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As A Groton Business Changes, A Former Owner Reflects On Economic Hardship

Russell's Ribs closed three months ago after 22 years. A Westerly, R.I. man will reopen it as the Bayou Smokehouse.

Even though John Russell opened Russell’s Ribs in Groton as an investment, he had to fight to keep it going, even rent rooms in his own house and eat every meal at the restaurant to make it.

That was years ago, but the restaurant he built closed three months ago. It won best barbecue in New London County for 18 years and was a family place in Groton for 22 years. And even though Russell sold it, it was his name on the sign.

He said he feels terrible for the family who lost the business.

“I’m sure she feels like her entire life has ended right now,” he said of the one of the owners. She could not be reached for comment.

A Westerly, R.I. man leased the building Aug. 1 and plans to reopen in October as the Bayou Smokehouse.

Pierre Boutros is working seven days a week to fix the building up. He owned the Bayou Smokehouse in Westerly, but was forced to close in March, after his landlord told him leave so the company could renovate the building.

Russell said he's glad someone is taking the place, and he's also glad he's changing the name.

How it Started

Rusell, a former New London City Councilor, opened Russell’s Ribs on Feb. 9, 1990. There was a barbecue place across the street, and when it closed, he spotted an opportunity.

The building that became Russell’s Ribs was an old Pizza Hut with a burned up roof in an overgrown lot. Russell leased it, fixed it up and a brought in a general manager to run it. He never planned to work there himself.

He worked in engineering for General Electric and traveled. For the first few months, he said the place barely made it. Then a food editor gave it a good review, and it took off.

The Casino Factor

When the first casino opened, he said the climate changed.

“I lost 40 percent of my business, I lost most of my best help, everybody went to the casino,” he said. “The whole rest of the time I was there, I never really got back to the numbers I had before.”

Then in 1994, the manager who had been running Russell’s Ribs lost her son and could no longer work. She was devastated by his death.

Russell had been laid off from General Electric, had bought another business in Portland, Maine, and had to learn how to run Russell’s Ribs. He knew little about it.

“I had to take it over because my life savings was in it. I couldn’t sell it,” he said.

Resorting to Extremes

He was upside down on the mortgage on his house, but he had to make it work. He rented the three rooms in his three-bedroom house, ate every meal at the restaurant and worked 90 hours a week plus to rebuild it, he said.

He made it successful, and in 2003, he planned to give it to his son.

It was a family place, a destination for barbecue, he said. But his son did not want it and moved elsewhere.

“I lost heart when my son left. It really depressed me,” Russell said. At about the same time, a couple from Mystic said they wanted to buy the place. He took them up on it.

Declining Economy

Russell said the business was doing well when they bought it, and they had good years there. But the economy took its toll.

“They really, really struggled for the last four or five years. And finally, the economy just got to the point where there was not enough coming in to take care of what was going out,” he said.

He said recently bought a business again in New London, and he lasted about a year. Then he sold it.

Speaking in general, he said running a small business is harder than people know.

“You have no life, you have no friends, everything takes second place to the business, you’re not making any money for the most part and yet you keep going,” he said. “So many people in that position today are going to fail. They just cannot keep up with what’s going on in the economy.”

Hope for the Future

Boutros, who was busy working Wednesday, said he's excited about opening the restaurant in Groton. He looked at many places before he chose the former Russell’s Ribs and he’s glad he found it, he said.

His focus is on homemade food, and he smokes all kinds of beef, pulled pork, and chicken. Pastrami was his biggest seller in Westerly, and he’s excited about getting started again. His old place offered only takeout; the Groton restaurant will have 50 seats. It also comes with a 400-pound smoker. His last place had a 100-pound smoker.

“I think we’re going to do well here, and I’m very excited about it,” he said. “I love to cook. And that’s what it’s all about.”

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