NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — The morning rush has subsided at Restaurant 2FIFTY4 inside Saint Peter’s University Hospital on Easton Avenue.
It was about 10:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday and Eileen Lombardi - with more than 30 years at the hospital - manages the restaurant. Fresh off breakfast, she and the staff are preparing for the lunch rush.
A few seats are occupied. A doctor is using the private meeting area at the restaurant and requested the light music to be turned a few notches down. Others are sitting in trendy banquette seating, featuring padding that absorbs noise and eliminates an echo.
Restaurant 2FIFTY4 provides a place of refuge in a hospital setting, providing comfort and satisfied palates.
“The great part about having Restaurant 2FIFTY4, besides a great menu, is that they are able to work within the framework of healthcare workers demanding schedules,” said Diane Negri, manager of admissions and registration at the hospital. “They understand our collective need to step away from our departments and enjoy good food in a pleasant environment.”
That was the vision of Ron Rak, CEO of the Saint Peter’s HealthCare System and Peter Connolly, executive vice president at the hospital. Together, they transformed a ho-hum coffee shop into a sit-down restaurant for the 3,000 employees at the hospital, visitors and others who come by specifically for the food.
To build on the Restaurant 2FIFTY4 experience, hospital officials also upgraded the lobby, with designs similar to what you would see in a boutique hotel. They also enhanced the gift shop, offering items far beyond Mylar balloons and flowers.
In 2009, to capitalize on their vision for the eatery, hospital officials recruited John Serra, who had been in the restaurant business for 26 years.
At the time, Serra said he was semi-retired, moving away from the demanding industry of owning three restaurants: Ginamarie’s in Scotch Plains, Al Dente Ristorante in Piscataway and Lafontana Ristorante in New Brunswick.
But he was intrigued about what could be created at Saint Peter’s.
“We worked as a team on the mission,” said Serra.
Restaurant 2FIFTY4 opened in 2011. It’s mission: To create the type of dining experience you would find in downtown New Brunswick, on such strips as Albany Street. You’ll find fresh produce, ingredients and fresh sauces. You’ll sit in a dining area with soothing earthy colors, drapery and also tables for al fresco dining.
“The restaurant provides a refuge for loved ones who may stay six, seven, eight days to a month at the hospital and doctors and nurses who may need to meet privately with a patient,” said Serra noting that the menu has reasonable prices and regular specials.
Restaurant 2FIFTY4 is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday. On a daily basis, there is the fresh soup of the day. Connolly, who beams with pride over the restaurant, carefully tracks sales, and is always eager to know who many people purchased the daily special.
Serra said the restaurant serves 400 to 600 customers a day, with many customers taking orders to bring home.
An interesting note: Restaurant 2FIFTY4 provided food and refuge for those without power during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
“The hospital was up and running because of generators and people would come here for their meals,” said Serra. “We saw many of those people come back even after Sandy. They were so pleased with the experience.”