Joseph Gentile established his cafe to bring farmers market fare and artisan goods to Haddon Heights, but it’s also fast becoming a gathering place for community events.
By Matt Skoufalos
It’s been a year since Joseph Gentile opened Local Links, his corner-café-with-a-twist on Station Avenue in Haddon Heights.
Established in the spirit of a year-round farmers market (which Gentile also helped found in the borough), its intention was to bring the flavors and vendors of the New Jersey growing season indoors.
In that time, Local Links has earned as much of a following for its farm-fresh dishes as it has for the small-batch, locally made products that line its shelves.
The bicoastal menu features Mitchell and Geno artisanal sausages from Kensington on sandwich rolls from Melone Brothers Bakery of Staten Island right alongside fresh-fruit-and-vegetable smoothies, burritos, and fish tacos. Meals are cooked to order, and Gentile prides himself on having an open kitchen without a freezer, fryer, or microwave in sight.
Heading into year two, Local Links will be looking to push the lunch-counter boundaries of its fare with “local table” dinners, which will showcase the talents of guest chefs in multi-course, prix fixe meals, served family style. Seating at each event will be limited to 14 guests in total, Gentile said.
“You’ll be able to come in between 6:30 and 8:00, sit down, and stay as long as you want,” he said. “The place is yours for the night.”
The first dinner is slated for Saturday, January 16, and will feature chef Dennis D’Alessandro of Ocean City Sandwich Bar.
Guests who remember Via Giulia, the Haddonfield eatery he once operated, may recognize D’Alessandro’s flavors in the menu: a braised beef short rib, rubbed with Revolution coffee and paired with caramelized brussel sprouts; fusilli with cannellin, Mitchell and Geno sausage, and pecorino romano; a spinach salad with bacon, bleu cheese, walnuts, and caramelized onions; a local antipasto quatrocavallo; and key lime pie for dessert.
If the response is favorable, Gentile said he plans to continue the local table dinners at least biweekly. It’s part of his effort to cultivate an evening crowd that he’s building around live entertainment on Friday nights and a B.Y.O.B. option.
The outdoor café tables at the shop are often full on summer evenings, but community events like the Sippin’ on Station wine tasting and the Deck the Heights holiday celebration drew crowds of a few thousand apiece. He hopes Local Links can anchor more of the same in 2016.
“People like events,” Gentile said. “There doesn’t have to be an event every week, but an event drives attention in the area, and maybe if they’re in the area again, they’ll come back. Once they see that the town’s here, they will return.”
‘The biggest problem I have is keeping products on the shelves’
While he continues to grow his brand with the out-of-towners, Gentile can also lean on the success he’s enjoyed with area residents, who have taken a shine to the craft vendors whose products line the walls at the shop.
During the Christmas season, he sold baskets filled with their goods—Barn and Stone House soaps, Willow Moon Candles, Hank Sauce, Mill Creek honey, Kastania olive oil, Divino imported balsamic vinegar —and plenty of coffee.
Local Links launched with Collingswood roasters Revolution Coffee and Royal Mile of Haddon Township; since then, it’s made room for blends from Rich’s Micro Roast of Merchantville and the Philadelphia-based ReAnimator and Concave coffees. Gentile keeps several different pots brewed at the same time (“We’re not a coffee shop, but we have a coffee bar; you can go from one to the next,” he said), and his inventory empties just as quickly as his vendors can re-stock it.
“The biggest problem I have is keeping product on the shelf,” he said.
Gentile focuses as much on finding items produced within the region as finding those that will suit his customers’ tastes. He hopes to expand the lines of olive oils and vinegars to include jarred olives and salts—kitchen essentials that naturally complement produce from Summer Wind Farms, the community-supported agriculture (CSA) whose weekly pick-ups Local Links hosted in 2015.
Gentile is also starting to line his walls with local art, from canvas prints to line drawings and paintings. When he had a pair of borough resident Marina Westfield’s handmade insulator-and-steel lamps in stock, they weren’t there for long.
“As soon as she put them in, they sold,” Gentile said.
Despite the early returns, Gentile said he’s still fine-tuning the formula that drives his little corner of the Haddon Heights downtown. He considers Local Links to be “truly a work in progress,” just as much as the community events that the borough embraced in 2015. If his eatery can anchor the block for the months that the market is out of season, he thinks it will help shoppers keep the main street in mind for future visits.
“I just want to continue the awareness that this place is here, and to start to bring more people in from outside to see what we have going on here,” Gentile said.
“Some people will say, ‘Wow, this is a great little downtown, they have all these options,’ and then, hopefully, you’ll have more people move here. The more people that move here, the more customers we’ll have.”
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