Owners Mark Smith and Lydia Cipriani will maintain the Tortilla Press Cantina in Pennsauken. They cite a lack of alcohol sales in Collingswood as the difference in sustainability between the two sites.
By Matt Skoufalos | May 30, 2023
For nearly 21 years, the Tortilla Press has welcomed diners to Collingswood’s “pan-Latin” BYOB at the corner of Haddon and Collings Avenues.
On May 28, the kitchen established by Chef Mark Smith in July 2002 served its last meals under that banner.
Tortilla Press co-owner Lydia Cipriani said simply that the Collingswood business “could not recoup after the pandemic” amid rising costs for ingredients and labor.
The couple, which also operates the Tortilla Press Cantina in Pennsauken, said that location has been able to stay afloat thanks to alcohol sales.
“We are running a nearly identical restaurant in Pennsauken that has no problem whatsoever,” Cipriani said. “We used our location in Pennsauken to subsidize our location in Collingswood for about two years.
“The cost of food and the cost of staffing increased to the point where our margins were not sustainable without alcohol,” she said. “We got new management, a new chef; the margins were just unsustainable.
“We tried very hard,” Cipriani said. “Ultimately, I think the numbers did not work for us.”
Although it is home to a craft nanobrewery, Devil’s Creek, Collingswood is dry by ordinance, and the sale of alcohol is prohibited within borough limits. Its long-espoused argument against the local pursuit of liquor licenses has been that New Jersey laws limit the number of businesses that could benefit from the amenity.
Under those regulations, which tie consumption licenses to population at one per 3,000 residents, Collingswood is some 900 people shy of being able to offer five licenses. Borough commissioners haven’t taken up the issue for fear of privileging a handful of restaurants at the expense of the rest.
However, Cipriani believes that, without alcohol sales, the largest establishments in town will find it hard to keep going. Adding extra seating and outdoor spaces, like Sapori and Bistro Di Marino have done, she said, is great if restaurants can sustain high volumes, and bad if they can’t.
“A restaurant the size of Tortilla Press, or Nunzio’s; those kinds of restaurants at that kind of seating capacity would need alcohol to sustain them,” she said. “When you don’t have the alcohol, and can’t sustain the volume, the restaurant has to change.”
Pointedly, in the case of the Tortilla Press, Cipriani noted that its Collingswood location was both high-capacity and built around a menu that’s difficult to retool at a higher price point.
Whereas a limited-seat, special-occasion restaurant might lean into a gourmet or prix fixe menu to attract well-heeled customers, “Mexican and Spanish and Latin entrees aren’t high-ticket items,” she said.
Like many of the longest-tenured businesses in Collingswood, Cipriani and Smith own the festively colored building at 703 Haddon Avenue, and intend to lease it to another commercial tenant.
“It’s fully outfitted for a restaurant, so we welcome another renter for the commercial space,” Cipriani said. “I think somebody else with a different idea might be able to make a success of it. We did for so many years.”
Cipriani added that The Tortilla Press isn’t the only Collingswood restaurant cultivating out-of-town investments to diversify its footprint.
June BYOB owners Richard and Christina Cusack have opened up a companion brasserie, Café Le Jardin, in nearby Audubon, which allows liquor sales (although they do not have a license). Dominic and Lindsay Piperno of Hearthside secured a liquor license up the street in Haddon Township, and are preparing a tapas restaurant and cocktail bar there.
Sabrina’s Café opened its first (and only) New Jersey location in the borough eight years ago, but leverages economies of scale in its kitchens at four other Pennsylvania restaurants.
Chef Joey Baldino’s takeover of the Palizzi Social Club in Philadelphia owed more to preserving cultural legacies in his neighborhood, but its cocktail bar business is a key revenue driver there as compared with his James-Beard-Award-nominated BYOB Zeppoli.
Nonetheless, Cipriani doesn’t blame Collingswood for not (potentially) upsetting the proverbial apple cart. Rather, she believes its rapid ascension as a restaurant-driven business community has been a double-edged sword amid current conditions for food-based businesses.
“I don’t think at all that the message is doom and gloom,” she said.
“I think that there is an opportunity for people to succeed, not just in Collingswood, but many other small towns.
“In Collingswood, the atmosphere was so successful, so fast, that when the pandemic hit, it just pulled the rug out from underneath us,” Cipriani said.
“When food and staffing costs rose so fast, we did not have the buffer of alcohol to support us.”
The Tortilla Press does intend to maintain its presence at the Collingswood Farmers Market — and Market Director Kim Goodman confirmed that the restaurant would indeed be staying — citing its longstanding support of local growers.
“We like teaming up with the farmers and using what’s in season,” Cipriani said. “It’s important to keep that connection between what we’re eating and who’s growing it.”
Cipriani and Smith are grateful for the time they shared in Collingswood, and thanked the borough for supporting its dining industry, particularly through events like restaurant weeks and May Fair, .
“We love Collingswood,” Cipriani said. “The town is always interested in promoting restaurants and doing whatever it can to support restaurants.
“From beginning to end, it’s just been a fantastic town, and so adaptive to merchant needs,” she said, “but they can’t change state laws.”
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