Mike Metzner, for many years executive chef of Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank, late this month plans to open Big Mike’s Little Red Store in the Navesink section of Atlantic Highlands. We caught up with Metzner to discuss the move from fine dining to what he calls a “chef-driven deli” in an 1800s-era building.
You and Restaurant Nicholas owner Nicholas Harary are partners in Big Mike’s. What led to the project?
We have a really good relationship—he’s a friend and mentor. He knew how important it was for me to have my own place. Once that opportunity came up—the sale [of Red Store] came across his desk—it was perfect timing. Kevin Koller was ready for his next step [promotion to executive chef of Restaurant Nicholas], I was ready for mine.
It seems a big leap, from fine dining to casual.
My career started around pizzerias and delis. It was something I always thought I would get back to. I love sandwiches, and I definitely wanted to do a project like this. Nicholas has a similar background. This seemed a perfect fit, and a great opportunity to keep an iconic spot going.
Did you feel any concern from the community?
I wanted to keep it a neighborhood place. [Former owner] Pat [Verange] created a customer base, he knew everyone’s name. That’s something I wanted to carry on. But yeah, everyone’s a little worried, like we’ll try to serve foie gras. We’re really just going to try to make a really good, everyday eatery for everyone.
What is the menu like?
We’re doing salads, different types of composed sandwiches—done well, with really good ingredients. You can expect sandwiches as low as $7 and up to $12, salads anywhere from $10 to $13. There’s gonna be plenty of grab-and-go—breakfast, juices. We’ll have protein bowls. Eventually we’re going to be doing different types of meals to take home. A hot meal to take home at night.
Is it all grab-and-go?
There’s gonna be a small seating area, I think 16 people, but it’s gonna be quick service, not sit down after you order. There’s also online ordering. There’s not much room to eat outside.
The building is historic. How much have you changed it?
We’re trying to restore the look, not trying to take much away. We have beautiful white subway tile in the kitchen, there’s the treated wood, wood columns running through. That’s all being highlighted with different types of stained glass from a local Cranford artist. And we found these two doors that had been sheet-rocked into the wall when the contractor was taking it apart. They’re the doors where the horse and buggies would hook up. They’ll be on display. They look exactly how they were in the 1800s, just cleaned up a little bit.
Once you open, will it be you and Nicholas, or are you flying solo?
Nicholas is definitely a huge part of it. He’s not going to be there day-to-day, but he’s definitely involved with the direction and branding. I’m learning a lot, because I haven’t done a restaurant build-out before. Nicholas—it’s another day in the park for him. But you learn a lot. He’s always teaching me something.
Big Mike’s Little Red Store, 101 Navesink Avenue, Atlantic Highlands.