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.