Imaging renovating your 14-year-old restaurant and eight months later watching those improvements go up in flames. That’s what happened to Jim Malaby, chef and owner of Blueplate in Mullica Hill. Flames didn’t quite engulf the entirety of his restaurant when an exterior electrical fire spread inside in August 2018, but they did enough damage that Malaby had to close for a year. (This, again, after completing renovations just months earlier.) While some chef/owners might reasonably despair of ever finding their footing—or their dining public—after a year of cold burners, Malaby and his team just reopened a refurbished restaurant to a packed house of hungry diners. We caught up with Malaby, who was taking a breather from recent regular 20-hour days, to ask how the restaurant managed to stay in the public consciousness (with a minimum of social media) and pack out on opening day.
Table Hopping: So it’s a bit over a year since the fire. When did you finally open the doors?
Jim Malaby: We were officially there [last] Thursday, we just needed the Certificate of Occupancy. Once we got that, we did a very abbreviated soft opening, a chef-style menu for a small handful of people. There were still a handful of things to do on Friday morning and we were still unsure how it might play against us, but we decided to open up! We made a little announcement on social media at 7:55am Friday morning and I think around 9:30 we had a full dining room. And we’ve been full since.
TH: It seems like a big part of what kept you going was community response?
JM: Community outreach after the fire was amazing. We got phone calls, texts, Facebook messaging. I heard from Facebook friends of the restaurant that I don’t know who they are in person! We’ve had a lot of clientele that have been anxiously waiting for us to reopen.
TH: Were you surprised by the community’s interest during the closure?
JM: Absolutely surprised. It still boggles my mind how they responded to the closure. I got in the business not to be a part of somebody’s life, but to cook. But we’ve become part of a lot of families’ lives. They have their special occasions, birthdays, anniversaries, and holy communions at the restaurant. We end up in their memory books. That’s not what we set out to be, but it’s who we’ve become. It’s gratifying. It really is.
TH: What about on your end? Were you guys active in keeping the community updated on the rebuild?
JM: I live in Mullica Hill, literally 20 seconds away from the restaurant. I’m in town all the time, so seeing customers a dozen times a day over the past year would probably be a low estimate. For my staff, it’s the same thing. I’d get a text and they’d say “Hey food shopping, ran into the Smiths, they say hi, asking about the restaurant!” That was common over the year.
TH: Did social media help at all?
JM: We kept up on a casual post here and there. But there’s only so much you can say. People are looking for food and we’re not producing food. We did try to do a little upkeep on what we’re doing, but we had to watch how much we posted—not lead people on that we’re getting close and still not being close.
TH: I heard you also retained a lot of staff despite being closed for the year. How?
JM: I’ve been so lucky to have 18 of 24 employees come back after the closure. I don’t think a week passed that I didn’t talk to a lot of them. They always were attuned to where the restaurant was in the rebuilding stage. In fact a lot of the input on rebuilding came from them. New equipment, this or that type of oven range, do we want to move something here or there. I might be the owner of the business, but it’s run by everybody.
TH: Even with all that support, after 14 years and a pretty significant fire, was there any part of you that thought “Maybe I should just walk away?”
JM: No. The morning of the fire, we’d already decided we were going to rebuild.
TH: Were there any surprises in the rebuild process?
JM: We thought the rebuild was going to be more cosmetic than anything. But there was extensive damage. And as we rebuilt, we realized some of the workmanship dates back to how they did stuff in the 1830s.
TH: Was the age of the building an issue? A bonus?
JM: Once we realized that more had to get done, the discussion turned into ‘What’s the future plan for the restaurant?’ We ended up doing everything we had originally wanted to do maybe three or five or eight years down the road.
TH: Like what?
JM: When you’re rebuilding an old building, you see all this natural wood and craftsmanship. We ended up keeping the ceiling exposed in areas to show off its natural beauty. We have one beam about 30 feet long that runs down the center of the dining room that actually still has bark on it! It brings natural character and it also gives us 16 extra inches in ceiling space, which sounds small but is huge for us. An old building typically has low ceilings. This gives it a much different feel. We also opened the front wall that faces the street and put French doors in to let natural light come in. And we expanded onto the second floor, where there used to be a two-bedroom apartment, so we have 73 additional seats. That takes us to about 200 seats total.
TH: That’s a lot of seats! Is it too crazy to think you guys might have ambitious menu plans for the rest of the year? A sort of celebration of being back at the helm?
JM: We’re a farm-to-fork restaurant—we do a lot with area farms—and one thing we’re going to start this year is “Century Farm Dinners.” We’ll work with farms that have been here for over a century. For the most part we’re gonna try to get farms that have specific things they’ve been doing for a year and build a menu around them.
TH: Meanwhile, then, it’s back to business?
JM: For all of us! It’s been amazing watching Facebook this weekend, watching people post stuff like “Back to our regular routine, breakfast at blueplate!”
Blueplate is up and running for business at 47 South Main Street, Mullica Hill. 856-478-2112Click here to leave a comment