INSIDE DISH: 'Diners' TV spot boon and bane for Jersey's Cafe

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Inside Dish

Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”

Our subject this week is Jersey’s Café, which is both celebrating and suffering from the sudden notoriety that came with being featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” program. In a segment from the episode that aired on March 21, host Guy Fieri shadowed owner and executive chef Blair Laing as he constructed some of the café’s signature cheesesteaks from a menu of more than 160 sandwiches.

The show’s producers warned Laing that business would spike. On the day after the telecast, Laing found 50-some people waiting by the café’s front door before lunch service. A month later, sales are still triple to quadruple those from before the TV appearance, Laing said.

Although the extra revenue is welcome, the restaurant often runs out of food items, is regularly replacing cooks who quit under the stress, and warns customers of wait times for seating and food preparation that can creep past two hours on weekends.

“I just want to get this place back to where everybody is happy again,” said Laing, 45, a veteran restaurateur who most recently operated Chequered Flag Café in Carmel. “I want to get it where some of the older customers can come back, kind of relax and call it home again. Because right now the home has been invaded.”

Laing, a native of Somerville, N.J., intended Jersey’s Café as a home-away-from-home for transplants from the Tri-State area and its environs. The menu leans heavily on mammoth hoagie and cheesesteak sandwiches native to East Coast delicatessens, made with deli meats and other ingredients sourced from providers in the same area (including Italian rolls directly from Astoria Bakery in Queens, N.Y.). The décor relies on resident sports and cultural icons, like the New Jersey Devils and Bruce Springsteen.

“This place is an island for anybody from that area,” Laing said. “You don’t have to sit and look at Colts memorabilia. If you want that, go to the other 30,000 restaurants in this town.”

Laing freely admits he doesn’t need a menu with even a third of the current offerings, “but this is from me trying to honor an entire state, me trying to give the state of New Jersey its due,” he said. Dozens of Jersey cities and towns have eponymous sandwiches, including Parsippany, Teaneck and Sandy Hook. One of the most popular dishes is "The Eli #10," so-named for Peyton Manning's sibling quarterback for the New York Giants.

Laing held himself to a strict budget when creating the café in its strip-mall location near 136th and Meridian streets. He used a combination of personal savings and loans from friends and family to fund startup costs of $80,000;  the café opened in February 2009.

“I didn’t want any bank loans,” he said. “I didn’t want to get into a bank thing where for the next five years of my life I was paying a bank every month.”

The current challenge for Laing is to ride out the increased demand from diners while keeping his weary staff intact. “The restaurant business is stressful, and right now we’re stressed big-time,” he said.

In the video at top, Laing discusses the repercussions of appearing on "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives," including Saturday sales that have jumped from $1,200 to $6,000, and losing eight employees over the course of the last month. He also explains the concept behind the cafe, how he combats the popular belief that sandwiches should be fast food and ready within minutes, and why he won't apologize for making patrons wait for sandwiches made from scratch.

Jersey's Cafe
13710 N. Meridian St., Carmel
(317) 846-7760
Concept: A relaxed cafe designed to appeal to Easterners, decorated with sports and cultural memorabilia celebrating New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, and featuring a menu of more than 160 sandwiches—mostly hoagies and cheesesteaks—reminiscent of those native to East Coast delis.
Founded: February 2009
Owner and executive chef: Blair Laing
Start-up costs: $80,000 ($50,000 in savings and $30,000 in loans from friends and family).
Gross sales: $245,000 in 2010
Employees: 10
Seating: 75-80
Goals: To eventually move to a freestanding location, instead of the strip-mall slot it now occupies.
Good to know: Laing owned and operated former northside eateries Ice Creams and Coffee Beans (aka ICCB) and Chequered Flag Cafe, both near 116th Street and Range Line Road in Carmel.

  • Hell Yeah
    Love a busy place. Owner may want to consider getting a 4 or 5 foot griddle for the meat..Cooking those cheesesteaks off in a pan must be a b@#$% Congratulations on your success my friend
  • its worth the wait
    It does not take 40 minutes to make one menu item. They have a small kitchen, that gets backed up quickly. They will take their time to do everyone's order the right way, but that takes time. Also, most of the "sandwiches" are really cheese steaks. So they have to grill the vegis, grill the steak and then melt the cheese. They don't just toss it in the microwave and slap it on some bread.
  • 40 minutes??
    I admit I didn't watch the video to hear the reasons why it would take 40 minutes to receive one's sandwich order.

    Meat and cheese. On bread. Heated. This takes 40 minutes?! I don't care how great the sandwich allegedly is, that is way too long to wait for any sandwich!
    • Hope I get there
      I live in NJ (have so my whole life) and the two times I was in Indiana, this wasn't there yet. Our food is awesome here and if he's really bringing it in from the NYC area, it's worth the wait. If I'm ever back in IN, I will definitely give him a visit... as for being grumpy, when your staff keeps quitting because of stress from being busy, that can be disheartening. Like he says, he just wants everyone to be happy again.
    • give him a break
      Give the guy a break. One issue is there is no lobby, you wait outside or in a line in the middle where the diners can see you.

      We went and tried after watching the show and did have to wait for 30 - 40 minutes to sit down and 40 minutes for food. It makes it tough on the workers and diners when there are people standing and eyeing you to leave so they can get a table. While we didn't feel rushed, we did feel like we were getting the evil eye from those in line.

      Of course, why would anyone ever want to pattern the diner off of New Jersey? I can get the food, but posters of the New Jersey Devils?
    • Watch what you ask for
      Food looks great but in typical Jersey style the guy is is grumpy. Why did you call the show in the first place? This is one midwesterner that will stay away from Jersey's because of the attitude.
    • Agreed
      I agree. Jeez, there's plenty of businesses that would love to have the extra money coming in. Would love to have tried this place, but now I think I'll wait until they get it together.
    • Really?!?!
      Sounds like he's complaining that his business is doing so well. He should be thankful that it's not going under.

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