, Hot Rod has 24 beers on tap, a friendly and diverse staff, and a menu that features all the burgers, salads, sandwiches and creative spins from the tavern food template. The star of the Hot Rod show, though, is their chicken wings.
The idea of wings as bar food is hardly new, but the wings at Hot Rod are extremely popular throughout the region and beyond. Indeed, in 2016, Cornish and chef Pauear took their recipes to the national wings championship in Buffalo and finished in second place.
As in: Second in the whole U.S.
They’ve since won several Day readers polls and, at this point, the restaurant features about 30 flavors, with concepts changing frequently based on ideas from staff and customers and Pauear. And last week, in their annual Best of Connecticut edition, Connecticut Magazine named Hot Rod Cafe as a finalist in their Best Wings category.
“I wish I could say I knew wings were going to be the trend, but I didn’t,” Cornish says. “Maybe the best I can say is that we do them right; we don’t short cut. I think the whole idea started because wings were the part of the chicken that you threw away, and someone figured out a way to make them usable.
“Well, we have big, fresh wings. We’ve had people try to sell us pre-cut or frozen or smaller wings, and we won’t go that way. Suppliers say, ‘Well, if you sell smaller wings, you’ll make more money.’ That’s not how we do it. We sell by the piece, not the pound. This is the food we’ve become known for, and we won’t let the quality or service slide. Not going to happen.”
Pauear emerges from the bar area to tell Cornish they’re about ready to tape. Today’s recipe is Sicilian Barber’s Tomato Sauce as instructed by another friend, attorney Scott Sawyer. That’s one of the hooks of “Winging It!” — each episode features a different guest who orchestrates Pauear and Cornish through the process.
Pauear apologizes for interrupting, and he’s told the timing is perfect to ask a question: What brought him to Hot Rod, and what does he enjoy about the place?
“Rod is like a big brother to me,” Pauear says. “It’s a blessing to have him in my life, and I think we see things the same way. We want this to be a place where not just customers enjoy coming here but so do the employees. I love coming to work; this is a FUN place to work.”
Later, Pauear adds, “I’ve worked in a lot of places, and you learn pretty quickly that there are a lot of personalities and different people in the restaurant business. It’s a matter of chemistry. And Rod has that touch; he attracts people who get along and work hard. You’d never know he’s the boss. Never. This is what we all do, and it really is like a family that wants to learn something every day to get better. And customers sense and enjoy that because they know we’re doing it for them.”
Part of the community
As the year of plague turns the corner to fall, Cornish hopes things slowly get back to normal. With relaxed virus restrictions, the restaurant is open 4-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, and the renovated deck is proving quite popular. Too, there are a few more painted figures on the iconic side-wall outside the restaurant — a mural featuring likenesses of Prince, Jimi Hendrix, angels and other sources of inspiration.
“I love art, and I thought the mural would help make the alley more attractive,” Cornish says. “There’s a lot of great mural art in New London, and we add to it in real time to commemorate different things that happen and should be memorialized. Jamie Pearson and Jonas Sanchez have worked on our wall, and people from all over the world have taken pictures of it.”
Hot Rod stayed afloat and relatively busy over the virus months with takeout service and by contributing to and organizing charitable efforts for those in need during these tough times. The beneficence is nothing new; the restaurant and its staff have long been active in community causes as part of their mission.
“It’s absolutely part of what we do,” Cornish says. “This city is so special. New London is a melting pot, and I think we reflect that in everything we do, from our staff to our customers to how we approach our mission in the community. I remember a first-time customer looking around the place and saying, ‘Rod, you’re like the United Nations in here!’ It was the perfect compliment.”