It’s the dream of many to one day open up a restaurant. In fact, it’s one of those dreams that is often held even by folks who have absolutely no experience in the industry. For whatever reason, everybody seems to think that they would be good at it and that their bar or restaurant would be THE place to go in town. Of course that isn’t the case, and we all know that a mismanaged business — no matter what industry it resides in — is destined to fail.
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But for all the sad stories of dreams squashed and life savings being wiped out, there are also those who open up shop and hit the ground running. And in South Jersey there have been a number of new restaurants that have caught on like wildfire over the last few years. Not to say they haven’t run into their share of hurdles along the way, but they have persevered and their popularity only seems to be growing.
This got the wheels in our head spinning. How does a new restaurant fight its way to ultimately achieve such success? We wanted to know the secrets. So we checked out five of the most successful local restaurants that have been open for five years or less and spoke with their owners — the newbies so to speak — to get the inside scoop on how they have managed to carve out a niche for themselves, and what they plan to do to continue their success in the future.
There are about a thousand places in Atlantic County to get a burger, yet somehow Tony Beef — a small, unassuming space within a Galloway Township strip mall has had all the buzz going since opening up in 2018. The shop is owned by Anthony and Nick DellaVecchia, a pair of brothers who — along with help from their sister Lindsey — have developed an insanely loyal following thanks to their commitment to both the family business and to putting out some of the freshest and most consistently delicious burgers around.
“Opening Tony Beef was always a lifelong dream,” Anthony DellaVecchia says. “And working together with my brother has really been the key to our success. We’re six years apart, but we get along perfect.”
Stylistically speaking, Tony Beef’s basic format is that of fast food. They have a counter where you order via touchscreen and wait patiently for your meal to be made. But they clearly think better of themselves, as the signs they proudly hang on their walls openly mock any of the national chains you might think of comparing them to. And they have good reason to do so, as they are not only better than McDonald’s, Wendy’s or even Five Guys, but they even manage to push the envelope of what the definition of a burger really is.
They may be called Tony Beef, but if you think that cattle are the end of the line for their protein options, you’d be wildly off base. Take a quick look at the menu and you’ll find a section called “Beast of the Day” in which a variety of protein choices you likely never dreamed of seeing at your local burger joint are all up for grabs. Wild boar, camel and alligator are all possibilities on any given week.
“It wasn’t planned, that’s for sure,” DellaVecchia says. “We started with bison, and that was a big hit, then I just kept finding weirder and weirder meats to put on the menu. And people started to travel from all over the place just to try them.”
As was the case with most restaurants, things got really tough at Tony Beef when COVID first hit. And while it certainly made for a tricky road to navigate, they managed to find a few silver linings and ultimately came out on top.
“It forced delivery on us, and we’re going to continue with that. And it forced us to implement online ordering, which has been great. And most of all, it’s taught us how to shop around for better pricing, because since COVID began, the cost of beef has quadrupled,” DellaVecchia notes.
And in a move that almost no restaurant could pull off in the middle of a pandemic, Tony Beef will soon be opening a second location in Somers Point.
“It should be opening in about two weeks,” DellaVecchia promises.
Though the thought of taking on a second location might be daunting to most, for the DellaVecchias, it’s just the next link in a chain of success.
“We’ve fine-tuned the business over the last two years and really learned what we need to do to be successful,” he says.
Tony Beef is located at 195 S. New York Road in Galloway. Go to TonyBeef.com.
Water Dog Smoke House
In a city like New York, finding great smoked meats from a Kosher deli is a fairly simple task. But in South Jersey, for many years the pickings were rather slim. That is, of course, until Water Dog Smoke House opened its doors in October 2019 and turned everything on its head.
The brainchild of chiropractor Dan Greenberg and entrepreneur Steve Marchel, the seedling of an idea for Water Dog Smoke House was initially based around a hobby of Greenberg’s. He enjoyed smoking various meats and would gather with Marchel and other friends in the backyard of Marchel’s house, experimenting with various smoking techniques and seasonings. Once he perfected them, he began a small side business, selling items like smoked salmon and pastrami at local farmers markets to rave reviews.
Eventually Marchel, who also owns Chido Burrito in Northfield, approached him and suggested they to turn this side hustle of Greenberg’s into a full-fledged business.
“We thought that nobody was doing smoked salmon as cleanly and as well as we liked it, so the initial plan was for this to be a wholesale business, with further plans to open a restaurant at some point down the line, but the restaurant came quicker than I thought,” Marchel says.
And once it did, things took off immediately as Water Dog earned a reputation as THE place in and around Ventnor to go for smoked meats, spreads and sandwiches. But unlike a traditional Kosher deli, some of their most popular items were also things like poke bowls, monster cheeseburgers and even a lobster roll sandwich known as The Acadia, which features lobster meat topped with clarified butter and served with a side of tarragon aioli on a torpedo brioche roll.
“We use incredibly high level of ingredients relative to the price point that we charge,” Marchel says. “When I made up the menu, it was born out of a bit of frustration at not being able to find a place to get quality foods and proteins that were really cleanly produced. We smoke most of our own proteins and don’t use any preservatives or things like that. So I thought there was a niche in our local market for a lot of the stuff we offer — poke bowls, lobster rolls and of course, all of the stuff that Dan smokes.”
Eventually word of mouth spread all the way to the big players in Atlantic City, and the folks from Bally’s Atlantic City came knocking on the door.
“We have really big plans for the immediate future,” Marchel says with a palpable excitement in his voice. “We just announced a partnership with Bally’s, and we are going to be their main breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant. We’re taking a big bite up there and are really looking forward to being part of the renaissance at Bally’s with their new management. The space will feature 200 to 250 seats with a bar, and it will include all of our staple items, but with a much bigger menu. We also have plans to open other Water Dogs, as well, in towns like Princeton, Haddonfield, and our goal is to have three stores open in the next two years in addition to the Atlantic City project, which will be open by late spring or early summer of 2021.”
Water Dog Smoke House is located at 7319 Ventnor Ave. in Ventnor. Go to WaterDogSmokeHouse.com.
They may serve stellar tacos and insanely craveable “Fat Cat” burritos at TacocaT in Margate, but if it’s traditional Mexican you are looking for, this ain’t the place for it. And that’s just fine with Mike Talley, who owns TacocaT with his wife, Randi. Together they have built a menu that takes some wonderful liberties and creative twists on Mexican flavors while also offering up some notably American items like loaded fries or their uber-popular cheesesteak eggrolls. And fans have been flocking to try their Instagram worthy creations since they opened in 2019.
The original incarnation of TacocaT was located inside The Exchange in Linwood, where they quickly made a name for themselves. Their willingness to think outside the norm for a Mexican restaurant earned them a nice buzz, one which was boosted after wowing the crowds at Atlantic City Weekly’s 2020 Wing Wars event with their signature Rum & Coke Wings.
“Owning a place like this had been a dream of mine for a while, and the opportunity came at The Exchange when a spot opened up,” Mike says. “And from there, we just developed our own brand and the recipes.”
As buzz grew, so did their ambitions, and in the fall of 2020 they moved to their current location — a walk-up window with covered outdoor seating just steps from the beach in Margate.
“There is more traffic here in Margate, and although it might appear on the outside to be a seasonal business, sales have remained strong here throughout the winter, Mike says. “Word of mouth and also social media has really grown us.”
With sales steady despite an increasingly snowy and cold winter, the future of TacocaT is looking brighter each day. And with a new staff addition, the taco-themed dreams of the Talleys are growing as well.
“We are bringing on a chef/manager shortly, and her being here will allow us to begin to search for expansion opportunities, which we plan to do right after both our daughters finish with their weddings. So sometime late next year we will absolutely be looking into opening another location,” Randi Talley assures us.
TacocaT is located at 8 S. Essex Ave. in Margate. Go to TacocatSouthJersey.com.
Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, Rhythm & Spirits, Bar 32 and Cuzzie’s Pizza
Local entrepreneur Mark Callazzo is responsible for the opening of not just one successful restaurant, but a whole slew of them situated in a once-decaying area of the city that has recently come back to life. Callazzo and a handful of other investors have taken it upon themselves to transform three adjacent beach blocks — Tennessee Avenue, St. James Place and New York Avenue — into what is now known as the “Orange Loop.” Tennessee Avenue, in particular, is a buzzing hub of nightlife activity, with no less than four Callazzo-owned eateries: Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, Rhythm & Spirits, Bar 32 and the soon-to-open Cuzzie’s Pizza, all tempting you with a variety of different offerings.
Callazzo, who is the former owner of The Iron Room — a much loved speakeasy on Albany Avenue that closed its doors last year — describes coming up with the idea for the Orange Loop concept after a conversation with some of the Iron Room staff.
“I was talking to my staff one night after work, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s. And we were discussing where they lived, and what surprised me was that none of them lived in Atlantic City proper,” Callazzo says. “I asked them ‘Why?’ and they all said, ‘There is nothing to do!’ And what they meant was that they wanted a walkable area and a concentration of amenities, similar to what Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park is like. And I got to thinking, ‘Why can’t Atlantic City have a walkable area like that?’ So I started looking around to see what was for sale and luck got me to Tennessee Avenue.”
Once his vision took shape, Callazzo’s restaurants began popping up one by one. In late 2018, Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall opened as the mecca for hard-to-find brews and elevated pub grub; Rhythm & Spirits followed in 2020 as a wild hybrid between a hip craft cocktail bar and an Italian restaurant, complete with former Iron Room Chef Kevin Cronin helming the kitchen; Bar 32, a cocoa-focused dessert and cocktail bar putting out its own bean-to-bar chocolate, just had its soft opening on Valentine’s Day weekend; and Cuzzie’s Pizza, an artisan pizzeria, is ready to start slinging some truly incredible slices once it opens its doors any day now. This summer, a BBQ concept called Chucktown BBQ will also join the ranks adjacent to the Beer Hall.
Helping the success of these spots are Atlantic City O.G.s like The Irish Pub and Pic-A-Lilli Pub, as well as newer concepts like New York Avenue’s New Orleans-themed bar and restaurant Bourre, all of which call the Orange Loop home.
As for regrets, Callazzo hasn’t many.
“If I had to do it all over again I would have tried to get all of the spaces on Tennessee Avenue open at the same time, because it would have got us to where we are more quickly. Instead, we kind of opened them in phases, but in the end I think we have a great unique product in each place and a public that really craves what we are doing,” Callazzo says with certainty.
Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, Rhythm & Spirits, Cuzzie’s Pizza and Bar 32 are all located on Tennessee Ave. between Pacific avenue and Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Go to TennAveAC.com.
Josie Kelly’s Public House
In America we have a certain mental image of what an Irish Pub is meant to be. And most of it is based around dark woods, pints of Guinness and a scattering of shamrocks amid a crowd of rowdy revelers. But in Ireland, where the true Irish pubs live, it’s more about being a place for families and the community to gather as a whole and relax. That is what drives the authenticity behind Josie Kelly’s Public House, an Irish Pub owned by Dermot Lloyd and his wife, Kathleen, that opened in Somers Point in 2018 and has been killing it ever since.
Dermot is originally from Ireland. He arrived in the states in 2006, and his thick brogue and 12-year history working at Tropicana’s RiRa Irish Pub only add that much more authenticity to a spot like Josie Kelly’s, which is easily the region’s best Irish pub.
“Josie Kelly is my grandmother. And this is a concept I have had in mind for years, but I didn’t think I would ever have the money or be able to do it,” Dermot Lloyd says. “But once I decided that I wanted to open a restaurant, my wife said ‘Why don’t you do Josie Kelly’s?’ And I thought, ‘Well, because it’s my grandmother’s name and (in order to put her name on it) everything would have to be perfect.’ And so everything in this pub is family related. It’s all artifacts, and nothing is picked out just to look cool. It all means a lot to us — it’s our identity. And since we built it, we have had a lot of success.”
A great deal of that success has come from the Lloyds’ willingness to take some chances, particularly when it comes to the menu. You will find some classic Irish dishes on it, but Lloyd isn’t content to leave things predictable. And with the addition of Chef Michael Brennan, the dishes at Josie Kelly’s transcend anything you might have predicted.
“You’ll have people look at it and say, ‘Where’s the corned beef and cabbage? Why are they doing dry-aged duck and tomahawk steaks?’ But we really want to keep challenging the Irish pub perception,” he says.
Josie Kelly’s sits in a historic building on Shore Road that has been there since 1908 and has housed various restaurants over the years. Heavily renovated since the Lloyds set up shop, it’s almost always packed with folks from all walks of life, and it nails that Irish feeling of community and camaraderie right off the bat. It also seems to fit seamlessly in the town of Somers Point, along a strip of well-worn bars and restaurants that all live together harmoniously.
“When we first started thinking about opening a pub, I thought about the area and the tradition of the Irish in Atlantic City with the parade and the whole culture of the bar scene. It’s been a great tradition for years, but a lot of the places had closed. So I looked all the way from Cape May up the coast. It took us a couple of years because we looked at a lot of different spots. But we found this place in Somers Point that’s been here for generations. It’s almost part of the scenery, and that fascinated me, because I really like tradition. When you see places like Charlie’s and Gregory’s — and they have been there since 1944 — there’s not a lot of towns that have places that have been there as long as that and have the traditions of Somers Point.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Josie Kelly’s is the large ballroom that sits adjacent to the bar and restaurant area and houses top-notch live entertainment on a regular basis. The room is stunningly beautiful and serves as one of the focal points of both the present and future of Josie Kelly’s. COVID has kept them to mostly small acoustic acts as of late, but the full bands will return soon, and the dance floor will be packed again with smiling faces.
“When we get back to full capacity we are going to have a live sound engineer every night in the summer. We are going to take the time and invest the money in the lighting and the sound system so that every single act that performs in that room will have the highest of quality. I want to bring our music program to the next level, because it’s a big part of me. Music is a huge part of our brand here and of our future.”