Look Who’s Behind the Counter

Chefs take to takeout—to branch out or to find an upside to the downturn.

Larry Robinson of Ceriello Marketplace luxuriates amidst his merchandise.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

Larry Robinson
Ceriello Marketplace, Medford

Almost four years ago, Larry Robinson left a successful career as executive chef for the Terra Momo Restaurant Group, whose Princeton-area eateries include Eno Terra, Mediterra, Teresa Caffe and Witherspoon Bread Company. Each year since 2008 his 2,400-square-foot Ceriello Marketplace has seen sales increase—22 percent last year.

“I got into this because of the ability to interact with customers,” Robinson says. “My customers, those who still have jobs, are working harder and longer, and so am I.” Robinson hasn’t raised prices in three years. Ceriello Marketplace now stays open later on weeknights and offers more prepared foods than before.

“Traditionally, we chefs lead with the creative side of our brains and tend to be inflexible,” he says. “But in this business, the customer is telling you how you’re doing, and you have to listen.” Hence, his current best sellers are not the Italian specialties he built his reputation on, but rather comfort foods like mac and cheese, Salisbury steak and a complete rotisserie chicken dinner that feeds a family for $22. He has jettisoned shelves of high-end imported Italian groceries and replaced them with four communal butcher-block tables (complete with coloring books and crayons) for quick bites and for the biweekly cooking classes he conducts. “Are the classes a moneymaker? No. But,” he explains, “they drive traffic.” 413 Stokes Road; 609-953-4330

Maricel Presilla
Ultramarinos, Hoboken

In Hoboken, Maricel Presilla—co-owner with Clara Chaumont of the celebrated Latin American restaurant Cucharamama and its casual sibling, Zafra—transformed a small bakery attached to Zafra into a Latin food emporium called Ultramarinos.  

“Clara and I always had a passion to open a store that stocked the products we use in our restaurants,” Presilla says. “We see this as a natural extension of what we are already doing.”

Besides the ingredients they use in their restaurants (the same olive oil, smoked paprika, hams and cheeses), Ultramarinos sells Latin American textiles, baskets and tableware, and does a big business in prepared takeout. It has expanded into pastries, breads and baked goods, and, because Presilla is a chocolate expert (researcher, author and marketer), she has expanded the selection of premium chocolates to include her own line, called Blue Cacao. She has been bringing in guest chocolatiers and introducing her chocolates at outside events. “You need to have many ways to draw people to the store,” she says.

Being a shopkeeper is, Presilla continues, “all encompassing. You have to have a sense of service. A store needs to be properly staffed and attention paid to details every bit as much as a restaurant.” 260 3rd Street; 201-238-2797; ultramarinos.biz

Loryn Dagon
Chef Loryn’s, Madison

Loryn Dagon admits that November 2008 was not the optimal moment, economically speaking, to leave her position as executive chef with Gary’s Wine & Marketplace and open a takeout and catering spot with her sister, Colyn Camp. Yet business was good and growing—until she got a call one night in March 2010 telling her that the shop was on fire.

Dagon rebuilt and seven months later reopened. “We’re busier than ever,” she reports; this despite having a Whole Foods virtually as a neighbor. “We’re dedicated to putting out a good but affordable product,” she says of her breakfast, lunch, dinner-to-go and catering menus. “Everything is made fresh from scratch, including sauces and salad dressings. Ingredients don’t come frozen or from a box.”

She admits being “very careful” about cost. “If you’re expensive, customers come once or twice a month. The days of the $32 entrée are over. I’m providing dinner three or four times a week to wives and mothers of Chatham and Madison who don’t have time to make it themselves.” Her best sellers are comfort foods, including meatloaf, mac and cheese and flank steak. 250 Main Street; 973-520-8703
 

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