Espresso Joe’s – Great Music, Nice People, Awesome Food… Oh yeah, the coffee is fantastic, too!

The morning rush has settled down and Felicia McIntosh is using the break after the bustle to tackle a few of the many tasks at hand to make Espresso Joe’s at 50 West Front Street in Keyport. Multi-tasking is key – “There’s not enough hours in the day,” she imparts. The minute I walked in the door, my ritual began. I come here quite often, and they know me here.

Espresso Joe’s credit “Lo” 9 years old

As with many other businesses in this harbor town nestled in the southeast reaches of the Raritan Bay, McIntosh knows her regular clientele and she knows what they like. It’s 9:30 in the morning and I tell her I am a bit hungry. I am disappointed to learn that her now-famous chia-bowl is not available at the moment, a new batch of chia “is brewing right now and will be ready this afternoon.”

I ask her what she has, and she offers up hummus that she made earlier this morning.

The Best Hummus Ever (in the author’s opinion)

“On multigrain toast with tomato and lettuce” she says, and I agree. As usual at Felicia’s Espresso Joe’s café, the ingredients are all non-GMO, organic and farm-fresh which is going to subject my taste buds to a dish that is fresh and flavorful. She does not disappoint, and it hits the spot.

It’s August now, and McIntosh acquired this business in February – the third owner in less than 4 years. In the 6-months since, she has imbued personal touches that have begun to shape the café into a destination for seekers of good coffee, fresh traditional fare, vegan and gluten-free choices, and fantastic music performed by musicians from (very) near and far.

On a Wednesday evening, bring your guitar, poetry book, journal, flute, lute or cajón. The venue is yours for up to 10 mins or so at the open mic. On the weekend, bring your musical sensibilities and enjoy the regular local musicians, some of whom have been performing here for years, and many of whom McIntosh has built relationships with over her life as a local-music aficionada. The variety is notable and intentional, “I like all kinds of music,” she says, adding that the variety meets the varied musical tastes of her customers, too.

Full disclosure, I am biased. Keyport is my town, and some days, Espresso Joes is my office. Indeed, I am writing this sitting in my normal spot next to the Snapple refrigerator on the repurposed church bench with my laptop and coffee. For me, it’s all about the ritual of the patron. Indeed, we establish good relationships with businesses based on the quality of the products that they have to offer, but here at Espresso Joe’s, it’s all about the ritual of the patron – the experience they offer to me every time I walk in. Esspresso Joe’s satisfies my desire to have a familiar place to come to where I can eat, play and, sometimes, work.

My coffee is nearly done, and so is this article. The early afternoon bustle is beginning and Felicia is getting back to business. Someone is deciding what to order to eat, “Try the hummus,” I say, “It was the bomb.”

Local Brew – Demented Brewing Sees Bright Future Despite Conglomerate Pressure

It seems to be a matter of consensus among craft beer brewers and aficionados that we are living through the greatest time in history to be a beer drinker in America, a sort of “golden age of beer.”  In 35 years the number of craft breweries in America has risen from around 80 to over 5000 making a huge variety of flavorful lagers, porters and my favorite, IPA’s.  While providing U.S. drinkers, be they beer snobs or guzzlers with an almost endless variety of unique tastes, the craft beer industry has become a viable part of the local economies. However, a recent opinion piece in The New York Times by Jim Koch, the founder of The Boston Beer Company, told a cautionary tale. It seems lax government antitrust laws and the business practices of a few mega global brewers like Miller Coors may be bringing about, “…the beginning of the end of the American craft beer revolution.”  To get a local perspective, and to taste some great beer were ample reasons to visit Demented Brewing in Middlesex, NJ.  After the field was winnowed down to the final four, Demented was named the best craft brewery in New Jersey by the judges of

The word BREWERY marks the spot.

Siri got me to 600 Lincoln Blvd in Middlesex easily enough, but the brewery was a little disconcerting.  Set back from the street, partially obscured by another building, Demented looks to be a former auto repair shop.  Large letters in red on black spelling, “Brewery,” fill what were once windows, and you can see people through an open garage door working amid oak kegs and stainless steel equipment reminiscent of the AMC series, Breaking Bad.    The Head Brewer later confided that much like the operation producing the illicit product depicted in the popular series, the quality of the beer largely depends of the cleanliness of the equipment.  A large part of a brewing run is cleaning.

Where does one get a beer?  On the left side the building is a nondescript, black door with a small sign cautioning you to watch your step.  At the risk of barging into a private work area, I opened the door to find a small, cozy brick walled taproom where four or five people were sipping and discussing the product.  The walls were murals depicting various demonic creatures, well, brewing beer.

Choices of the day are marked by asterisks

The obligatory blackboard behind the bar above the taps listed about 15 titles with asterisks indicating which ones were available.  The inspiration for the brewery’s theme, The Jersey Devil, is the centerpiece of the board.

Before I could sit down, the man behind the bar asked me if I’d been there before.  It seemed a rhetorical question, he seems to know his clientele, but after answering no, he said, “Do me a favor and go through that door to take a tour of the brewery.” Since this appeared to be a prerequisite, I complied.  A stack of one sheets illustrating the brewing process were in a compartment on another black door. I went through and found myself amid brewing equipment, oak casks and bags of malt from Germany.  The workers paid me little mind on this self-guided tour, but one young man with a beard asked me why I took a picture of the malt bags.  I asked if he purchased any ingredients locally, and he replied that save for the occasional local hops, New Jersey doesn’t really produce the ingredients necessary for the brewing process. He purchases far and wide.  He apologized for the “mess” saying that they had just finished brewing.  The brewery was considerably less messy than my own living room.

We can’t brew enough beer… Doug Phillips, Head Brewer

As it turns out, I was speaking with Doug Phillips, the Head Brewer of Demented Brewing. He modestly downplayed the award, and though he was familiar with the Times article, was not pessimistic in the least.  “We can’t brew enough beer,” he stated simply.  The brewery has over 600 clients in the State of New Jersey with hopes of expanding to Pennsylvania and New York.  In order to keep the supply flowing, Demented brews at least six times a week, sometimes twice a day.

Double Dementia IPA – You be the judge.

Back in the bar, I ordered the Double Dementia IPA. It’s the kind of brew that makes me take a picture with my phone to remember in case I see it on a menu again.  It has the hoppiness of an IPA balanced by the malt. It is not bitter, has citrus hint with perhaps a touch of caramel.  Names of craft beers are half the fun, and Demented is no exception when it comes to the inventive titles.  Beowulf, Scarlet Night, Orcus, Wrath and Envy were listed.  Dave Rawlins, the bar man and associate brewer assured me that all seven deadly sins are represented on a seasonal basis with one exception: Lust is available all year long.  The beer can be very strong with alcohol contents up to 10%.  I followed the DD with a Voodoo IPA, a relatively new offering made with fresh Lemondrop hops.  I’m no expert, but I found the Voodoo to have a lighter texture with almost a hint of shandy in the taste.  While I generally drink a Cote de Rhone when I am defying doctor’s orders with a rack of lamb or a porcetta, either of the IPA’s I tasted could accompany a hearty meat dish.  It may become my go- to drink with meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

The atmosphere in the tap room is convivial.  The complexities and attributes of the beers are freely discussed.  “Growlers” and “grunts” are available to go, as well as tee shirts and hats.  I bought my wife a tee shirt that simply read, “Demented.”  That ought to put me in Dutch.

It’s an American and New Jersey success story.  Doug comes from Tinton Falls by way of Vermont.  He says he learned brewing in his mother’s kitchen, a parenting story that I envy.  The owner of the brewery who was not there that day, is Tom Zuber, a software engineer who, according to a framed article on the wall of the bar,  apparently lost his job, opening up the doorway of opportunity to begin brewing beer.  He found the premises on Craig’s List, began brewing in May of 2015 and serving in the tap room in August of that year.  I have to say that aside from the delicious beer, the assembled staff of Demented Brewing combined with the demonic décor and welcoming atmosphere make this local Jersey business a pleasant visit.  I know they want to keep it simple, but I hope that they incorporate some kind of limited menu in the future.  After just two strong IPA’s, I felt the need of a hero which I purchased down Lincoln Blvd. at L and D’s Sapore Ravioli & Cheese. That’s a whole other story.  Do yourself a favor and check them out as well. Since departing New York City 37 years ago for New Jersey, I have found that you can get any food or drink available in The Big Apple somewhere in New Jersey cheaper, just as good and often better.  With places like Demented Brewing, it should be easy to support your local business.

The “Reaper’s” Scythe

On a final note, above the bar hangs a scythe, a handheld farming tool still used to harvest crops, cutting them close to the ground.  But it is also the tool carried by someone we will all eventually make the acquaintance of, the grim reaper.  Life is short, so for crying out loud, do yourself a favor and stop by Demented Brewing for a couple of great glasses of beer.

Truly Local: Graze Restaurant in Little Silver

Graze in Little SilverChamon Laercio (aka Junior) worked for several years in the restaurant business before deciding he didn’t want to open his own restaurant.

“I intended to have a small catering place,” he tells Local Joan while sitting in a round booth at Graze, the eatery he opened last year in Little Silver. “I didn’t want to do this. It’s a tough business.”

After running a successful catering company for four years, he bought Zoe’s in 2015 and gradually began changing the menu to serve more locally sourced food and less of the standard and ubiquitous “Penne Vodka” type of dish, he explains.Little Silver Graze restaurant

“Most other places can’t tell you where their food came from,” says Junior, noting that New Jersey is catching up with the local food trend and after a difficult transition, he has a “clientele that understands” what he’s trying to do.

Junior’s new clientele is regional, not only local. Friday jazz nights are popular, he says, and Graze just opened for lunch as well as dinner.

My goal is to support local farmers and farmer’s markets

You can typically find Junior either cooking or talking to patrons about their experience.

Classically trained in French cooking but with Brazilian-born parents, Junior reflects his culinary heritage with dishes such as coxinhas: “Brazilian chicken croquettes with green tomato ketchup.” The “Bourbon Glazed Carrot Soup” garnished with micro-celery, is a staple, as are local harvest greens of the day and a four-cheese mac and cheese dish for which he makes not only the pasta, but also the cheese!

Glazed carrot soup at Graze in Little Silver

Bourbon glazed carrot soup is a delectable specialty of Graze’s kitchen.

Junior also does his own butchering and tries to use every part of the animal in his cooking. He points to a pasture raised pork chop.

“You can tell it’s good because it’s red, not white. People think pork is supposed to be white, like ‘the other white meat’ but it’s naturally a red meat.”

Not 100 percent of his food comes from local sources, though. The “toughest part” is that some foods are hard to get in the Garden State year round, although greenhouses make it possible to find, for example, heirloom tomatoes in winter.

“I do the best I can.”

He works with Harvest Drop, a local middleman, and uses about 30 different farmers in total. A born teacher, Junior says he hopes to advocate and raise awareness of the desirability of local food, both for its freshness and to support local business.

“My goal [in purchasing] is to support local farmers and farmer’s markets,” he says, adding that there are more than ever before. There are a great many local farms in New Jersey that people don’t realize exist.

Where did Junior get his interest in food? Both his parents have the cooking gene. His mother cooked for the Brazilian consulate at one time and his father owned a bakery in the U.S. and a dairy farm in Brazil.

His mother’s are “the only leftovers I’ll eat!”


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Excel Travel’s Ted Friedl Works To “Kick Cancer Overboard”

ted friedl at work

Ted Friedl, hard at work on a typical day.

Ted Friedl is known to many as the local travel agency owner with two beaded braids, a Hawaiian shirt, and the memorable slogan: Make Us Happy–Go Away!

When he’s not setting up a honeymoon aboard a Russian Icebreaker to the North Pole or at a chamber of commerce function (he belongs to seven), he raises money for cancer survivors and their families to embark on one-week Royal Caribbean cruises out of Cape Liberty, all expenses paid.

“The recipient’s most important question [on a cruise] is not how to pay for the next medical bill, but whether to play bingo, get a massage or sing karaoke,” says the upbeat CVO, or Chief Vacation Officer of Excel Travel in Long Branch. He and DonnaLyn Giegrich, a cancer survivor and fellow business owner, started “Kick Cancer Overboard” in 2011, and just achieved 501(3)(c) status, making KCO a nonprofit eligible for matching contributions.

Ted’s career has not always had smooth sailing.

KCO button

Kick Cancer Overboard was founded to help people with cancer.

In 1994 Ted and his wife, Joanna Friedl, Excel Travel’s vice president, thought the future looked somewhat grim when newscaster Connie Chung predicted that this new thing called the internet would be the death of the travel industry, he remembers.

Ted and Joanna watched as airlines slashed commissions, many travel agencies folded or consolidated, and internet travel sites proliferated. The business that they’d started together out of a mutual passion for travel was at risk.

Excel pivoted away from mainly business into leisure travel. That shift was an important aspect of its success, Ted notes. Today they have a team of agents, a surfboard for a coffee table, and a binder full of glowing–and unsolicited–testimonials.

“I don’t know what happened to Connie Chung, but we’re still here,” quips Ted, the recipient of two Spinnaker awards from the Eastern Monmouth Chamber of Commerce, for Volunteer of the Year and for Community Service.

“Ted has endured multiple storm Sandy setbacks, including losing his house; maintained a thriving travel business; and served the community in leadership roles without waivering from KCO’s mission,” says his partner, Donnlyn. “It’s an honor to collaborate on his award-winning creation and we’re grateful to our KCO community of staunch supporters who’ve made it possible.”

Ted notes that all of KCO’s donations and sponsorships go to survivors and their families. He and DonnaLyn don’t use any donations for administrative costs, and their overhead is “very low.” Past fundraisers have been sponsored by Tom’s Ford in Keyport, Fred Astaire Dancers, A Kneaded Vacation, Dean’s Natural Market in Ocean, and Rich and Maria Laganga. In December KCO threw a holiday party with partner Rockit.

The majority of the 91 cruise goers have survived, but sadly, one passed away before going on the cruise and nine after returning home.

Amy with hoop onstage

Goodbie Amy vocalist and cancer survivor onstage hoola-hooping. (Her band’s on Facebook.)


The first recipient, Goodbie Amy vocalist Amy Paradise, had breast cancer twice and is now a big supporter of KCO, having hosted several benefit concerts.

Another cruise goer was an oncology nurse who herself developed cancer, and was nominated by her patients at the hospital where she worked. The recipients are chosen by a ten-person team, and are always locals because Ted says there’s no reason to look outside the state. He recuses himself from the selection committee.

So what’s Ted’s secret for staying relevant in a rapidly changing industry? Raising awareness about the value he provides as an independent agent. He enjoys “debunking myths” people hold about travel and guarantees the best prices for cruises or vacation packages, insisting the conventional wisdom that you’ll save money online for travel is wrong.

“There’s not one study saying that it’s cheaper,” says Ted, who has a standing offer of $100 to anyone who can prove otherwise. The commissions that airlines and hotels pay to agents are simply pocketed when people buy online, and the savings are not passed on to the traveler, he explains.

Also, Ted says, the U.S. State Department in Washington issues warnings about Mexico, yet Washington D.C. is four times more deadly than Mexico City.  The chances of contracting a disease on a cruise are miniscule, he points out, because every year 40 million people go on cruises, yet fewer than 1,000 get sick.

Trends he’s noticed in the last year are the popularity of destination weddings, river cruises and family reunions that take place on vacation.

“We’ve shifted to doing more leisure and group travel, safaris, family reunions, destination weddings, cruises,” he says. “It’s more creative. The more complicated and difficult the itinerary, the more valuable our services become.”

Ted's office in Long Branch

Excel Travel in Long Branch has shifted its focus to the leisure travel market.

Ted says he’s thrilled to go to work in a business that brings joy to people’s lives and KCO is a way to spread that joy.

“They’re going to enjoy it a lot more, because they understand how precious life is,” says Ted of KCO’s cruise recipients.

And, he notes, over the last three years, the old-fashioned brick and mortar travel agencies are actually gaining market share back from the web.

So, make Ted happy and go away.

The Scoop on Gracie and the Dudes’ Ice Cream

strawbewwyWhen you see the ice cream at Gracie and the Dudes, you may be surprised. The strawberry has only a hint of pink, and the other colors are similarly muted. Even the Italian ices they make are pale, in contrast with the vivid palette of the store and the eye-catching cartoon logo.

“Taste it before you judge it,” says Michelle McMullen, co-owner with her husband Brian of Gracie and the Dudes (and Sadie too!).

The shop’s most popular flavor, an intense dark chocolate, resembles Belgian chocolate. Cinnamon oatmeal and chocolate chip cookie taste like chilly versions of their namesake cookies. The flavors are concentrated and remarkably authentic. How does this small family-owned ice cream shop with two locations in Long Branch and Sea Bright accomplish this?

We make enough for our pockets. We want regular families to be able to come and not break the bank.

A ton of hard work testing and developing their own flavors from scratch, Michelle says. Because it lacks artificial flavors and colors, the ice cream has only a two-week shelf life. In the fledgling days of their business, much of it had to be donated or discarded.

“We opened in the winter. I’d just given birth. We had no customers.”

Michelle McMullen scoops a cone of her homemade ice cream.

Michelle McMullen scoops a cone of her homemade ice cream.

Twenty flavors are on display, with more than 65 in rotation, and more to come.

“Customers are very vocal,” says Michelle. Last month olive oil debuted. The general reaction was “ehh.”  Maple bacon was a temporary hit and sweet corn is on its way, by popular demand.

“We’ll need three or four tests to get it right.”

The married couple were successful national franchise owners, using pre-mixed formulas, but began to worry about the ingredients in the treats their kids were ingesting.

In 2009, the eldest, Gracie, was no longer a baby.

“We started thinking about what we were giving her,” Michelle says. They knew they wanted to make something different, something fresher, with high quality ingredients.

Even what’s in Italian ices is “horrendous,” so they created their own, which is technically sorbet, with three ingredients: fruit, water and sugar. The cherry flavor tastes like cherry pie, says Michelle, a former high school English teacher whose language skills are evident in the entertaining copy on her website. Learning the food science behind ice cream was tricky and their biggest challenge.

Sadie (far right) is the newest addition to the family & business too!

Another complication came in the form of a new baby, a girl named Sadie.

Michelle and Brian found themselves with a logo and business name prominently featuring their firstborn and her two brothers, “the dudes.”

When Sadie turned four, she became aware of her conspicuous absence in her family’s business.

Michelle admits the longer name is a bit unwieldy, but what can a parent do when her child wants to know, “Where’s me?”

Another challenge was Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

“We wanted to renovate but not quite the extensive renovation we did,” Michelle says, wryly. But though “devastatingly horrible. . .it really spurred a new community spirit within me.”

Michelle worked toward recovery and rebuilding on the Sea Bright 20/20 Committee, the precursor to Sustainable Sea Bright, a municipal committee.  “We are committed to making Sea Bright sustainable for the future.  We worked to bring a farmer’s market to town as well as having Sea Bright designated a sustainable community by the state of New Jersey,” she adds.

“The one benefit that came out of the storm is my commitment to making Sea Bright the best it can be, as well as the people I’ve met and the dear friendships I’ve formed.” Michelle traveled to New York with Mayor Dina Long to the ask for help.

“We, as a town, are fortunate to have some big fans in large corporations.”

So is healthy ice cream an oxymoron? Michelle nods as if she’s heard this before. “It’s healthier,” she qualifies. Everybody gives their kids an occasional treat, she contends, so why can’t it be from the best ingredients, which also taste the best? The McMullens say they use less sugar than is standard, and have a formula that works.

The store’s cream is from Wisconsin, so shipping costs more than the product itself.  Michelle says that wasn’t by choice; they couldn’t find a local supplier who could adapt to what they needed.

“Our prices are lower,” Michelle claims. “We make enough for our pockets. We want regular families to be able to come and not break the bank.” As for a complaint online about not selling single scoops, she nods.

“It’s been a bone of contention. But when you order, you’re paying for all of it, napkin, cone, all the overhead.”

Franchise offers beckon, but Michelle deems herself “a control freak, like all entrepreneurs.”

“We’re not quite there yet.”

Bikes (and People) Get Second Chances At Second Life Bikes

Lester rides into the bike store on a Saturday afternoon in May. Leaning over his handlebars, he asks employee Pete Leather how much he owes him for a recent flat tire repair.

Immersed in another repair, Pete doesn’t answer immediately. With the frames and innards of bicycles surrounding him and wrench in one hand, he pauses his work.

Owner Kerri Martin, a former investment banker, looks over. She knows Lester is looking for work. She tells him this one’s on the house.

Second Life Bikes in Asbury Park is not just a business.

Owner Kerri Martin has a passion for teaching kids about bikes. . .and life.

Owner Kerri Martin has a passion for teaching kids about bikes. . . and life.

It’s been featured in Family Circle, the Star-Ledger and on national TV. Kerri runs the shop as well as a nonprofit whose mission is to impart life and job skills to local youth.

Kids older than age 11 can sign up to earn their own secondhand bikes by completing 15 hours of bike repair. More than 1,000 bikes crowd the former warehouse where Second Life is housed, near the Asbury Park train station on 21 Main Street.

What do you call a herd of bikes?

More than 1,000 bikes live at Second Life Bikes.

“It’s never boring here,” says the “Bike Lady” about the last four years. “We see real life happening.”

Kerri’s goal by the end of 2014 is to be a partial owner of the 7,500-square-foot building Second Life leases. Her efforts, including crowdfunding, have raised $50,000. She’ll be buying it as part of a real estate development corporation with other investors.

“It’ll be a smart business move,” she notes. Nobody on Second Life’s board knows much about biking except herself, she says. But “they liked that this is a grassroots effort.”

She points out the cruiser Bruce Springsteen bought and then donated, which hangs on the wall. Another cruiser (pictured) is being raffled off at RiverFest in Red Bank on the last weekend in May by Musicians on a Mission (MOAM), a local group of musicians who donate their talents to raising money for local charities.

To go home with a lucky winner at Red Bank's Riverfest this weekend, with raffle proceeds for Second Life Bikes.

Soon to go home with a lucky winner at Red Bank’s RiverFest –raffle proceeds to Second Life.

Last month MOAM raised money for Second Life Bikes with a music festival in Farmingdale, known as MOAM-A-PALOOZA.

The cruiser being raffled off has a partially functioning guitar, a Silvertone electric, permanently affixed to it, an idea Kerri and her small staff thought would be fun to build.

“Originally we were going to do a fake guitar, but a local musican donated this one,” Kerri says. The winning ticket for the raffle will be drawn Sunday June 1 at Marine Park in Red Bank.

Pete started as a volunteer but after being laid off asked Kerri if his volunteer work could be transformed into a permanent role at Second Life. Now he’s a happy corporate refugee.

“It’s less stress and less bucks,” he says.

Kerri, raised in Freehold, appreciates the kids’ enthusiasm for learning. Mainly 12 to 14-year-olds participate but also a few eager 11-year-olds who Kerri makes exceptions for, and dedicated older teens. They come in after school to fix their flats, while their elders can be “a little hesitant.”

“It’s not brain surgery,” she says, “It’s pretty intuitive to learn. If you can turn a wrench, you can do it.”

Kerri hopes to start a girls’ bike club. “The goal is to try to draw them in, especially the girls. We often lose them as teenagers. There’s nothing girls can’t do. The girls who come in are wonderful.”

Kerri has always loved cycling, and she rides all year long, using studded tires for riding in snow and ice. For her, it’s about enjoying being outside and not “trapped in a steel automobile sitting in traffic.”

“It’s not about being an environmentalist,” she adds, “I’m glad if it helps, but for me it’s fun.”




Defying the Odds, Retired Teacher Runs Community Bookstore

Remember how the hardworking indie bookstore owner, played by Meg Ryan, was crushed by the chain bookstore opening in her neighborhood in the 90s blockbuster “You’ve Got Mail”?

This story is different.

In 2007 Rita F. Maggio retired from teaching and opened BookTowne on Manasquan’s Main Street.

kidssectionbookstoreThe independent bookstore is a species so endangered that mega-author James Patterson has pledged to donate a million dollars to them. Yet BookTowne has become a destination for both national and local authors, and for book lovers, families and school communities.

Mary Higgins Clark will visit May 2nd, and Jane Green (Tempting Fate) May 1st.

BookTowne competes with Barnes & Noble in Brick, she notes, but does its best to hold its own. The owner loves being part of “a community where people support reading and books. Families are a good deal of our business.”

Although based in Manasquan, it’s not just seasonal traffic, Rita says. “The schools are great to work with.”

For a recent book signing by N.J. children’s book author Dan Gutman, approximately 200 people owner with local author shelf bookstoreattended. A New York Times listed author, Gutman pens the My Weird School series for middle-schoolers, with comical titles such as “Mr. Tony is Full of Baloney” and “Ms. Beard is Weird.”

A former middle school teacher, guidance counselor and school principal, Rita loves to spread the “joy of reading.”

“When someone writes a book,” she says, “They have a story to tell. It’s really important for independent bookstores to give them a venue. A local author may have a good quality piece and with some exposure, he or she can really take off.” She keeps local authors on her shelf for three months.

Open every day except for four major holidays, the store’s tag line is Where Good Friends Meet Good Books. Rita’s own tastes run to authors such as Anna Quindlin and Jumpira Lahira.

“I knew I wanted to be at the shore and I like the town of Manasquan itself,” Rita says. The Brielle library and the Algonquin Theatre lend their facilities for large book signings such as Gutman’s.

BookTowne, with three employees, generously supports local authors. But, it vets the books carefully before extending an invitation to an author. “We want to present good quality books. We don’t accept every local author. It has to be professionally done.” When she read “The Numb,” self-published by Lauren Kehoe, a 19-year-old student at Ocean County College, she was enthusiastic. It’s a dystopian novel set in a dark future in which emotions have ostensibly been eradicated.

“The Numb has done well here,” says Rita, gesturing to the shelf where a copy of the book is displayed.

frontdeskbookstoreBookTowne’s goal is to have one author reading a week. Winter’s a little harder, but with the help of an event planner and some networking, it’s attracted some best selling authors.

Rita notes, “It’s important when you own a small business to host the kind of events that bring people in.”

She actively supports her local business community. When big guns such as fought to avoid paying taxes for online sales, Rita traveled to Trenton to testify on behalf of local businesses.

“It’s about equity,” she explains. “We pay local and state sales taxes, and so should they. In some cases we can meet their prices, but it’s hard when they’re not paying taxes.”

The law passed, to her relief. “This makes it more fair.”

Rook Coffee Roasters Does It Fresh


Everything about Rook says “We’re serious about coffee….”

When I first ventured into a Rook Coffee Roasters, I had to change my expectations about coffee bars.

There were no tables except for a counter at the window with coat hooks. No tea, no espresso drinks, no cooler with a million items to distract me, only a small baked goods selection. With a spartan interior, everything about Rook says, “We’re serious about coffee.” It’s a solo performance and the coffee’s the star.

“Most Americans are used to drinking stale coffee,” explains co-owner Holly Migliaccio. Across the street from Rook’s newest location on Route 35 in Oakhurst, there’s a bustling Starbucks. Yet the line at Rook spills out the door in the mornings. Maybe these people are onto something.

Migliaccio and her business partner, Shawn Kingsley, opened their first Rook Coffee Roasters on Monmouth Road in Oakhurst four years ago to bring some West Coast coffee appreciation to New Jersey. 


“At Rook, every single cup is brewed to order,” says co-owner Holly Migliaccio here demonstrating Rook’s “manual drip pour-over” method

The entrepreneur and mother of two likes Starbucks, she says, and has nothing against tea.

Rook knows its strategy well:

We want to be different,” she says. “We are experts at what we do. It’s our business model. Every single cup is brewed to order,” and “there are no urns of old  coffee sitting around.” The imported beans are roasted locally in a private “roastery,” and transported quickly to its four Monmouth County venues.

In less than a minute, the process is done. The beans are measured, ground, then transferred into a filter where steaming water is poured over them, and the coffee is poured into a cup and handed to the customer. This “manual drip pour-over” method is the “most simple way to make coffee, by hand.”  And, Migliaccio says, the difference in taste is unmistakeable.

Most of its clientele are return customers and Rook servers know their regulars. The shop has cultivated a loyal following that proudly displays its logo of a black crow, or rook, defined by Merriam Webster as “a common Old World gregarious crow.” “Rook piercing,” she notes, is piercing the upper ear cartilage.

The difference in taste is unmistakable

The difference in taste is unmistakable

The owners, both Shore Regional High School graduates, ended up in New York City after college, she in sales and marketing; he, a trader and analyst. They each tired of the city grind (sorry!) and wanted to return to the shore. She quit her job at age 30 and traveled in Asia for three months. When she returned to N.J., he suggested the idea of a specialty coffee shop and she loved it. Now they have 47 employees and a full-time corporate trainer to make sure the employees get the mechanics and the service right.

“We set the bar for our customer experience extremely high,” she says.

Rook does no traditional advertising, relying strictly on word of mouth and social media marketing. The owners contribute to their local community by donating to schools and gift auctions.

View video how Holly and Shawn sourced their coffee from hundreds of choices in Central America and also see a clip about their business story that was part of a larger documentary, Growing up America.

You can sample a handcrafted cup of coffee, organized from mild to dark, at Rook’s four locations, two in Oakhurst, and one in Long Branch and at the Little Silver train station, where baristas time their production to the train schedules.

Just don’t ask for a cappuccino.


Lenora’s Café Offers “American Twist” on Classic Recipes


Lenora’s Cafe Provides a Cozy Atmosphere

Lenora Cortes immigrated from a small coastal town near Mexico City and then realized what she wanted out of life.

“When I came here, I discovered a love of cooking,” says Lenora, a soft-spoken entrepreneur who took time from her Thanksgiving preparations to tell me the café’s story.

After a decade of waitressing and toiling in restaurant kitchens, she and her husband Francisco, who had a son by then, came to a conclusion:

“We should put our ideas on the table,” she said.

The aspiring restaurateurs joined forces with her brother José Jimenez and a neighbor and trusted friend, Lisa Leon, the café’s business manager. They found a location they liked.

Fast forward five years, and you can order “Tinga,” shredded chicken with olives and onions simmered thick and Chipotle sauce, grilled “Steak Veracruz,” or “Pork Pernil Asado,” slow roasted pork with avocado salsa, at Lenora’s Café, a local favorite on Keyport’s lively Front Street.

The eatery is in many ways a community affair, where customers are treated as family and given input into new dishes before they’re added to the menu.

Lenora’s passion for cooking, experience in food service and appreciation for fresh ingredients make it special. She prides herself on offering “little American twists” to Mexican classics such as ranchero eggs, for which “people go crazy,” she says as well as dishes that are more unusual here, such as Tinga.

French Toast - a Lenora's Breakfast Specialty!

French Toast – a Lenora’s Breakfast Specialty!

Unless requested, she offers a “less picante” version of classic dishes—not all of Mexican origin–to her diverse clientele. People come for the all-day breakfast that includes specialties like “Crunchy French Toast,” and eggs and chilaquiles– fried corn tortilla strips, tomatoes, onions and cheese. In the kitchen, I watched Francisco expertly flip French toast and sprinkle fresh bananas and toppings over the steaming bread for the final presentation.

Lenora's Seasonal Desserts Provide a Nice Finish to a Good Meal

Lenora’s Seasonal Desserts Provide a Nice Finish to a Good Meal

A local group of seniors have made a large table near the window a part of their weekday routine and Lenora loves sitting with them when she can take a few minutes from her nonstop day. Other times she can be seen amiably chatting, coffeepot in hand, with the regulars who gather at the counter to trade local news; making apple pies in the kitchen; or meeting with Lisa to discuss new ideas over breakfast.

“My imagination is always working,” she says about her menu, which takes its cues from the seasons. “I like to change spices with the time of year. Summer is for more fresh and crispy foods, winter is good for warm and soft foods that stick to your bones. Comfort foods.”

Keyport has “very friendly people” and has always made them feel at home, she says, gesturing to a wall where the owners hosted a recent exhibit of local paintings.

“I like to learn customers’ names,” Lenora says, “They’re my family.”

She, Francisco and José support town events and local schools and frequently donate gift certificates. Lenora’s is open seven days a week, with dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays, and Lenora rarely takes a full day off, Lisa says, shaking her head fondly.

The owners make sure their well-trained servers try all the dishes too, so they can answer culinary questions. Every spring, Lenora and Lisa adjust the menu, adding and dropping offerings, after hosting a popular “Sampling Night” during which customers get tastes of new dishes, buffet style.

If you want to see what will be served in the next year at Lenora’s Café, come to Sampling Night in May and pay attention to the dishes that go quickly.

Say hi to Lenora while you’re there.


Potter Offers Handmade Creations on Asbury Boardwalk

Asbury Park boardwalk has  weathered many ups and downs

Asbury Park boardwalk has weathered many ups and downs

Will Asbury Park’s long-awaited, oft-failed renaissance finally happen this time?

If it does, Greg LaPlaca, owner of LaPlaca Pottery Works, will be one of the people to thank. He’s been selling pottery and other handmade goods for eight years in Asbury and he is a proud member of  this “little community.”

“We need to keep it local, boutiquey,” says the Belmar-born potter. “That’s what makes it Asbury. I know a lot of my customers.” If chain stores move in to the town, “Why come here over any other beach?”

The entrepreneur, teacher and artist sold his wood-fired and pit-fired creations in Asbury Park and Point Pleasant until Superstorm Sandy rolled through in October 2012.

LaPlaca with one of his unique Face Jugs

LaPlaca with one of his unique Face Jugs

He’d moved his Asbury store from Cookman Avenue to the boardwalk in 2007, then got clobbered by Sandy five years later. After the store flooded, he was forced to rip out the sheetrock and rebuild. Insurance covered nothing because the damage came from the ocean, excluded from his coverage, which he’s since cancelled. No power and a curfew shut down his pottery classes in Point Pleasant. He now uses his Point location as a workshop. Asbury, though, is completely open, and LaPlaca is hoping for a strong summer season to make up for the many lost months of traffic while the boardwalk was closed.

“The worst thing was the town put a fence up and left it, putting me out of business until April,” he said. He had some tables in convention hall, but still lost Christmas business.

LaPlaca’s store was recognized as “best of NJ” for gift shops by New Jersey Monthly magazine in 2011 and 2012 and by the Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice contest for favorite art gallery in 2012. Ninety percent of the store’s offerings he makes himself. His mother produces quilted and crocheted bags that LaPlaca sells along with his seaglass jewelry, (Asbury Park icon) ‘Tillie’ memorabilia and his own photography. Novelty soaps come from visits to a brother living in Hawaii.

LaPlaca keeps his prices as low as he can

LaPlaca keeps his prices as low as he can

One customer favorite has a rich Southern history. “Ugly Jugs” were created in the 19th century with human-looking eyeballs and teeth to scare children away from the moonshine typically stored in them. Pottery with faces dates back to Egyptian times, LaPlaca says.

LaPlaca has tried to create things made to order, but quickly felt constrained by that. “I’m always changing what I do; I get bored,” he says. Besides, creating copies is not the point. “All my stuff is unique.”

“I’m a handmade in America potter. I can’t compete with imports, it cheapens everything else in the store.” He tries to keep his prices affordable. A mug is $20 and a majority of the store’s items cost less than $50, he adds, and many less than $10.

LaPlaca says he’s committed to his beach location, although others questioned his decision to locate in a tourist town even before the storm and the last two months of erratic weather have been rough on his business.

He loves being there anyway.

“We all know each other here, and a few of us who were early got the ball rolling,” he says of his fellow business owners. “We’re working so hard and we took our lumps. It’s a critical summer for us. We have a real community.”

He’s confident that this time, Asbury Park will make it back. “There’s way too much momentum this time.”




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