RARITAN TWP., NJ – The Flemington Costco opened its doors here today, adding to the big-box stores that have locations in the area. That includes Lowe’s,  Home Depot, Walmart, Staples, Home Goods, Kohl’s, Burlington Coat Factory as well as supermarkets ShopRite and Stop and Shop.

While some bemoan the proliferation of the stores, others embrace it – and even find a way to make it a key part of their marketing plans.

That includes Rick St. Pierre, who owns Verve Restaurant in nearby Somerville. He and the restaurant are in their 21st year in business; he bought the building on Main Street in “as-is” condition in 1996.

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Eight years ago, Costco opened its location in neighboring Bridgewater.

“I saw all of their corporate gift cards” for sale in Costco, St. Pierre said, many for restaurants that were part of large national chains. “When I saw that they were working with those chains, I asked myself, ‘Why can’t I be part of that?’”

Verve is really a landmark restaurant and well-known in Somerville.

St. Pierre noted that Somerville enjoys an unusual location. In New Jersey, “Somerville is where north meets south, where east meets west,” he said. So its eateries have become a common meeting place for those looking to gather in a central location.

Verve is a lot like the mythical Cheers restaurant made famous in the sitcom that debuted on television in the early ‘80s and ran for more than a decade. Verve “is where everybody knows your name,” St. Pierre said. “It’s the best bar experience, its food quality is second to none. It exudes a SoHo look and feel.”

That’s not just hype. As TAPinto.net has already reported, Verve bartender Steve Fette won the coveted Iron Shaker Award as the best bartender in New Jersey.

Although Verve attracts patrons from far and wide, a big part of its customer base are locals. If you stop by – especially on a Friday evening - you’ll see Somerset County’s movers and shakers gathering to review the week’s events.

But compared to the big restaurant chains with locations across the country, Verve is still small potatoes, something St. Pierre acknowledges. “To survive as a small business, you have to ride the big dog,” he said. So he approached Costco corporate headquarters. Would it consider selling Verve gift cards?

The answer, Cathy Wanklin said, was “yes.” She is Costco’s Northeast Regional Marketing Manager.

What followed became what St. Pierre calls “an amazing partnership ... they understand small business.”  His agreement with Costco became a model for the chain to use with other local businesses.

The relationship between the members-only warehouse store and Verve has great value to the restaurant because when gift card diners come to Verve, “most people spend more than the value of the gift card.” And the gift card purchaser gets a discount, something that’s arranged in advance between Costco and the restaurant.

So when St. Pierre learned of Costco’s plan to open its Flemington Costco here in Raritan Township, he jumped on board to have his gift cards available here, too. After all, although Verve has customers who live in Hunterdon, it doesn’t have the popularity among diners here as it does in its Somerset County home base.

A business relationship with Costco isn’t for everyone, Wanklin observes. St. Pierre said being able to ensure quality is one element of the relationship. In part, that’s because Costco offers a complete satisfaction guarantee on almost everything it sells. The company insists on the same assurances about quality and service from all of its partners, regardless of the size of the business.

St. Pierre doesn’t keep his relationship with Costco a secret, and he hopes Flemington-area restaurants will also consider working with the chain. “I don’t think of (Costco) as a threat,” St. Pierre said. “I think of them as a partner.”

Verve is located near Somerset County's historic courthouse, on Main Street between North Bridge and Grove streets, and it’s a four-block walk from the Somerville train station.

As its website says, “Look to the burgundy awning and there you are.”