As part of its tenth anniversary, the Rutgers University Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development (CUEED) recently presented a wide range of startups and restaurants at the Newark Express event space at its celebration: UnGala. Alex Criscione and Lauren Musni were invited to attend the event on behalf of Jersey Bites.
The event focused on small businesses and entrepreneurs, some of whom are associated with Rutgers. This also helps the community, and New Jersey on an economic side.
I had the pleasure of speaking with many restaurant owners, to hear the stories of how they got their businesses off the ground. The foods represented a range of cultures and styles, from southern home cooking to authentic Mexican cuisine.
A Casa Cubana Conversation
Gerardo Perez, owner of Casa Cubana, presented a bit of his story and his plans for the future. For the past five years, Perez and his sister have run a catering business that covers weddings, corporate, and more. Ultimately Perez hopes to open a small restaurant around the Jersey City area.
At the event, Casa Cubana served empanadas filled with sauteed spinach and cheese, and albondigas, beef and pork meatballs served in a spicy chipotle tomato sauce.
Chilangos and a True Story
Leo Cervantes, owner of Chilangos, in Highlands, offered his own take on Mexican cuisine. Years in Mexico City motivated him to highlight the city’s culture. “My dream was to open up my own restaurant,” he said. At UnGala, he served tamales with chicken, beef, and pork. He also promoted his book, Chilangos in the House: The True Story of a MexiCAN.
On the restaurant front, my favorites were The Weekend Spot and Delta’s. The Weekend Spot served some of the best shrimp and grits I’ve ever had—if not the best. I tried more every time I passed by! Delta’s had a huge display of their sweet potato pies, which was not only aesthetically pleasing but tasty as well. They also served their crab mac and cheese egg rolls—excellent with the perfect amount of spice and overall flavor.
Starting with Dessert
Upon entering the room where all the discussions would take place, I saw the beautiful display of desserts that were customized and personalized for the event. The layout included mini cakes, truffles, chocolate-covered pretzels, and strawberries, and so many more delightful sweets.
The creator and baker of the alluring display pictured below is Geraldine Keogh, owner of The Dessert Ladies Group located in Stirling, NJ. We got a chance to have an engaging conversation about her business and how she started it. The business started in 2010 followed by the opening of the dessert shop in 2012.
Over the years, the business has grown, through corporate and private clients. They were even picked by the NFL to be a dessert vendor for a VIP party at the SuperBowl a few years back.
Geraldine and her team are currently working through a new vision with a product that they created—Biens, the Dessert Ladies’ signature chocolate cake truffles, set up in a customizable centerpiece. These were also featured during the UnGala event, and the Dessert Ladies have recently started shipping them.
The biggest takeaway from our conversation was the amazing advice she gave me. Geraldine told me, “Be true to who you are and what you do.”
The Unity in Community
Later in the evening, I bumped into RJ Gourdine, owner of Betty Lee Jean’s Kitchen in Newark, NJ. At 25 years old, he signed the lease to his property in July 2018 and opened his restaurant that December. The motto of his restaurant is “Serving Our CommUNITY: Mind, Body and Soul Food.” Born and raised in the city of Newark, RJ is all about the community he lives in and wants to contribute as much as he can through his restaurant.
The Big Picture
The event in itself went far beyond just chatting and snacking. It was about meeting people who have seen some lows but overcame their struggles and turned them into something innovative and inspiring.
The Rutgers CUEED program does not just teach about business ventures and analytics but teaches the values and important attributes it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. It is the perfect opportunity for any chef or food professional looking to dig deep into the business side of the industry.