It’s an All-American success story. A local family opens a restaurant in their hometown serving freshly made food filled with great ingredients and love. Their significant investment and years of hard work transform an old building on a revitalizing city block. Critical and community acclaim follows for the food and for the restaurant owner’s contributions to a downtown recently named one of New Jersey’s “Great Places.”
The twist? Division Café in Somerville showcases the Costa Rican recipes and flavors of the Granados family. Empanadas included in NJ.com’s “Top 10” statewide. Costa Rican-style tamals and specialty rices served with beans and sweet plantains. The restaurant, open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner, presents what the menu calls a “fusion of distinct flavors from throughout Central and South America.”
Those flavors, representing New Jersey’s diverse Latino communities, have been contributing to economic revitalization in addition to great food. From restaurants in New Brunswick and Asbury Park showcasing the cuisine of the state’s Mexican community, to a growing number of Peruvian restaurants in Kearny and Harrison, to the festival of influences on bustling Elizabeth Avenue in Elizabeth, the number of Latino restaurants statewide has grown right along with New Jersey’s expanding Pan-Latino population.
According to a 2016 report by the National Restaurant Association based on Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau data, there were 17,957 eating and drinking establishments in New Jersey in 2015, with $16 billion in projected restaurant sales in 2016. The report also noted that the 330,700 restaurant and food service jobs in 2016 represented 9 percent of total employment statewide.
Beth Anne Macdonald, Executive Director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance (DSA), a public-private partnership between local business and property owners and the municipality working to generate economic development, says Division Café has been a big part of the success of Division Street Plaza. Stefanny Granados, who helps run the restaurant with her mom, Maida Morales, and other family members, serves on the DSA’s board of trustees. The DSA keeps the award-winning pedestrian-only plaza in the heart of downtown Somerville bustling year-round with events and activities. Commercial vacancies around the plaza are virtually non-existent. Surrounding stores and restaurants add to the vibrant scene.
That synergy contributes to the energy and excitement bringing new life to New Jersey’s downtowns, adds Seth A. Grossman, Ph.D., President of Cooperative Professional Services in Frenchtown and Director of the Institute of Business District Management at Rutgers University. “Restaurants, particularly family-run restaurants, add immensely to the hospitality that is fundamental to the success of a business community,” he points out.
In Newark’s North Ward, a cluster of restaurants, bakeries and food stores on Mt. Prospect Avenue in the historic Forest Hill neighborhood have been the foundation of another story of urban renewal.
Melanie’s Restaurant serves Cuban-style fare and is famous for its tropical fruit shakes. Omar’s Café has earned a reputation for its Cuban-style grilled chicken and steak sandwiches. Cuba Bakery’s café con leche and guava-filled pastelitos are just as popular as its oversized Cubano sandwiches. A relative newcomer, Taino’s Kitchen opened in 2014 serving home-style Puerto Rican dishes including alcapurrias and mofongo. Other restaurants serving food representing the neighborhood’s multi-cultural Latino communities have popped up nearby as well.
The thriving local food scene gave hope to many local stakeholders during tough economic times along the Avenue. In recent years, a dedicated group of volunteers representing local residents, property managers, business and property owners working in partnership with the City of Newark has spurred economic activity, improvements and investment.
The Mt. Prospect Partnership (MPP) championed a streetscape revitalization program on Mt. Prospect Avenue that has become the centerpiece of an annual Hot Rods & Classic Car Show. With performances by local salsa favorites David Cedeño & His Orchestra, great food and family friendly activities, the event annually draws thousands from the local community and visitors from far beyond Newark’s borders. The winning cars in the September 2016 show came from Lincoln Park, South Plainfield and Parsippany.
“We are seeing significant interest, investment and an increase in construction that is changing our community for the better,” concludes MPP President Michael Sheehan. “Local and family owned restaurants and specialty food stores, both longtime favorites and new businesses that represent our Latino community in Newark, have been a crucial component of the economy on Mt. Prospect Avenue serving people from our neighborhood as well as increasing numbers of visitors seeking authentic and delicious food.”