Kenroy Morgan of Morgan's Island Grill
It's about community
Downtown Hightstown businesses take a big hit from the pandemic, but they're learning to adapt
From the almost 100-year-old Hightstown Diner to the 10-month-old Little Key Coffee, small-business owners in Hightstown are true partners with their community. During COVID-19, those relationships have been both comforting and critical.
Of course, almost everything has changed since last March, when the pandemic caused New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy to close all non-essential businesses. But in some ways, things in Hightstown also have remained the same. Restaurants and eateries adapted to their customers’ needs in much the same way as when they first opened their doors on Mercer Street. And their loyal customers, in the way they have been doing for years, have remained faithful, showing up for meals, for coffee, for ice cream, bagels and cocktails, knowing the business owners — often friends — need their support.
So far, it’s been just enough to keep the doors open.
A town of a bit more than one square mile, Hightstown is home to some remarkably diverse eateries. Many of these businesses rely on the Peddie community as a steady customer base. So when the pandemic forced Peddie’s campus to shut down in the spring, cancel camps in the summer and restrict students to campus when reopening this fall, these restaurants took a hefty hit.
“During our first month, Peddie students were a pretty big contributor to our business,” said Randy Levine, owner of Little Key Coffee, which opened just six weeks before the pandemic hit the East Coast.
Small-business owners are used to fluctuations in their customer base, whether for seasonal or other reasons. But they weren’t used to the abrupt and — in some instances — complete halt in business that came with COVID-19.
“I’m 75 years old, and I’ve been in different businesses my whole life,” said Henry Palumbo, who has owned Tavern on the Lake for the past 11 years. “But I’ve never had a business that is doing well and then just shuts down all at once.”
While the state barred eateries from serving diners in their restaurants, takeout service was allowed. But not all of the Hightstown restaurants were able to adapt immediately to that practice on such short notice. The Tavern, which hadn’t relied much on takeout business pre-pandemic, decided it was more prudent to shut their doors temporarily.
With the future uncertain, owners were faced with some difficult choices: whether they would stay open or close, how they would manage their staff and what strategies they could adopt to enable their businesses to survive.
There was no question for many of them that they would keep their staff employed, no matter the cost. Tavern on the Lake paid their employees even during the period when they were closed. Mannino’s 4 Pizzeria and Trattoria kept every employee when business was slow. Both owners absorbed a loss rather than risk losing their valued staff.
Not surprisingly, the relationships between staff and owners in these small restaurants are personal; many employees have families and mortgages and have been working for the same employer for years.
“All of our employees are full-time, so what do you do?” explained Vito Petruso, manager of Mannino’s. “You can’t just cut one — who are you going to cut? So what Joe [Mannino] did was bite the bullet — he kept all his employees and took a loss.”
Even newcomer Levine, owner of Little Key Coffee, prioritized keeping his sole employee. “To me, hiring a person is more than a contractual agreement,” he explained. “I have a moral obligation not only to make sure they are safe but to make sure that they feel safe as well.”
The two discussed a strategy for reopening each step of the way; once they met all of the legal mandates, they decided what they would do to ensure their own — and their customers’ — comfort and safety.
Most restaurants dramatically changed how they served their customers and managed their spaces, repeatedly adapting through the many phases of the pandemic as regulations changed. Little Key ramped up contactless service, moving to recyclable cups early on, reducing points of shared contact and installing ApplePay and online ordering.
“To me, the value of a small-town coffee shop is the relationships you build, so initially contactless online ordering and pickup was not a goal,” said Levine. “But in this environment, it’s obviously really useful, and we got a lot of positive feedback. People told us they felt safe coming here because of our practices.”
“We shut down for three weeks,” remembered Kenroy Morgan, owner of Morgan’s Island Grill. “I was a little bit scared at first, listening to the news. But I live by faith, and I finally decided I would do what I needed to do and get to work.”
To me, hiring a person is more than a contractual agreement. I have a moral obligation not only to make sure they are safe but to make sure they feel safe as well."
Morgan installed plexiglass over his counter and invested in gallons of hand sanitizer to provide for customers. He upgraded to sturdier, recyclable to-go containers and pre-wrapped utensils. He employed a cleaning service to deep-clean the restaurant weekly, and instituted more rigorous daily cleaning practices.
“We’ve learned a lot during this. I do a lot of talking and explaining to customers about why we’re doing what we’re doing, to let them know we are following the governor’s orders; it makes them feel more secure,” he said.
Similarly, at Tavern on the Lake, following the regulations resulted in additional expenses: masks and gloves for workers, hand sanitizer and plasticware for customers, and even condiments, which businesses have to provide in packets.
“I’ve got a $20,000 dishwasher in the kitchen, but people don’t want to drink out of glasses; they are more comfortable with plastic cups,” explained Palumbo. “So we have more expenses, but less business.”
A step forward
Fortunately, as the pandemic wore on, the weather warmed up, and more people became comfortable leaving their homes. Business slowly picked up.
For Mannino’s, whose takeout and delivery service has always been a large part of their business, things got busy quickly. Initially, customers were not allowed to enter the store, so runners moved between the counter and the curb to deliver food to customers. The borough set aside “Curbside pickup only” parking spots along Mercer Street to facilitate these transactions. And the delivery drivers were soon as busy as ever.
The Hightstown Diner immediately flipped to a takeout business, though they had previously never done so.
“We never closed; we started deliveries right away,” said Eileen Buonocore, diner manager. “We hadn’t done delivery before, so the owner’s wife delivered the meals herself when necessary.”
And their customers came through for them. “Our customers are the best,” said Buonocore. “They stayed with us the whole time.”
All around town, customers made efforts to support their favorite eateries, some of them traveling from out of town to let owners know they were thinking of them. Morgan’s Island Grill had customers who drove in from Long Beach Island to order takeout and let him know they were thinking of him during this challenging time. “They said to me, ‘We just want to support you,’” said Morgan.
“We’ve been here for eight years, and our customers have been such a blessing over the years. I’ve had parents of Peddie kids come in to taste the food their kids talk about. Some of them have even stopped in on their way to take their kids to college and say, ‘You know what they want — barbecue jerk chicken!’”
Our customers are the best. They stayed with us the whole time."
For Morgan, being able to provide comfort food to these loyal customers has been enough.
“People ask what my ingredients are, and I always say that my first ingredient is love,” he said. “It’s much more than a restaurant: Once you cross through the doorway, you are in my home — you’re coming over. I love an open kitchen — nothing to hide. I cook my food here the same way I cook at home.”
For his part, Morgan tries to support both his fellow restauranteurs in Hightstown and the community at large when he can.
“People see me at Mannino’s and other restaurants and ask why I’m there,” says Morgan. “I say I’m a foodie — I support restaurants. That’s what I do for a living. If I expect people to support my business, I have to support others.”
He also offered ten free meals a day over a two-week period in April to front-line workers. And he makes an effort to cook and deliver meals to those in need through his local church.
As a thank-you to their loyal customers and a service to those in need, the Hightstown Diner provided free meals — breakfast or dinner — to customers on Easter Sunday.
As the weather warmed up, most restaurants found ways to provide outdoor dining as an option. The Hightstown Diner cordoned off a section of their parking lot and even built a patio beside the restaurant for outdoor dining.
“Once we were able to open outside, things got busy,” said Buonocore. “We had customers who would come every single day just to support us. We really have a great, loyal following.”
We are hanging in there. The doors are still open. So many people have it worse than me -- restaurants are a tough business."
The same was true for the Tavern. With an expansive outdoor area, they served a considerable number of customers even with strict observance of social distancing rules. They opened their patio whenever the weather allowed. Little Key installed plexiglass across their door and served their customers from there, setting up outdoor seating. And Morgan’s, who already had outdoor seating, continued to-go service but welcomed customers to their outdoor space. Other restaurants in town, including 4 Seasons Deli and 12 Farms, began selling eggs, produce and other groceries to customers who were reluctant or unable to venture to the grocery store.
When Peddie students returned to campus this fall, health and safety practices didn’t allow them to leave campus and walk downtown. So the downtown restaurants came to them, meeting students to deliver their food at one of three designated stops on campus.
But of course, business isn’t back to pre-pandemic status. “Business hasn’t been the same, but I’m not complaining,” said Morgan. “We are hanging in there. The doors are still open. So many people have it worse than me — restaurants are a tough business.”
“The pandemic hasn’t put us out, but it’s definitely hurt us,” said Petruso. “In the beginning, there were a lot of unanswered questions like, ‘Will we have jobs next week?’ We all offered to put in extra hours to help make ends meet. But fortunately, Joe was able to absorb the loss and stay afloat.”
On a typical Wednesday or Friday night, Tavern on the Lake would serve about 150 people and is now limited to seating 50 customers. Their catering hall on the floor above the restaurant is closed. “We’ve canceled all of our upstairs events,” said Palumbo. “And we have no Christmas parties lined up, which are big for us. So we’re worried about the next six months; getting through the winter is going to be rough.”
Buonocore saw business at the diner slow down when schools reopened. With many area schools fully remote, parents are tied to home and not as free to meet for breakfast or lunch as they were. “Things are quieter, but that wasn’t something we didn’t expect. Business is okay, but nothing like before,” she said.
“Now, I feel like the worst is behind us as a business,” said Petruso. “The pandemic isn’t over, but we’ve learned how to adapt. Being a small business has some advantages — hopefully, we’ll survive. And we thank the people for supporting us. We’ve been here so long.”