One Restaurateur’s Struggle, Shared by Many

El Lechon interior

As we’ve covered for nearly 11(!) months, the restaurant world is struggling. Understatement. Through it all, local spots everywhere have found creative ways to pivot to outdoor options—including in frigid temps—and their teams are working hard to keep everyone aware of what they’re up to—even in cases when what they’re up to keeps changing.

Their survival hangs in the balance and, ultimately, a lot of this comes down to the public really hearing from the owners, getting a sense of what’s at stake. About two months into the public health crisis, for example, Dave Fletcher, owner of Cedar Bean’s Coffee Joint, in Cedar Grove, NJ, put this video out, to communicate this very point to customers—and potential customers. 

In the recent Esquire article “100 Restaurants America Can’t Afford to Lose,” the editors of the magazine open with the line “We’re raising a toast to these spots around the country—old and new, scruffy and spiffy—because if we lose them, we lose who we are.” 

Allison Kohler

We recently heard from Allison Kohler, owner of El Lechon de Negron—Denville, with her take on the situation. We appreciate her guest post and are happy to share it with you today. 

2020: The Struggle Begins

It was the year that wreaked havoc everywhere. Especially on those of us in the hospitality industry. Small businesses are on life support and many have closed. More will follow.

I own a few businesses in the hospitality industry, and they have all been decimated this year, even as we’ve been doing our best to get creative, think outside of the box, keep staff employed and survive. The timeframe has lasted way longer than anyone expected. Our expenses on rent, electric, gas, garbage, internet, insurance, payroll, purveyors, supplies, etc., have all continued to grow. We might by all appearances be surviving but our debt has grown exponentially. This writing is a plea for help. Collectively we have so much power and can make a difference.

A Little Backstory

I’ve run festivals in New Jersey. My parents ran events since 1972 and I’m second-generation of the business they started. Food truck festivals, beer festivals, taco festivals, mac-and-cheese festivals. The list goes on. We were supposed to have 40 festivals in 2020. I don’t need to tell you how that played out. All of our festivals support charities, several of them multiple charities, and we also ask all of our attendees to bring nonperishable canned and boxed items to help support those less fortunate in the towns we work. We have given back, always.

Mara's Caramel Apple Cheesecake
Mara’s caramel apple cheesecake. Credit: @MyInnerFatKidisOut

Addicted to Cupcakes! True Story!

My addiction (not looking for a cure) led me to buy my favorite bakery, Mara’s Café & Bakery, in 2018. A six-figure investment went into the building, to buy commercial equipment, put in gas lines, floors, walls, new chairs, tables, counters. You name it, it either wasn’t up to code or was in pitiful shape and needed to be replaced.

We spent close to two years trying to build the business back up and gain some ground. We were on our way and had a great business plan in place for 2020 to continue to grow. But last year had other plans in mind. We lost our wholesale business completely, due to restaurants not being allowed to have indoor dining and closures.

Also, our indoor dining ceased to exist. After six months we were unable to sustain keeping the café (with a $1.99 cup-of-coffee price point) and we were forced to close the food portion of the café to stop the bleeding. We were able to keep the bakery going, but just barely.

The Opening of El Lechon de Negron—Denville!

I’ve worked with the Negron family for the past seven years as they’ve had their food truck at our festivals. I have built a wonderful relationship with them. Their food is top-notch and ranked as one of the best Puerto Rican restaurants in the U.S. In the early stages of the pandemic, I went to their Union restaurant for Empanada Day to support them. I ordered 16 empanadas for me and my family. They were all excellent and some were outrageous! I dreamt of them for weeks.

Lechon Steak Jibarito
El Lechon steak jibarito. Credit: @MyInnerFatKidisOut

I realized that the Denville area needed to experience this delicious awesomeness, and combining El Lechon with Mara’s would make us the ultimate lunch-and-dinner destination! Add in all of Mara’s award-winning desserts and we are the perfect combination to meet all your culinary desires! The Negrons loved the idea of expanding their Puerto Rican cuisine to new customers, particularly Morris County. A beautiful partnership was born.

El Lechon Queso Frito
El Lechon queso frito. Credit: @MyInnerFatKidisOut

It was a huge undertaking and quite a risk, in an unprecedented time and extremely challenging environment. I took out a loan to help the process. I dug in deeper.  

Go big or go home

I’m not ready to go home but every day brings more debt and it is getting increasingly hard, particularly on the spirit. What we offer is too good to just close up shop. Both Mara’s and El Lechon are great but we need help making it to the other side. The restaurant employs about 30 people who depend on this business to take care of themselves and their families.

We now offer delivery through DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats. We offer dine-in (limited capacity), pickup, catering, and online ordering through the website.

The big chains like Shoprite and Walmart have continued to flourish and aren’t going anywhere. However, all our small mom-and-pops are being crushed. We are looking for help, and we need you. Whether it’s through coming in, purchasing gift cards or just spreading the word, please help us and small businesses in general.

Thank you. We will persevere and hope to see you soon as we continue to push forward and move to the other side.

El Lechon de Negron—Denville
23 East Main Street
Denville, NJ 07834