Church Street For Sale

Churchsale The cafe, that is.

Seems Montclair’s next big thing is flipping restaurants. Surprised to find this listing, we called owner Greg Spinelli to see what gives. Although the business is up for sale, Spinelli assured us he has no desire to sell and only would do so if someone wanted to give him "an insane amount of money," (i.e. the $750,000 asking price). "I’d be surprised if someone bought it," Spinelli says, "but if they did, I’d probably just do it all over again [start up another restaurant business]. We figured it was worth a whirl, to throw it out there and see what sticks to the wall."

For worried fans of the restaurant, Spinelli is heavily into planning menus for Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s and Easter and looking forward to offering patio seating in the warm weather.

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47 COMMENTS

  1. Something is definately up. The chef quits and now this? I thought the food was generally good, but did not think much of the ambiance. I tried it a few times but it did not make my regular list.
    I think they need more of an organizing principle. (concept?)
    But, that being said. The restaurant business is probably the hardest business to in which to make any money.

  2. The only fish here is fresh on the menu daily. Would you begrudge me the fantasy of doubling my money in one short year?
    Chef’s departure was by mutual agreement that it was in the best interest for growth for both parties.
    Concept? I’ll go with AOL Cityscape’s “finally mid-priced fine dining hits Montclair”.

  3. “The only fish here is fresh on the menu daily. Would you begrudge me the fantasy of doubling my money in one short year?”
    not at all! I would applaud you in fact. (although many here would not)
    Hang in there and good luck.

  4. I’m all for you making a few bucks too. But, maybe try keeping your cards a bit closer to the chest and not tell the world what you are trying to do! About the least effective strategy I have ever seen when it comes to selling out!

  5. Had to come back to this! Does he not understand that he’s showing his cards!!!??? Phenomenal! I should play poker against him. “So, Spinelli, just down to us two for the whole pot. Before I bet, what are you holding?” “UUmmmmmm, I have a 2 of hearts, a 4 of diamonds, a 9 of… umm, don’t know… umm, here you take a look at them…..”

  6. Among of the standards of decorum in the poker games I have played in is not to discuss or deride someone else’s hand or playing style.

  7. His name speaks volumes – he’s a red state man. Honesty and integrity don’t mix with gambling or politics.

  8. no–i wouldn’t begrudge you–but from hearing you speak about your business–i thought it wasn’t all about the money. I thought it was more about the passion you had for your business.

  9. Ahhh… You see Greg. Right on time.
    You see you are not pure if you aren’t doing it for the “right” (Left perhaps?) reasons.
    (as determined by *others*, of course)

  10. Greg: While there is no formula for success in the restaurant biz (Fascino’s instant success; Epernay’s moderately-warm existance; Richie Cecerie’s prohibition-esque appeal) I can’t think of any long-running community-loved establishment that didn’t have some kind of vibe or warm ambiance. Your menu is good, but the decor is lacking any remarkable character. You need an interior designer who knows what they are doing: creating an interesting environment. Just a suggestion from a one-time diner who wasn’t “wowed” enough to return.

  11. To Montclair Foodie: Your comments are dead on, and i agree with you. It’s worth noting that of the three restaurants you mention, only one – Fascino – had a PR agency/food & beverage consulting firm on board with them even before they opened. It’s a brutal business, but it sure helps if you have an independent, supportive partner there to help make marketing goals and strategic targets a reality.

  12. Let me add: it also helps if you happen to be a warm and gracious family that has the ability (and creativity) to serve remarkable food!!

  13. And let me add..Greg and Cheryl are a warm and gracious family, with remarkable creativity ( did you ever go there when it was the Midtown Diner )…
    a major change I think..and they do serve wonderful food.

  14. Wayne: Church St Cafe is a better Midtown Diner, but it’s no Fascino either. It’s not even a Raymond’s. If you want to draw crowds for the long haul, I think you have to commit to the “labor of love” philosophy which means losing money for a while while the reputation builds, and even afterward only breaking even with minimal profit margins. If you see restauranting as an investment for profit, you’ll probably end up disappointing both yourself and your intended customers. The success of Starbucks is a good study: a coffee house with comfy chairs, chic-metro design, bistro ambiance. It made Dunkin Donuts feel like McDonalds. Design matters. The customer experience matters.

  15. Foodie:
    The food should be more important than the image, but since we live in a time when sizzle tends to be more important than substance, perhaps you are right. In my opinion that is unfortunate.
    I totally agree with your observations about “restauranting as investment for profit” It’s hard, hard work–and its got to be about more than the profit(especially in a brand new venture)-or you will never make a go of it.

  16. Well if Mr. Spinelli will pardon the intrusion I will offer a little constructive criticism.
    I personally go out to dinner because it is an “event” as well as a gastronomic experience. Not the “to be seen” kind of nonesense, but to have a nice meal and conversation in a convivial atmosphere with friends.
    The reason we have not gone back to his establishment was because the food was good but not excellent and the atmosphere was more like a diner than, say, a tratoria.
    I think he is right that there is a place for a mid priced restaurant in Montclair, but I think a lot of people still want to feel a little bit special when they go out.
    I wish him luck.

  17. Good lord, I actually agree with Right of Center!
    We hardly go out to dinner ($ is tight), but when we do…we go out because it’s an “event”. That means we want an experience of not only food that’s better and different than what we make at home…but also a place that looks nicer than our own dining room.
    Church St Cafe is lacking that ambiance. While yes, it’s better than the MidTown Diner, it is severely lacking that quality that makes you drawn to dine there. When we go to Church St, we always end up at Raymond’s…something about the restaraunt is just so charming. You can tell they paid very careful detail to every aspect of the atmosphere, right down to the font on the menu, etc.
    I dont think wanting “sizzle” in ambiance is a local thing. I’m from Kansas and people flock to the restaraunt (even chains) that look nice, versus the ones that look not as nice.
    I think a few small changes could make a big difference. Church St. Cafe looks very drab right now…no color, no light, etc. It feels like you’re in an old VFW post or something waiting for bingo to happen.

  18. Well,
    I tend to pick friendly people and gracious hosts as well as food quality. I also look for a restaurant that’s conducive to conversation and that’s comfortable. I’ve found this at Church Street.
    Before “discovering” Church Street I anticipated enjoying Fascino, but when I called twice over a period of time and literally heard the person on the other end of the line laugh at me (“You want a what? a reservation? you must be kidding!”) quickly decided that no matter how good the food I wasn’t going to put up with rudeness.
    Raymonds food is good, but in all honesty I think Church Street’s is better. Mind you, I’ve not been there since Jamie left as we’ve been too busy to eat out.
    Montclair has so many attractive places to eat, and there’s more opening every week. I do trust that the good ones will always have a place.
    Cary
    P.S. Anyone who thinks Starbuck is “good coffee” needs to go to BlueStone on Watchung. Watch the coffee being roasted. Smell the coffee being roasted. Enjoy something other than charred coffee.

  19. Re: the coffee —
    I’m a Bluestone fan — get a latte and their awesome scones (especially when warm) most days…however, I’m glad there is Starbucks since Bluestone unfortunately closes early in the afternoon. Another plus — when it snows or on holidays, Starbucks is open.

  20. Re: Church Street Cafe
    I don’t agree that you need a PR firm to get good buzz for a restaurant. And I’ve passed the cafe on many occasion and seen it filled with customers. Personally, while I like the convenience of the place, I think the switch at nights to a higher-priced menu is a mistake. If people want a burger or something light after a movie they can’t do that at Church Street, as that is part of their lunch menu. I also think the food seems a little restrained, both in portion size and presentation. Barring that, I’m glad it’s there, and I know it’s a favorite among Moms who go there to eat after picking up kids at MMO programs.

  21. I think that Foodie and ROC have hit the nail on the head. Any restaurant experience worth repeating is theatre. Thats means a combination of many disparate elements. Like a good cassoulet, there are many ways to mix the elements.
    First in a restaurant the food has to be good. Not necessarily extraordinary, there are many places in NYC and other cities where the food is secondary to the experience.
    Decor is always important and often overlooked in the suburbs. Epernay is attractive, but certainly not as interesting an environment as i would like it to be.
    Raymond’s has always combined good food (of varying degrees) with interesting decor and ambiance.
    Music, lighting, ambient noise, service, these things all combine into a complicated equation.
    For some, Church Street has the right combination, I assume these are folks with less discriminating palettes, for food and visuals. I also assume these folks like the general din of a ‘family’ restaurant.
    For myself, and I have a strong sense of the importance of the visual, from a simple diner, to a bistrot, or an elegant dining experience (I prefer to avoid too much “theming”), Church Street Cafe is a cheap renovation accomplished without the benefit of a talented designer and with minimal skills and craft. The lighting is terrible, the fixtures inelegantly proportioned and the space appears a soulless grab for some of the local economy. I choose not to go there.
    While it would not be difficult to inject some class into the establishment, and the owners have done a lot of the heavy lifting, I think they will have to look long and heard to find a buyer at the price they are asking. Still, we can continue to count on PT Barnum’s wisdom, after all, the current owners way overpaid for a lease, some useless and VERY used restaurant gear and the opportunity to invest in renovating someone else’s real estate.
    The next owner could easily hire a designer and make the place inviting. Of course, not if all their cash is tied up in buying a so-so business.

  22. Kevin,
    Sounds like you are still mad at me for pointing out the splenetic tone of your ravings on the Watercooler last year.

  23. Well now I feel like Mr. Spinelli now needs some defending!
    “For some, Church Street has the right combination, I assume these are folks with less discriminating palettes, for food and visuals.”
    Yikes!
    Rather harsh and perhaps even ungenerous comments.
    You can’t be all things to all folks.
    For myself I can say I offered the criticism in the hope that real feedback might be of some use to Mr. Spinelli if such he desires.
    However I am sure it is quite possible to run a succcessful business without myself or Kevin as customers.

  24. As a rule, I prefer to understate my bona fides. However, given the the volume of well intended advice of how best to run our restaurant, I feel compelled to respond.
    Cheryl & I come from a background that encourages low key expertise. Between the two of us we have something like 50 years (kinda scary when you think of it) experience in the top end of the hospitality industry.
    Both of us having worked in the rarified atmosphere of serving foodies, heads of state, crowned heads, the rich & famous (or nameless). From this we came to the concept of a restaurant serving great food, graciously served, without pretension. In other words, every day fine dining.
    Based on guest feedback, I feel comfortable in saying we have achieved this. Uniformly, the response we get from new guests is ” Wow, the food is great”.
    Soups are made from scratch. Fresh fish, meat & poultry are prepared to exacting standards. Our salads & sandwiches are second to none. We have begun an ambitious program of baking our own desserts. Our creative team of culinarians constantly present new items for menu consideration.
    Church Street Cafe was never intended to be an “event” dining experience. The idea of 3 meals a day, 7 days a week is an unconventional concept, but I believe that quality will prevail regardless of the opinions of the “expert” nay-sayers.

  25. Geez.. This town is scary…
    I’ve never been to Church St. so can’t comment on your specific establishment. However, I am a fan of a good/great meal. I don’t care if it is a hole in the wall as long as it is clean and I can have a pleasant experience.
    Unfortunately, the people who compare Dunkin Donuts & Starbucks are really personalizing their experience. As a another DD has opened to long lines in Bloomfield (totally 4-5 within 2.5 mile radius) and DD offers no dining ambiance – just a reliable predictable experience. The Starbucks patron is an exception to the rule but not the rule.

  26. as many an expert marketer will tell you, among the most difficult to obtain and most valuable is the “why not” factor. ie. why some in your target audience have chosen not to buy your product or service.
    Of, course the sample size is key.

  27. This is one of the two or three restaurants in Montclair that I am totally and unalloyedly happy with.
    I eat lunch there just about every other day, and here’s what I’ve found: the management and wait staff are exceptionally pleasant, professional, and nice to be around. The food is uniformly fresh and high quality, and flawlessly prepared.
    The ambience is pleasantly gregarious, but quiet enough to allow one to delve into one’s newspaper while dining if one chooses (and that’s what I usually do).
    Decor? I haven’t really noticed. Let’s not forget what this place was before its present owners did their remarkable work of transformation! I mean, the level of hygienic observance and bacteriologic awarenes in Chris’s “Midtown Downer” (um, I mean “Midtown Diner”) was such that it brought a new meaning to the word “culture” in Montclair!
    I really can’t recommend Church Street Cafe highly enough!
    Cheers,
    Bill Courson

  28. It’s not really fair to compare Church Street Cafe to DD or Starbucks since those are chains and there’s a whole branding initiative going on there, i.e, there are certain things that have to look the same, certains ways the products are prepared, etc.
    Having said that, I have eaten at Church St. and my experience was a positive one. The food was decent, the waitstaff was attentive and polite. I didn’t really pay that much attention to the decor but that’s not the reason I went to the establishment. I just wanted a good meal in a “clean, well-lighted place.” Clean being the operative word here.
    What disturbs ME about this whole brouhaha is that you have to question the motives of someone who has owned the place for such a short period of time who wants to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg” by considering putting it on the market to see what it will fetch. You don’t do that if it’s truly a labor of love. Just my 2 cents.

  29. Yes, you can question the motives of someone…but, I guess it doesnt matter in reality. I mean, does the restaurant only “rate” well if it’s a “labor of love” component involved? Why question the motives? I would suspect that we frequently go to *many* businesses where the sole intention is to make money, not because it’s a “labor of love”.
    But, perhaps there’s a correlation between a well-run and well-decorated restaraunt and the amount of “labor of love” involved…

  30. Maybe the question ought to be: why would the owners consider selling in the first place?
    I mean, as homeowners in this area, we all sometimes wonder to ourselves what our homes would sell for, but to actually list it on the market is a entirely different thing. Rather, we continue to make the Montclair-area our home, not because our homes are increasingly valuable, but because we feel some affinity with our neighbors, businesses, and surroundings.
    If you love the restaurant biz but are unsatisfied with some aspect of the current project, improve it, don’t abandon it. Playing the real estate game only puts doubt and negative gossip in people’s minds.
    But I’m confused about your money/passion/fun analogies … as seasoned restauranteurs, isn’t it expected that launching a new restaurant can sometimes require tweaks and makeovers to get the formula just right? … so if the food/menu is largely accepted, but the feedback about decor/ambiance is lacking, wouldn’t you feel compelled to investigate that angle, make some changes, and see what happens?

  31. Interesting discussion here … and for those who want more of the same, they should check out eGullet.org’s NJ forum, and the thread on Church St. Cafe. I don’t know how i’d feel about all this if i were Greg or his wife … but this kind of feedback provides an invaluable opportunity to see what the immediate community thinks of the venue (both good and bad). I hope he’s able to see it in that light. And while it may be true that you don’t need a PR firm to get good buzz for a restaurant … i think the fact that Church St. is getting decidedly mixed reviews is indicative that *something* is amiss. A good PR agency doesn’t go out there willy nilly and try to get coverage no matter what; it should take an independent position, help the owners figure out what needs fixing (in light of who & what the restaurant’s competitors are), and *then” present the venue in the best possible light. The fact that Church St. has not been reviewed by the major NJ critics (i believe i’m correct here) means something …

  32. wow – i was going to post something funny about this being like getting married but keeping your match.com account live but…now?
    count me out of this discussion!
    i am starving!

  33. As I was looking for something else, I stumbled upon this thread, and am very glad I wasn’t reading it two weeks ago when things were flying. Thankfully, Greg didn’t mention it to me, because I am sure that he knew it would have had an affect on me. For those who enjoy our restaurant, thank you, and we very much appreciate your business. For those who don’t, I am sorry that is your feeling, but I know that we can’t be all things to all people, much as we try. For those who question our commitment, apparently you don’t know us very well. Our whole lives have revolved around this project for more than a year. Every conversation, when not about our children, is about this business and how to make it better. Selling it would certainly break our hearts, but the reality is that if someone came with a ridiculous offer, we would be fools to not consider it. We have sacrificed more than any of you can begin to imagine to get this far and have every intention to continue our efforts. In retrospect, however, we did not start the project with the capital that was needed, but we certainly had (and still have) the desire and plenty of background in the food and beverage industry. We are not trying to compete with Raymond’s or be Fascino (both great places) so much as to offer another option, but with the same commitment to quality. In New York, there are dozens of restaurants on every block that co-exist beautifully and add to the charm of whatever part of the city they may be in. We are hoping to do the same. We would like to have people just come to Church Street and know that they can get a great meal in this neighborhood, just like in NYC. And, while some of you do not like the decor, every day I have people that come in and say that they love it, including, believe it or not, interior designers. Either way, it’s ok. If it is comfortable, and the food is fresh and good, and our guests leave feeling satisfied and that they were treated well, then we have achieved our goal and that’s enough for me. Beyond that, we just want to pay our bills, like everyone else.

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