Ask any chef, baker, or foodie entrepreneur – it’s notoriously tough to make it in the restaurant business. Thrifty customers who will gladly pay $24.99 for steak frites when times are good, will just as well buy a T-bone at the local grocery and cook it themselves when money is tight. And while food is certainly a necessity of life, paying $4 for a gourmet cookie is not.
The same month Jersey City welcomed famed New York pizzeria Two Boots to Restaurant Row, another popular spot just two blocks away, Porto, closed its doors.
Each year, in an effort to raise the visibility of Restaurant Row, Jersey City holds the Made in Jersey City fete in City Hall. Made in Jersey City allows members of the public to sample items from local restaurants and bakeries in the hopes that the free advertising will spur business for the eateries featured at the event.
‘I have some really great loyal customers who have been with me since I opened.’ – Celeste Governanti
“Business has been pretty good,” said Tom Parisi, owner of Tommy 2 Scoops, a homemade gelato shop near Exchange, and the Brightside Tavern on Bright Street. After opening the ice cream parlor three years ago, Parisi last year added the Brightside to his roster of Jersey City businesses. “We’ve been lucky. We have a lot of good loyal customers who come out and consistently support us. And his helps that we’re close to the hospital.”
The Brightside is around the corner from Jersey City Medical Center.
A large part of his business comes from catering service and large parties that book the upstairs space at the Brightside, he said. Parisi said he has also tried to attract – and keep – customers by having regular events tied to holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day and sports events like the recent NBA playoffs.
“I’ve tried to keep the prices reasonable, especially compared to what other restaurants offer,” said Parisi. “But we try to offer a fun atmosphere, and I think that keeps people coming back.”
One fun feature Parisi offers at the Brightside is what he calls “pass the Jukebox,” a program installed on the tavern’s iPad that allows customers to call up any song, by any artist. The songs are then piped through the tavern’s stereo system. Collectively, random customers get to select the music for the evening. While the music plays, Yankees and Mets games play on big screen TVs posted in the Brightside’s bar area.
Beginning in July, Parisi plans to host regular, live entertainment.
“I want to have the first real piano bar in Jersey City,” he stated. “I already have the guy I want lined up. He’s a singer/piano player. He spent five years performing on a cruise ship. So I think he’ll know how to get the crowd going.”
But building a loyal clientele is tough and Jersey City’s smallest restaurant owners typically work around the clock, served says a week to make ends meet. Parisi and bakery maven Celeste Governanti, owner of Made with Love, were interviewed by the Reporter as they made deliveries to customers.
“I have some really great loyal customers who have been with me since I opened in 2008,” Governanti said. “But it’s really difficult to be successful here. I don’t know how much of it has to do with the economy as much as the people of Jersey City have to support their local businesses much, much more.”
Governanti keeps her profile up by participating in community and craft events, such as the recent No Yo Mama’s Craft Fair. Word of mouth referrals from her loyal customers has helped Governanti attract some new business, she said, but making ends meet remains a constant struggle.
“There’s a small part of the community that really embraces ‘buy local. Buy fresh. Buy organic.’ But I wish it was a bigger part of the commerce here,” Governanti said.
Like Parisi, Governanti said that catering and filling special orders has bolstered her café business, which can sometimes be lean.
Noting that she has “invested my entire life into Made with Love,” Governanti said that despite the “obstacles” of running her business, “I’m not a quitter. Running a bakery in Jersey City is difficult. It takes hard work – and a lot of luck.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.