Restaurants to the Rescue

The ultra-creative Smith group helped revitalize Asbury Park with a daring take on dining. Burlington City is their new canvas.

The Smith partners–from left, Meg Brunette, Jim Watt, Jason Watt and Kyle Lepree–survey the old Burlington City firehouse they aim to transform into a stylish eatery.
The Smith partners–from left, Meg Brunette, Jim Watt, Jason Watt and Kyle Lepree–survey the old Burlington City firehouse they aim to transform into a stylish eatery.
Photo by Rebecca McAlpin

By August 2013, the Endeavor Fire Company firehouse in Burlington City had been decommissioned for more than a decade. Around the block, Café Gallery, a longtime restaurant on High Street, was nearly bereft of patrons and would close in a few months. Nearby, the 215-year-old building that housed Temple B’nai Israel was also vacant, flooded by Hurricane Irene in 2011. The city’s once-bustling downtown was scarred by shuttered storefronts and boarded-up row houses. To the four founding partners of the Smith restaurant group—Kyle Lepree; her spouse, Meg Brunette; architect Jim Watt; and Watt’s brother, Jason—it looked like opportunity.

The four had come to Burlington at the behest of Jim Kennedy, an economic redevelopment consultant hired by the city to jump-start the revitalization of its historic downtown. On that summer afternoon, the historic city of 9,800 on the banks of the Delaware River appeared in desperate need of a renaissance.

That was, in fact, why Kennedy had thought of Smith, whose partners had developed a reputation as visionaries with a penchant for flouting conventional wisdom. “They’re on the cutting edge,” says Kennedy, “and the restaurant industry is a crucial part of urban redevelopment.”

Since 2006, Smith has opened six imaginative and varied restaurants in Asbury Park (the group refers to them as brands) helping launch that city’s ongoing comeback. As they toured Burlington, the partners couldn’t help seeing it as another Asbury Park. It didn’t have the ocean, but it did have the glistening Delaware. It also had proximity to Philadelphia and its well-heeled suburbs. Smith bought in, figuratively and literally, purchasing four homes and the decommissioned firehouse. In its 141-year-old façade and echoing, 16,000-square-foot interior, others might have seen only an architectural relic. The Smith partners saw a vibrant restaurant and social hub begging to be born.

Their first restaurant had begun with a similar vision. It was 2004, and Asbury Park was a boulevard of broken dreams. In their eighth-floor office on Bangs Avenue, Lepree and Brunette, founding partners in the graphic design and production firm Knockout, and their employee Jason Watt, now a partner in the firm, were entertaining a fantasy of Asbury Park’s future. “We asked ourselves, ‘What do we dream, if we could have anything?’” says Brunette.

Because it was midday, and because there was nowhere nearby to eat lunch, what they conjured was a really cool restaurant. There was little reason to think they might make that dream come true. Only Lepree had anything like a restaurant background, having run her family’s luncheonette in Elizabeth, where she grew up. And then there was Asbury Park itself. Earlier attempts at resuscitation had flopped. Brunette recalls being told: “You might as well just go down to the beach and throw your money into the ocean.”

In 2006, Lepree, Brunette and the Watt brothers—Jim came on as the project’s architect—opened Brickwall Tavern, a place whose design and ambience foretold the zeitgeist of today’s Asbury Park. With its exposed-brick wall, wry signage and oversized portraits of workers by the early 20th-century Austrian photographer August Sander—plus a vast number of craft beers and a menu of elevated pub fare—Brickwall began to catch on with longtime locals, arriviste hipsters and Shore day-trippers. It took two years to turn a profit, but Brickwall’s debut nonetheless marked what many cite as the start of Asbury Park’s turnaround.

“It was a breakthrough,” says Tom Gilmour, Asbury Park’s director of economic development. “We were still at the point where we had the reputation of being unsafe and not a great place to come to, and the success of that restaurant helped us jump the hurdle—people wanted to come and check it out.”

The following year, the partners launched the Annex—an adjacent extension of Brickwall that presented bands and spoken-word artists—with the idea that patrons could bounce from one room to the other. (It would be redesigned in 2012 “to shake up the brand, making it a stronger revenue stream,” says junior partner Mark Hinchliffe.)

Then came Porta. On a visit to New Hampshire, Brunette had fallen for a restaurant that baked flatbread pizzas in clay ovens. With Brickwall humming, the partners went a step further, setting their sights on authentic Neapolitan pizza.

The company jumped into the project with its signature ability to turn mountains into molehills. No experience in pizza? No big deal. Frederica Vilardi, their creative director, took an eight-week course in pizza making with Roberto Caporuscio, president of the Neapolitan Pizza Association and the owner of Kesté, a restaurant in Greenwich Village.

What they didn’t do was test the idea with a focus group, a concept common in the hospitality industry but anathema to Smith, for whom vision and imagination take precedence over market research.

“They’re a very creative group with a background in branding,” notes Marilyn Schlossbach, owner of several Asbury Park eateries, including Langosta Lounge and Pop’s Garage. Smith’s decisions—on everything from a restaurant’s name, location and design to its menu and ambience—come “from our bones,” says Lepree.

If they had tested the idea with a focus group, they undoubtedly would not have chosen to open a pizzeria in Asbury Park’s yet-to-be gentrified Cookman Avenue area. It was generally assumed that the boardwalk was the place for development.

For Smith, the challenge was the enticement. “We really felt we could create some hot spots and help bring some spirit to other parts of the city,” says Jim Watt. In July 2011, they opened Porta in a huge former nightclub on Kingsley Street, “where Bruce Springsteen famously met Clarence Clemons,” Hinchliffe notes.

“Probably 20 different establishments built their box inside the box that was there,” says Jim. “We envisioned that if we stripped all that away, there was going to be this quite remarkable space”—a guess based on wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic that embraces the beauty of imperfection.

Indeed, part of Porta’s appeal—in addition to authentic Italian dishes beyond pizza and dancing on weekends—is its bare-bones architecture: exposed ceiling beams, communal tables (made from wood that was pulled off the ceiling), and unadorned light bulbs strung across a cavernous room decorated with repurposed doors that echo the restaurant’s name (porta is “door” in Italian) and its “core purpose” (a favorite Smith phrase), which Jim describes as “we are the door.”

Porta became the door that everyone in Asbury Park wanted to open. “Porta was in the black five minutes after we opened it,” says Jason Watt, exaggerating only slightly.

In 2011 the partners changed the name of their business from Knockout to Smith, stressing the word’s meaning of “maker” (as in blacksmith). They didn’t want to be seen as a traditional restaurant group; they thought bigger, envisioning a company where they could bring to fruition whatever ideas resonated with them. In addition to the restaurant ventures, Smith encompassed Knockoff, a printing company, and Fishbird, both a commercial venture and a corporate philosophy.

The name derives from a sculpture Brunette was given of carved wooden birds floating through the water of an actual fish tank. The piece became a metaphor for the group’s fluid philosophy. Unlike most restaurant groups, for instance, Smith rotates its chefs among restaurants. “Chefs are like artists,” says Brunette. “We like to give them the opportunity to stay fresh and creative.”

In its formal incarnation, Fishbird is a two-day workshop offered to companies looking to rebrand or expand. It aims to break down mental and corporate barriers to change.

The company’s first Fishbird client was RSI Bank, which had a single branch in downtown Rahway. RSI had hired Smith to rebrand the bank with a new logo, stationery and brochures, and the bank’s president, Russ Taylor, signed on for a Fishbird workshop. The process led him to open multiple branches, which he’s done successfully. Fishbird, under the leadership of Jason Watt, also helped Johnson & Johnson create its global public-health initiative.

Fishbird thinking, the partners say, underlies every decision they make. “It’s a conversation they have every day with themselves: What can we imagine? What’s possible?” says Hinchliffe. Listening to the group talk about Fishbird, with its echoes of the human-potential movement of the 1960s and ’70s, can make Smith sound a bit like a cult. But it’s a cult you might want to join because, hey, they’re having one hell of a time.

Relying on Fishbird thinking rather than market research has its risks. Goldie’s, the ambitious vegan restaurant that opened next to the Annex in August 2013 to laudatory reviews, closed 13 months later. Hinchliffe, himself a vegan, had suggested the idea. He ascribes its failure to demographics and geography. “Asbury Park,” he says, “wasn’t the environment for Goldie’s to shine.”

Still, the partners are loath to call it a failure. “It was incredible,” says Jim Watt. “The design of the space, the drinks, the food—we really feel like we nailed it.” They hope to reopen it in a location more welcoming to veganism like New York City or somewhere on the West Coast.

The sting of closing Goldie’s was eased by the successful opening of Pascal & Sabine in December, 2013. Named for the characters in the classic French film The Red Balloon, it’s a French bistro that has won the same effusive reviews that greeted earlier Smith restaurants. Like all Smith ventures, Pascal & Sabine wows as much with its design—deep semicircular banquettes, upholstery in muted shades of mocha and teal, evocative photographs by the Italian surrealist Paolo Ventura—as its food.

While design is important to most restaurants, it’s particularly prominent with Smith—partly because the business grew out of a printing and design firm, and partly because one of the founding partners is an architect. “Design is the thread that runs through everything,” says creative director Vilardi.

In 2014, Smith started looking beyond Asbury Park, initially with the Monk Room, a smaller take on Porta. Located around the corner from the Prudential Center in Newark, the Monk Room filled beyond capacity after Devils games but was virtually empty on other nights. The restaurant closed in September.

Porta Jersey City, which opened in December 2014, has been more successful, possibly because the city is much further into its renaissance than Newark. Also in December 2014, Smith opened Happiness Bar & Grill in the Asbury Park space formerly occupied by Goldie’s. It hearkens back to Brunette’s memories of the Chinese-American restaurants of the 1950s and ’60s she and her family would frequent in and around Rahway, where she grew up. After a slow start, Happiness now turns a profit. But it is still a work in progress. It took a fair amount of flak from customers for the widespread inclusion of Spam on its menu.

“We’re experimenting with the cuisine with the intention of creating a repeatable brand,” Brunette says. (Spam has been dropped from the Happiness menu, but is now on the menu at Brickwall Tavern.)

Of course, it takes more than a flair for branding to open a successful restaurant. In particular, it takes financing—typically, for the Smith group, from $500,000 to $3.5 million, depending on the state of the space they’re starting with. They have relied mainly on friends and family for financing, along with their only equity partner, Michael Alfieri, a lawyer and investor who has spared them, says Hinchliffe, from having to borrow too much. Still, Porta in Jersey City required a bank loan to cover the extensive structural work needed to buttress the restaurant’s roof deck.

The Burlington venture also necessitated bank financing. Transforming a firehouse into a stylish neighborhood restaurant on the model of Brickwall Tavern is, after all, quite an architectural challenge. But adaptive reuse of existing structures is central to the Smith ethos: Porta Jersey City once housed a pharmacy; Pascal & Sabine occupies the ground floor of an 11-story brick building that once served as headquarters of a gas company. Smith has transformed the upper floors into fully furnished luxury condominiums—yet another extension of Smith’s mission to “make great things.”

Lately, no doubt inspired by their Burlington venture, they’ve expanded their mission to include what Brunette describes as “bringing back great American cities—not necessarily big cities like Detroit, but these little pockets, like an Asbury Park, like a Burlington.”  From another restaurant group, that kind of talk might sound grandiose. From Smith, it sounds like a plan.

Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a frequent contributor.

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