In their own words, four local women share the challenges and rewards of making their mark on what was once a man’s world.
From snack stand at the Staten Island Zoo to co-founder of Landmark Hospitality
“I never thought I’d be in the restaurant business. I went to FIT—the Fashion Institute of Technology—in Manhattan to study fashion merchandising and marketing. Turns out that fashion and restaurants have a lot in common: They’re both about taste, trends and gratification.
When I was 19, I got a snack-and-souvenir concession spot at the zoo with the guy I’d been going steady with since I was 12. That guy is [now] my husband, Frank. We had the idea to do catering for small events at the zoo. We both grew up in Italian families where everyone cooks, and we felt comfortable in a kitchen. The events became bigger and more deluxe, and we did catering full-time all over the metro area. We both loved the business.
The turning point was an Andrea Bocelli concert we went to in 2000 at Liberty State Park in Jersey City. We drove by an abandoned construction project on the waterfront, with views of Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. Frank snuck out during the concert and came back to tell me, “We have our first restaurant site.”
That became Liberty House, which opened in spring of ’02. It was, and is, a very personal-feeling place that can handle tables for two or large parties with equal finesse, and it took off. Next we opened Stone House in Warren, and then we bought Ryland Inn, with Anthony Bucco as opening chef. He led Felina in Ridgewood for us later, and is now our culinary director, who roams the restaurants making sure everything’s just right.
Today our company has [over a dozen] restaurants and event spaces, some with boutique hotels. And we have exciting plans to revive historic inns. We call ourselves Landmark Hospitality because our buildings themselves are New Jersey institutions.
The company has been a collaboration: I own 51 percent and Frank 49. He handles business development and construction. I’m in charge of management and day-to-day operations at all our properties, dropping in to ensure “owner-on-premises” excellence. My day off is the restaurant world’s day off, Monday.
We have our next generation on board: Our daughter, Maddy, who has a bachelor’s in business from Monmouth University, is our marketing czar. Maddy spearheads our advertising, press and social media. She has introduced loyalty and membership plans, which help turn Landmark wedding guests or restaurant diners into repeat customers who feel like part of the Landmark community. Restaurants cannot survive on special-occasion business.
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The hospitality industry can’t survive without new blood, either. If you have an idea, feed it. Learn everything you can about the field. Explore what’s out there so you can find a niche. Reach out to other women entrepreneurs; go to events, conferences and trade shows, and ask for short meetings with the women you admire. Keep asking for help, learn from your mistakes, and never quit. But don’t work nonstop or short-change your family—they’ll want to work in your business some day!”
Her Mehtani Restaurant Group has garnered global clientele
“It took a while to find my career. I moved from India to this country as an esthetician, transitioned into bartending for a more social atmosphere, then joined Air India in sales. When the airline flew into NYC, staff was housed in the famous Hotel Pennsylvania, right across from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, where they also held very popular Bollywood shows.
That’s when I had the idea to create an authentic and accessible Indian restaurant right in the hotel to serve Air India people, customers going to the shows, 34th Street shoppers and people on their way to the Garden or Penn Station. The Moghul Room opened in the hotel in 1984.
A few months later, my son Shaun was born, and Mehtani Restaurant Group expanded to Edison, then Morristown. You could say I was busy. My husband, Satish, worked as a civil engineer the first five or six years, then got involved [with my business]. He collaborated with architects, networked with town officials and brought in the chef talent from India. I devoted myself to day-to-day operations—the people side.
We catered a huge number of weddings and saw a growing demand for lavish, multi-day Indian weddings. We pivoted in that direction and went international. We became known for interfaith and intermarriage wedding banquets: Indian-Jewish, Indian-African American, Hindu-Muslim. We weren’t judgmental; a wedding is a celebration of love. And bringing two cultures together, or mixing tradition with modern, is so satisfying.
So many more women are in the field now. Decades ago, we had to play by the guys’ rules. But now everyone knows that women bring invaluable perspectives and skillsets to the conference table. I networked tirelessly to meet and work with exceptional women. First I was mentored, then I mentored others. My advice is to never stop networking, learning and sharing.”
Adds son Shaun Mehtani: “The family business was born in 1984, and so was I. I grew up in the business—waiting tables, tending bar, catering big Indian weddings. In 2013, the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association honored my mom as Restaurateur of the Year, the first Asian winner. That year, when I was 29, my parents made me managing director of Mehtani Restaurant Group. We’re moving in exciting new conceptual and culinary directions at established and new places, like [churning out] New Jersey’s first Indian pizzas at Papa Pancho in Edison. And I love it that the original Moghul Room, in Manhattan, is still going strong.”
After “intolerable” early retirement from her first business, she found sweet salvation
“I’m from Dublin, Ireland, and relocated to Stirling in Morris County in 1985. I built and ran a busy daycare business, and then I tried to retire. But I couldn’t. I missed the pace, the optimism, the thrill of making things happen. I had to get back into the business world.
My knack for taking an existing consumer[-focused] business model and making it better led me to … dessert. I’d always loved the positivity, creativity and beauty of confections, and I felt there was a market waiting for simply breathtaking and luxurious desserts.
Our daughter, Lindsay, who was then in her first job, doing marketing and graphics for small businesses, joined me. My husband, Colm, and our two sons had nothing to do with this! We hired a team of gifted bakers and decorated a beautiful retail space. We opened in 2010 in Stirling as the Dessert Ladies, a retail bakery with gorgeous cakes and pastries, plus party accessories and hostess gifts. We could customize everything, including dessert bars.
The shop also served as a showroom for two markets I wanted: catering for corporate accounts, and corporate gifts. As we all know, New Jersey is stuffed with major corporate headquarters. These wealthy companies hold endless marketing events and conferences, and they give gifts in very large numbers. I found out it’s not unusual for them to order 10,000 pieces of a custom pastry.
So I started a related business under the same roof, called Biens Chocolate Centerpieces. Biens, a pretty French word for goods, is our own Belgian chocolate truffle that we developed for corporate gifts. It’s also sold at Neiman Marcus and Saks. In 2020 we opened a manufacturing plant in Denville. Our baking is very green, and so is our packaging. We weathered the pandemic by focusing on online orders for delivery or pickup.
To succeed, networking is everything. Take free classes in small-business entrepreneurship offered by organizations like Rutgers, Goldman Sachs and WBENC (Women’s Business Enterprise National Council). Go to conferences, trade shows, lectures—and build a network. It will keep you afloat.
My network came to the rescue in 2014, when the NFL wanted desserts for 11,000 tailgaters at the Super Bowl in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. I couldn’t do it alone, and recruited six other Jersey bakers to help fulfill the order. We all benefited. When you own your own business, every day is different. I love getting up in the morning, and Lindsay tells me the same.”
From diamond expert to Thai restaurateur
“I was a gemologist in Bangkok for a Thai company, and when my whole family relocated to Belleville, I found work in Manhattan’s Diamond District. I did that for almost 20 years.
Then I was ready for something new, closer to home. My half brother had opened a Thai restaurant in Montclair, and I believed that was something I could do. I’m a woman whose dreams are about food, not about Brad Pitt. I grew up in Bangkok, where many restaurants have female chefs and/or owners. Traditional Thai cuisine, with its exquisite balance of flavors, is revered throughout the country, and girls grow up learning cooking from their mothers and grandmothers. Every Sunday my two sisters and I would make a big meal together with our mom, who was a fantastic Thai cook, and our grandmother. I learned everything they knew.
My first restaurant was Spice I in Bloomfield. I moved with my son, Luck Sarabhayavanija, to Montclair and opened Spice II there, and, next, Boon Thai in Livingston. I opened Kai Yang in Montclair in 2017, serving what might be Luck’s favorite food, Thai grilled chicken with sweet-and-hot sauce, plus sticky rice on the side. In Thailand there are restaurants that serve only this dish.
Kai Yang thrived even during the pandemic, because grilled chicken is a great takeout dish. I’ve trained my kitchen team well, and I stop into the restaurant every morning just to taste everything. And I’m often there for dinner. But I’m realizing, especially post-Covid, how precious every day is, and I’ve been making more time for my family and my three big dogs. It’s a balancing act.
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When you own a restaurant, it’s your life. Developing a great concept and keeping it fresh takes over your time and your thoughts. If you have a family, involve them. My son Luck was always a part of everything I was up to. Just like I learned cooking from my mom and grandmother, he learned the restaurant business from me. Luck founded Montclair Hospitality Group and the very successful pastaRAMEN and Asian-fusion Ani Ramen, with multiple locations in Jersey and New York. My son’s company actually owns Kai Yang now. But I’m still the boss there.”
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