SOMERVILLE, NJ - The downtown retail and restaurant district has rapidly emerged as one of New Jersey's premiere destinations for fine dining and comfort food, ethnic food, gourmet coffee shops and specialty dessert shops.
All of that, however, has been pt in jeopardy by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which led New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to sign Executive Order 104, designed to "flatten the curve" and minimize social contact, shutting down bars, restaurants, casinos, theaters and other venues where people gather.in an effort to retard the spread of the insidious virus.
Murphy's edict shut down restaurants and bars as of 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 16 - except for take-out orders and deliveries.
Restaurant owners have been forced to redesign their business models in favor of an exclusive take-out menu; many already provide meals to go, but those meals on wheels have always been a small percentage of their business.
Not any more.
To survive the shutdown - no one knows how long it will last - they are ramping up their efforts to provide quality meals worthy of white linen napkins and fine china.
At least three dozen restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream and dessert specialty shops in Somerville are offering curbside and/or delivery. Check their websites, where many have listed their take-out and delivery menus.
The current list includes: Al Sushu; Alfonso's Trattoria; Bliss Coffee Lounge; Blue Sheep Bake Shop; Carol's Creative Chocolatez; Casa Luna Mexican Grille; Calabria Mia; Cental Pizzeria; Cheech's Own; Chicoli Mexican Grill; Court House Sub Shop; Da Fillipos Italiana; DeMartino's, a Cuban Restaurant; Division Cafe; Fresh Tiki Bar; Grumpyy Bobas; King Tut; Kuoy Tiew Noodles & More; Kyra Greek Cuisine; Michael's Courtside Kitchen; Mannion's Pub & Restaurant; Origin Thai; Phoenix Diner; Playa Bowls Somerville; Project P.U.B.; Rita's of Somerville; Savor; Sushi Palace; Tapastre; Turf, Surf & Earth; Verve Restaurant, Bar & Bistro; Venetian Grille; Village Brewing; Wolfgang's Steakhouse; Vintedge Wine & Spirits; Yokohama Restaurant.
Rick St. Pierre is the owner of Verve Restaurant, Bar & Bistro, voted as New Jersey's Number One bar last year, (908 707-8655, vervestyle.com). Known to its loyal clientele known for its "designer" cocktails and superb continental "New York" style dining and ambiance, St. Pierre has seen his share of ups and downs since opening in 1996. Every time the economy hiccups, the food service industry suffers.
St. Pierre has redesigned his website to feature a sumptuous selection of meals to go. Gift cards can be bought for 20 percent discounts and used on the spot, according to St. Pierre. He's also considering a "to go" package of ingredients like bitters, cucumber relish, and spirits - with instructions - that can be added to vodka, gin or other alcohol for those who want to try to replicate the signature drinks crafted behind the bar at Verve's where the first legal drinks in town were served post-Prohibition.
"I have an obligation to show promise, hope, innovation; we just don't close when something happens," St. Pierre said. "We're trying to be more creative in the process, to reach the community, to be available; to show we're still connected to you."
Some restaurants have chosen to close.
"We're the smaller guys trying to offer some level of goods and services because we see the community needs us," St. Pierre said.
St. Pierre has been on the phone the past week with other restaurant owners exchanging ideas and strategies to face up to the challenge.
Convenience, affordability, quality and variety are the key ingredients.
"What I see is that a lot of the restaurants on Main Street are sticking with what makes them special; Savor is doing pastas, Martino's has family prepared meals, Village Brewing and Project P.U.B. are doing growlers, we're going to do take out, prepared meals, maybe 6-8 items that you take home, put in the fridge and heat up when you want," St. Pierre said.
St. Pierre is also gratified by the good will engendered by the restaurants' collective effort.
"I've been very impressed by the customers on social media, things like 'Rick in this difficult time, how can we help you.' That's really touching," he said.
"This is not a new normal, it's a hard reset on how we look at our businesses," he added.
St. Patrick's Day wasn't quite the same this year for Mannion's Pub & Restaurant (908 203-0700, mannionspub.com) until the phone started ringing about 5:30 p.m.
"It was dead. I was getting ready to go home, and then we got slammed," said owner Pat Mannion.
In two hours, several hundred orders were called in for the traditional corned beef and cabbage dinners, a glimmer of hope and evidence that loyal customers intend to support their favorite restaurants downtown, according to Mannion, who is also offering delivery service - including six-packs of beer.
"We're going to make an attempt at curbside pick-up, possibly delivery," said Mike Proske, owner of Tapastre and Project P.U.B.
Adjustments have been made to the menu to eliminate items that don't package or travel well, he said.
Known for its craft brews, Project P.U.B. will sell and deliver Growlers in addition to items off the food menu, including soups, salads and sandwiches. There will be no online ordering, strictly phone. (Tapastre, 908 526-0505, tapastre.com; Project P.U.B. 908 393-5211, projectpubnj.com)
Steve Chiocchi, owner of Cheech's Own (908 393-1468, cheechsown.com),at the corner of West Main and Division streets, expects that his early morning crowd will continue to stop in for his hand crafted cold coffee, although the routine will be altered somewhat.
There will be no self-service. The baristas will take orders and prepare each cup to go.
"Customers won't have to touch a thing; we're sanitizing everything," he said.
He also plans to step up marketing efforts on sales of coffee beans and custom grinding for delivery.
"People will be working from home and they're going to want a good cup of coffee," he said.
For now, he plans to stay open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
"We're going cast a wide net and adjust from there," Chiocchi said. "Every two days, we'll look at the numbers and traffic, where the behavior is and adjust," he said.
"This is a fluid situation. We all knew this was going to hit and we've been trying to plan for it," St. Pierre said.
Those who enjoy a good meal without having to cook can also help support the downtown Somerville restaurant community by buying gift certificates to use when the crisis eases; it will help put money in the owners' cash registers now when it's needed the most, according to St, Pierre.