How do you work around high rents and limited real estate options in a downtown business district? Resource-sharing, slow growth, and throwing a few pop-up dinners doesn’t seem to hurt.
By Matt Skoufalos | June 11, 2019
For as much success as opening a food-based business may foretell in today’s economy, occupying even the smallest storefront in downtown Haddonfield can be an expensive proposition.
When Marcello De Feo was looking for a place to open up Valente’s Italian Specialties, leasing a tiny nook in the Kings Court piazza was a more measured risk than assembling the capital necessary for a bigger storefront on Kings Highway.
De Feo had built up a following at weekly events like the Haddonfield Farmers Market, which is now hosted outside his front door for six months out of the year. The smaller storefront allows him to keep a modest inventory without running into debt, and as it’s grown, De Feo has branched out into new lines of business under the same roof.
The latest of those is Cilento Sandwich Company, a high-end, low-profile sandwich menu offered at Valente’s, and which De Feo may someday spin off into its own entity. It’s named after the Italian town of his paternal ancestry, Cilento, a historic place that has been at the crossroads of a variety of cultures and cuisines.
“We want to do sandwiches that are all sorts of stuff from around the world—a croque monsieur, a muffaletta, po’ boys; things like that,” De Feo said. “However, to start, it’s going to be much more limited. The long-term plan is to go brick-and-mortar and have that kind of global feel to it.”
But “going brick-and-mortar” in a town where commercial rents far exceed the regional mean requires more than deep pockets and a proof of concept. It also requires forming some innovative partnerships, leveraging every low-cost opportunity available, and not giving up your day job in the meantime.
“That’s a big part of the reason we went with such a tiny spot,” De Feo said. “Valente’s is my baby. It’s my heart and soul; it’s my passion. I also know that it’s a very niche business and I’m playing the long game. I knew from day one it wasn’t something where I’d open the door and people would be pouring in. It takes a while to build up a reputation, and that’s what I expected.”
Cilento isn’t the only secondary business De Feo is launching beneath the Valente’s umbrella.
Founder and Signer, his model for a deluxe hamburger joint, will be looking to find its stride in area farmers markets over the course of the next few months.
“I want to be the Marcie Turney of Haddonfield,” De Feo said, shouting out the chef-entrepreneur who, together with partner Valerie Safran, built nine small businesses on 13th Street in Midtown Philadelphia.
“They have all these amazing concepts, and they all complement each other, and very few of them cannibalize some of the other businesses in town,” De Feo said. “I want to do that.
“I live in Haddonfield,” he said. “I love Haddonfield. And it pains me a bit when people’s first instinct is to leave town to go to some restaurant because the option isn’t available here.”
Absent the availability of affordable real estate, one of De Feo’s developmental workarounds has been availing himself of the resources of Le Café Creperie, a Kings Highway neighbor that has become a frequent collaborator. Since the creperie stops serving after lunch, owner Ash Maitra has offered up his space for both commissary cooking and pop-up dinners. His son, Arnab has hosted similar events there for his own pop-up business, Pizza Crime.
Sharing the space means exposing more diners to his cafe. It also provides an influx of needed cash in a town where “rent and labor costs are the killing factors,” Ash Maitra said.
“[These partnerships are] phenomenal because these changes are bound to happen,” he said. “The entrepreneurial spirit is taking off, especially because people have limitations.
“If we can all work together and bring each other up, there’s nothing like it.”
A corporate attorney by day, and a trained chef in his down time, Walter Gouldsbury hasn’t figured out what form exactly his enterprise, The Custard Cart, might take.
For now, its public test kitchen is the Haddonfield Farmers Market.
“At this stage, I wanted to develop it,” Gouldsbury said.
“My thought was always that [the cart] would be an incubator, but also a dessert arm if I did a restaurant later on.
“My goal is to have a brick-and-mortar, but buying the building [or] dealing with the rents is an issue,” he said. “I haven’t taken that leap yet; I haven’t even tried. The cart is an alternative.”
Last week, Gouldsbury sold out his first sit-down dinner at the market, a multi-course, wine-paired affair that he prepared with ingredients from its vendors, all to benefit the organization. His commissary space? De Feo’s storefront, from which Valente’s contributed pasta dishes to the meal.
“I want to get more things going in town,” Gouldsbury said. “Everyone wants to tout the community. It’s time for the community to step up and do things. Moving here after having lived in Manhattan and San Francisco, I feel I can contribute something.”
Alliances among entrepreneurs like De Feo, Maitra, and Gouldsbury can work because they have the potential to keep the public interested in what they’re doing while creating a stronger network to build new models for success—ones that might operate at the margins of the high-priced commercial storefronts in town.
If they can get landlords to cooperate, they believe they could compound those gains.
“There are some property owners in town that are legitimately interested in making sure the town succeeds,” De Feo said.
“They’re willing to work with businesses, cut deals with them, and help take the lead.
“I think that’s what we need to really jump-start this process and to make people a little more willing to take risks,” he said.
“My long-term goal is to do anything within my means to provide more of an atmosphere that will keep people in town, and hopefully benefit any other business around.”
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