Food & Drink

Mixed Emotions for Mara's Fanwood Owner

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FANWOOD, NJ -- After two years of operation, Mara's Cafe owner Marci Semel this week announced that she has sold her coffeehouse/bakery franchise to Inroads to Opportunities (formerly known as the Occupational Center of Union County), which offers job placement, supported employment, and job training to individuals with all types of disabilities. As part of the agreement, she will stay on for the next year and a half to help with the transition.

"Around the time we decided to sell, they were looking to purchase an entity as a revenue stream to support the organization's programming. I didn't think it would happen so fast," said Semel.

Inroads to Opportunities made an offer in October. The process slowed a bit during Mara's busy Thanksgiving and holiday seasons.

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Several different entities were involved in the transaction, including franchisees Marci and Mark Semel, Ian Magley, president of Mara's Franchise Systems, the landlord at Fanwood Crossing (250 South Ave.), representatives from Inroads to Opportunities, and, of course, attorneys.

"I'm happy to work out a deal with this organization. I want it to be a good fit for the community," Semel explained. "We live here; we want them to do well." 

Semel said she learned a lot about herself during her experience owning Mara's.

"I take things personally, and I wanted to please everyone. I still had a hard time relinquishing control even after I had the right staff in place," she explained. "The demands on my time began to take their toll. My eight-year-old noticed that at night while watching a movie together, I was still on the phone checking email. As a business owner, it's hard to turn it off."

Other challenges included overcoming the initial growing pains, and the parking situation at the busy intersection of South Ave. and Martine Ave. There is parking behind the building, but it has frequently been construction and some of the spaces are reserved for residents of Fanwood Crossing. Free parking is available in the evenings and on weekends at Fanwood train station.

"As first time business owners, we came in at infancy of the downtown infrastructure, at the infancy of Mara's franchising efforts," Semel said. "It was like the difference between triplets and a single baby -- there are fewer issues with just one baby."

Still, Semel says she has no regrets.

"We brought something really nice to the community, and we're proud of it," Semel said. "I met amazing people and learned a lot about my own strengths and weaknesses."

What could have done better?

"We could have explained the concept better and educated customers who we are. Mara's is a hybrid in between fast food and fine dining," said Semel. "People may have expected quick transactions like Dunkin Donuts, but here we make things fresh and cook to order. You won't get that at a fast food place. The price is a little higher, but the quality is better. That educational process is still ongoing."

Semel and Mara's general manager, Paul O'Laughlin, maintain that from a customer perspective, the quality and service will be the same under the new ownership.

Meanwhile, Marci Semel is looking forward to having a more free time now that the responsibility of franchise ownership has been removed from her shoulders.

"I don't want to have to tell my daughter that we can't go to the beach because I have to leave and buy chicken."

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