SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – The owners of the newly opened Blue Plate Special at the intersection of Irvington Avenue and Ward Street have no fear of change.
In fact, they embrace it—so much so that it’s become a focal point of their café, where literally everything, from the biscuits to the plates on which they’re served, is for sale.
“A blue plate special is different every day, and so is our restaurant,” says co-owner Laura Nichols. “Everything here is for sale, so each time you come in, it will be a little different. You like the chair you’re sitting in? You can buy it. You like the plate you’re eating off of? You can buy it. You like the shirt I’m wearing? You can buy it. You like the hunky college student behind the counter? Fuggedaboudit.”
Nichols’ effervescence and sense of humor permeate the entire café, where mismatched throw pillows overflow from sunny window seats and coffee table books range from “Spam: The Cookbook” to “Creative Cursing.” As evening approaches, Nichols plugs in a string of brightly colored mini lanterns and bickers playfully with fellow owner Dan Pupke (she defines their relationship as “life partners and business partners”) about where to hang their new Law Coffee sign.
“We feature the things we don’t make in-store as locally as we can,” Nichols says, referring to their blends of Law Coffee (purchased in Newark) and their specialty bread assortments from Serrani’s Bakery in Orange. The duo places great emphasis on supporting local businesses and serving made-from-scratch meals.
“We’re not doing anything fancy,” Pupke, who runs the kitchen, says. “We’re just taking basic recipes and making them as authentic and fresh as possible.”
Pupke grew up in the food business, beginning work in his father’s Long Island restaurant at age 12. His experience has taken him from Brooklyn bagel stores up to Vermont diners and even out to a Cajun restaurant in Missouri. As a breakfast enthusiast, he’s made fresh buttermilk biscuits a Blue Plate Special staple.
“We give away about half of our biscuits for free, knowing people will come back for them,” he says. “We first served the majority of our sandwiches on a hard roll, then recommended that people give biscuits a try instead. At this point, more than half of our orders are on biscuits, and it’s hard to keep enough of them on hand over the weekends.”
Although the café still runs under construction hours (7 a.m. until roughly 4 p.m.), Pupke and Nichols plan to expand their hours late into the evening, catering to both young families and night-owl college students.
“As long as people are buying stuff, we don’t mind staying open,” Pupke says. A late-night menu featuring burgers and burritos is in the works, but “just as we didn’t come in here with a plan for breakfast or lunch—we just came in and threw stuff on the grill—we’ll certainly do the same for dinner.”
This thrown-together nature is characteristic of much of The Blue Plate Special’s development. Nichols and Pupke had never intended to open a restaurant, but had simply been renting kitchen space from South Orange’s historic Corner Shop deli to expand Nichols’ catering business.
This arrangement led to a partnership with the Corner Shop owners, then a purchase of the property altogether. Construction began, a menu was quickly thrown together and the doors opened after only two days.
“We think there’s a lot of value in what we offer the area,” Nichols says. She hopes that creating a family- and student-friendly dining space will bring more traffic and greater community development to the area around Irvington and Ward.
“This strip should be a gold mine for businesses,” she says, pausing to offer complimentary candy from the counter to a young boy who just entered the store. The boy’s father politely refuses, but his son smiles shyly nonetheless. “We have Seton Hall right down the block and lots of young families all around the area. We’d like to build this up as a neighborhood.”
The Blue Plate Special has already partnered with a few other local businesses to foster a community bond. They’ve provided coffee and refreshments for mothers and children at Music & More and may cater birthday parties there in the future.
“We don’t want to compete with anyone,” Nichols says. “Let’s let Nick, who runs the newsstand, be the lottery guy. And the University Sub Shop can be the deli. We’re looking to complement, not compete.”
Although an official website is still under way, residents can see photos and check “The Plate’s” daily lunch special on the café’s Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/theblueplatespecial.