In 1969, the company that my Father worked for went out of business because the two founders retired. He was a welder by trade, and a man of all trades by nature. I remember the afternoon that he told my Mother what he intended to do…open a restaurant. How does a man transition from Welder to Restaurateur? My Father, also called Jack, loved to cook and he was good at it. He successfully invented recipes and techniques off the top of his head. With my Mother onboard, I remember listening to them strategize at the kitchen table that winter. During the first session, they turned to seven-year-old me and asked what I thought. “Me?” I asked in disbelief. “Of course, your part of this too.” They answered.
One of the philosophies that I learned from my parents was that to be a successful eatery, you have to offer the public menu items that they either cannot cook at home, or they do not want to cook at home. An example of this concept is Wellington Beef. This dish nearly became extinct but was reestablished and popularized by Gordon Ramsey. I can make a wonderful Wellington Beef. However, I do not because it is time consuming and a pain to make. I would, however, order it at a restaurant.
PHOTO: Good Friday menu from 1969
Another concept was that people eat with their eyes first. No matter how tasty an entrée, if it looks like a hot mess the public will be critical and pan it. These concepts were not popular restaurant strategies in 1969.
I knew that my parents were rolling the dice on opening Fish N’ Chips. There was no room for failure that year as money was tight. I asked my Father how he knew it would all work out. In his always confident way, he told me that there were three things that are the safest businesses to start: “Food, Fuel and Booze”. No matter how bad the economy, people will always find a way to gas the car, go out to eat, or have a few drinks. In 1969, this was true.
I took being part of our restaurant seriously. My parents were involved in renovating 65 First Ave, Atlantic Highlands into a Restaurant, setting up Health Code Inspections, Fire Inspections, and all the other inspections. Then there were delays in permits, etc. Our opening was pushed back from March until April 4. The three of us were entirely preoccupied with everything to do with the restaurant.
My kid brain was worried, though. They were depending on this thing being a success. My family’s survival depended on it. That is when I came up with a “Little Rascal-esq” plan.
Two weeks before we opened, on a Saturday, unbeknownst to my folks, I snatched a box of the takeout menus, hopped on my bike and went door to door, introducing myself and inviting Atlantic Highlands residents to come to our Grand Opening on April 4th. It took two weekends for me to cover just about every home in town and a few in Leonardo, all without my folk’s knowledge. I was determined to pull my weight.
Finally, the day came. Fish N’ Chips was born. Early that morning, my father took me with him to the Belford Co-op to buy fish, shrimp clams, and scallops. The homemade Potato Salad and Coleslaw were made later that morning. We were scheduled to open at 11:30 AM. Around 11:00 AM, we saw a man standing by the door holding one of our menus. My parents wondered how he had gotten it. A few moments later, another person was standing behind the first guy, and so it went. Moments before we opened, we started getting calls for takeout. I knew that I had to confess to what I had done. My parents, after initially scolding me for doing something pretty dangerous for a seven-year-old, even in 1969, assigned stations; Mom would handle the cash register and phone, My Father was at the bank of deep fryers and I would bread the fish, etc. Just as my father was going to open the doors, he stopped dead in his tracks in front of calendar on the wall by the cash register. He pointed silently and we all saw the Date: April 4, 1969…Good Friday. Because of all the frenetic work involved with opening the restaurant after all the delays, we did not even realize that we were opening a seafood restaurant on Good Friday. The line snaked around the block in two directions. The longer the line, the more customers were attracted. By 8:00 PM, we had run out of everything. Not even a crumb remained.
None of us had sat down or taken a break since we opened the doors at 11:30 AM.
The pace was beyond description. After it was over, and the kitchen cleaned up, only then did we sit down together at one of the tables.
The three of us were horrified at not realizing that it was Good Friday. But, in hindsight, it was a very special day for us. We talked about the Holy significance of the day, commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus. We talked about how there were so many interruptions that had delayed our opening beyond out original business plan that we were not keeping track of days, or dates other than in the abstract. Opening on Good Friday got the restaurant noticed. The Friday crowd never subsided. In my way of reckoning it was a gift that helped my family stay on their feet during tough economic times when people were losing everything. It strengthened my faith in God. It also taught me that if a family pulls together and works hard, they can accomplish amazing things…together.