Harvest Group is Founded on Fresh

From Trap Rock Brewery to Roots steakhouses and the hip Urban Table, Harvest Group’s restaurants stick to their seasonal, local goals.

Chip Grabowski, far left, recruited chefs Bill Hendra, far right, and Bruce Johnson in 1996. They pose at Urban Table in Morristown with its executive chef, Lauren Owens.
Chip Grabowski, far left, recruited chefs Bill Hendra, far right, and Bruce Johnson in 1996. They pose at Urban Table in Morristown with its executive chef, Lauren Owens.
Photo by Christopher Lane

Back in 1996, Bruce Johnson and Bill Hendra had two of the more enviable jobs in New Jersey dining. They were executive chef and sous chef, respectively, of Restaurant 28, which had brought to Montclair a style of seasonally driven, New American cooking almost unknown at that time on our side of the Hudson River. Then someone made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

That someone was Chip Grabowski, whose family owned the modest Turtle Brook Inn in West Orange. Grabowski had dined at 28 several times with his wife, Cheryl. They were sufficiently wowed that Grabowski wooed Johnson and Hendra to become the chefs of a brewpub that he, Cheryl and financier Robert Moore, a friend from their hometown of Summit, were planning to open in Berkeley Heights. It would be called Trap Rock, after a type of stone once quarried there.

Why did the chefs even consider leaving an acclaimed restaurant for a start-up from people with scant hospitality cred? First, 28 was a BYO. “Being able to do seasonal New American food with a brewery, that was the appeal,” says Hendra.

The liquor license alone might not have sealed the deal. But Trap Rock was to be just the first of three restaurants the Grabowskis and Moore intended to open, and the chefs would honcho those as well.

Why was Grabowski dreaming such dreams? As the third generation of his family to run the Turtle Brook, he was chafing. “On Mother’s Day, when I was 10 years old,” he recalls, “I was doing the back kitchen, making salads.” After he and Cheryl married, they eventually took charge of the restaurant, which had devolved over the years from fine dining to nightclub to sports bar. By the early ’90s they were yearning to break free, start something of their own. But what?

One night in 1994 they decided to have dinner at Danny Meyer’s groundbreaking Gramercy Tavern in New York City. The food was sophisticated yet approachable, with dishes built around locally sourced ingredients. The setting was upscale yet comfortable, the service attentive yet warm. “We got inspired by all those aspects,” Grabowski recalls, “and said, ‘Let’s bring this to New Jersey.’”

That is exactly what they did, and more. Harvest Restaurant Group, as the partners later named their enterprise, is about to open its 11th restaurant—Addams Tavern in Westfield, named for longtime resident Charles Addams, the comically macabre New Yorker cartoonist who turned his ghoul fools into TV’s The Addams Family.

The Addams, expected to open by Labor Day, features a wood-burning grill and an Argentine-inspired menu. It joins a set of environmentally conscious and palate-pleasing brands centered in Union and Morris counties. They range from the upscale Roots Steakhouse outposts in Summit, Morristown and Ridgewood to the youthful Urban Table restaurants in Morristown and Basking Ridge; the gastropubs Huntley Taverne in Summit, Tabor Road Tavern in Morris Plains and 3 West in Basking Ridge; and the Italian trattoria Grato in Morris Plains.

One thing you won’t find in any Harvest restaurant is a video screen. “If you can go someplace for food, wine, conversation, and not have the distraction of a TV,” says Harvest COO Grant Halliday, “we have a better chance of hitting our mark.”

Trap Rock Restaurant and Brewery, the model for all that followed, opened in March 1997 with Johnson as executive chef and Hendra as sous. Though the first menus featured poultry from Goffle Road Farm in Wyckoff and fish fresh off the docks of Point Pleasant, customers did not immediately get the aspirational nature of the project.

“We opened a brewpub, and people thought [that meant] chicken wings and nachos,” recalls Grabowski. “The battle in the beginning was, ‘Hey, where’s the cheeseburger, where’s the Budweiser?’ And we said, ‘No, this is what we’re doing.’ And I’ll never forget. Four months later, Fran Schumer from the New York Times came in and reviewed us and gave us an Excellent.”

With that review filling their sails and an enthused clientele finally filling the seats, the team in 1998 moved Hendra to open Huntley Taverne in Summit. As Huntley’s executive chef, Hendra set out to fulfill the group’s fresh/local/seasonal goals. In fact, it took several years.

Hendra started out buying from the farmers market in Summit. But the farmers he met there weren’t able to make regular deliveries to the restaurant in the quantities he required.

The farm-to-table supply problem wasn’t solved until 2008, when Mikey Azzara, an outreach director for the New Jersey chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, created Zone 7. Azzara named his Ringoes-based delivery company for the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone that includes New Jersey. Zone 7’s simple but essential mission was to connect farmers and other producers with chefs, delivering  fresh crops and produce directly to restaurants daily.

Zone 7 remains a lifeline for many restaurants. At Huntley, named for the old Huntley section of Summit, Azzara’s operation “started changing the way we thought about our menu,” Hendra relates. “We actually [began] to change our menu every day…designed and defined by what was available seasonally and locally.”

As Harvest grew—Roots in Summit, the third of the originally planned three, opened in 2006—all its restaurants followed suit. Today, its suppliers include the Asbury Park-based seafood network Local 130. (Named for the length in miles of the Jersey Coast, it promises chefs dock-to-door service.) Among other providers, Harvest buys pork from River Bend Farm in Gladstone; prosciutto and other salumi from Salumeria Biellese in Hackensack; sweet potatoes from Parzanese Brothers in Hammonton; and cheeses from Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley and Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville. It also tends its own gardens at Trap Rock, Huntley and Tabor Road.

DeBragga & Spitler in Jersey City supplies Harvest with sustainably raised, apple-fed lambs and grass-fed, grass-finished beef from small farms in upstate New York. George Faison, a DeBragga partner who led the large-scale purveyor into sustainably raised meat, calls Harvest the ideal client for Faison’s “small-scale, old-school agriculture” project.

To make a profit, he says, small farmers need to sell whole animals, not just the few prime cuts on each carcass, such as beef tenderloin or rack of lamb. Because Harvest is a group serving different styles of food at different price points, “it can make use of the whole carcass,” Faison says. That helps sustain the farmers he works with. Meanwhile, the nose-to-tail efficiency adds flavor, variety and affordability to Harvest menus. Faison says Hendra “has been very creative doing it in a way that meets…profitability requirements, menu pricing requirements.”

After 20 years, Harvest is still growing. Grabowski scouts new locations for restaurants and possibly a Harvest-dedicated farm to buy. Cheryl, his wife, handles wine buying for the group. Their son, Jake, is director of finance; daughter Callie is events coordinator. Hendra and Johnson have long been elevated to corporate-level co-executive chefs.

Hendra estimates that about 90 percent of the menu at Huntley Taverne and between 30 and 60 percent of the menus at the other restaurants represent sustainably raised meats and locally grown fruit and produce. They’re working to raise those rates and fine-tune them.

“We get to meet the farmers,” Hendra says, “and hear a presentation about how the whole movement is growing, and they ask us, ‘What do you want us to grow for you this year?’”

Another goal is to inculcate their values into the next generation of Harvest Group chefs. One rising star in the ranks is Lauren Owens, 35, executive chef since 2014 of Urban Table Morristown. Owens grew up in Metuchen in a family of avid cooks. She earned a culinary degree from Middlesex Community College in 2003 and worked at the Short Hills Hilton and in New York City before joining Harvest in 2008 as a sous chef at Huntley Taverne.

“What made me gravitate to the company,” she says, “was that it was family run; it was a group, so there was room for growth; and I saw passion in Bill Hendra and the other people running it, so I felt I could learn a lot.” Which she has.

“From Bill I’ve learned levity, definitely important in a kitchen,” she says with a laugh. “I came with a lot of food knowledge, but through Bill I learned how to lead, how to manage a kitchen and still use my passion, but in a more structured way.”

This summer, Owens created a new menu for Morristown, which includes slots for her daily specials in each section. “Very seasonal and locally based,” it was reviewed by Hendra, Johnson and Grabowski and approved “with some tweaks. It has more of my influence in it than ever before.”

Grabowski says he recently read a list of Owens’s specials “and texted her the next morning, like, ‘Wow, Lauren, you are spot on, and it’s so neat what you’re doing there.’”
Harvest chefs meet regularly to discuss problems and kick around ideas. They also take literal field trips together. “I’ve been to the farms, and I can picture the farmers’ faces,” says Owens. “I think that’s so cool.”

Morris County-based Marlaina Cockcroft often writes about Jersey agriculture.

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