6 New Jersey City Businesses That Opened During COVID

 

Opening a business is hard. Ask any entrepreneur. Opening a business during a pandemic sounds like an insurmountable task, one that most likely won’t be met with reward until way down the line. Despite the added challenges and hurdles caused by the current world climate, a number of new businesses have popped up throughout Jersey City. We connected with owners, founders and operators from a few of those businesses to learn what it’s really been like to launch over the past six months. 

 

Tia Planta

Bergen-Lafayette

Shayla Cabrera, founder of Tia Planta, was a professional nanny when she came down with COVID-19. She immediately had to stop working and spent her days at home with her 200 houseplants while managing and recovering from the illness. Cabrera had been a plant collector for about three years, and at the urging of a friend, she started an Instagram account focused on her love of plants. 

She didn’t necessarily intend to start a business, but she sold her first plant out of her own collection on June 17th. From there she quickly expanded to pop-up shops. She brings her inventory to other local businesses, like Busy Bee Organics, Porta and Corgi Spirits so she can help people “plantify” their homes. She also does video diagnosis for ailing plants, for those who don’t have the greenest of thumbs.  

Cabrera is no longer nannying and has built a team to help her with Tia Planta’s finances, logo design, entrepreneurship and social media. “I’ve been growing and learning, and have an incredible team which allows me to focus on my areas of expertise,” she said. Eventually, she hopes to marry her love of plants and children by offering workshops and creating plant education videos for kids. 

 

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Shell N’ Tail

Historic Downtown

If it wasn’t for the pandemic, Shell N’ Tail never would have opened. Chef and partner Darryl Harmon was working for a NYC restaurant group up until June 22nd when he was laid off. That same day, a colleague who had restaurant space approached him about collaborating.

This gave Harmon the opportunity to execute on a concept that was very personal to him. He grew up in Gouldtown, one of the oldest Black communities in New Jersey. Using the flavors his mother cooked with, and local south Jersey ingredients, he made his own spice blends and built a menu that brought him back to his roots.

Harmon was experienced with quick turn-around when it came to opening restaurants. Shell N’ Tail’s soft opening was on July 2nd, with counter service only. That quickly expanded to seating on an outdoor covered deck. “Rain or shine, people can dine,” is what Harmon says is best about the location. 

With little lead time, there was no marketing plan or time to build anticipation within the community. The restaurant’s popularity has all been built on word of mouth and business from passersby. You can’t visit Shell N’ Tail without ordering a boil bag: your choice of shellfish, seasoning and spice level cooked and served up in a bag, which you then dump out on the table and devour.  The five seasoning combos are Ray Bay, a tribute to Harmon’s mother; Lavish Lemon Pepper, a fancier version of a classic; Native Soul, flavors that pay homage to Harmon’s Native American and African American roots; and Up the Bayou, Cajun flavors with a Jersey influence. 

“You’ve got to forget what you did before to create what you’re going to do now,” is Harmon’s advice for those looking to dive into a new adventure. 

 

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The Law of Donutgineering (The LoDG)

The Heights

Co-owners and founders of The LoDG, Eddie Alfonso and Flavia Carballo saw dynamite success in the first two weeks of opening their brick-and-mortar shop in The Heights. Prior to that, they had been serving up their delectably unique donuts at food festivals and through local cafes. That success came to a sudden halt when they closed in mid-March for the health and safety of their employees and customers. In May, as infection rates began to decline, they worked with their staff to determine how to re-open safely, following all regulations and guidelines. 

“We received amazing support from the local community when we originally opened,” said Carballo. “And if it wasn’t for our regulars and the local support, we wouldn’t be where we are now.” They credit their patrons with spreading the word by posting on social media about their donuts, since there’s not much extra cash for marketing. The LoDG is now seeing about half the traffic they saw when they first opened.

When asked about specialties, Alfonso noted the Lil’ Chickies (donut holes with fried chicken inside) and the Butter Snow (their buttery take on a glazed donut) as signature menu items. “We have such a variety of flavors on the menu though, so it really comes down to personal preference,” he added. Flavors rotate monthly and there are always three vegan options available. I’m personally waiting for The Pig & The Fig (pictured here) to come back on the menu.

 

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Bobwhite Counter

Historic Downtown

Bobwhite is a known brand across the river in NYC, serving up buffalo chicken sandwiches, buckets of fried chicken and their crowd-pleasing chicken biscuits for $5 (check out our article about great Jersey City bites for under $5). Prior to the pandemic they had three locations in Manhattan and were working on opening up their Jersey City location in Paulus Hook. In March, the restaurant, which would have a 40-person dining room, was about 90 percent complete. Then COVID-19 hit. 

Two of the Bobwhite Manhattan locations were forced to close because they were in shared space markets which remain closed to this day. According to Steve Hinkis, Director of Operations, those restaurant closures pushed up the opening of the Jersey City location. The business’s goal was to keep as many employees working as possible and having a second operating location made that possible. 

There was already a bit of a buzz within the Jersey City community about the new storefront. That, combined with their strong social presence and reputation for quality food, meant they were able to hold their own when initially opening with only pick-up and delivery options. 

“We created a new menu for the Jersey City location,” said Hinkis. “It was so well received that we rolled it out in our one New York City location that remained open.” They added outdoor seating as the weather warmed up and have recently expanded the outdoor space. It was needed once word spread throughout the community that they serve quality food made from fresh ingredients with good customer service. 

Unique to Bobwhite is its proprietary app, which allows for quick ordering and provides loyalty rewards. Hinkis is optimistic about the business’s future as transactions continue to rise. “We’re eager to have a grand opening and welcome the community into our dining room,” said Hinkis. 

 

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East Hana JC

Historic Downtown

Warren Ren, the owner of East Hana JC, a Japanese restaurant in Downtown Jersey City, believes that if you provide something good for the community, then the community will come and enjoy it. That philosophy has brought him and his family success with their East Hana restaurant in East Brunswick. So they stuck to that philosophy, focusing on fresh, healthy, high-quality ingredients, when planning to open in Jersey City at the end of March. 

The pandemic squashed that plan. As case counts lowered and it became safe to operate, Ren realized he had the opportunity to open the doors of East Hana JC on July 4th. He did everything he could to make that happen because of the day’s significance to America and the symbolism it held for him as a business owner. “City hall, the health department and the mayor all helped significantly as we got the necessary paperwork completed to open July 4th,” said Ren.

Since opening less than two months ago, take-out and outdoor dining has done much better than he expected. “If I can pay my employees, utilities, and rent, then I am happy,” said Ren when asked about profits. He also cited Mayor Fulop’s executive order for delivery services like GrubHub and Seamless to lower fees as extremely significant to East Hana. 

Ren recommends the sushi deluxe, an assortment of nine pieces of sushi selected by the chef plus a tuna roll, to new customers. Favorite specialty rolls are the Hana Spicy Tuna roll and the Oh My God roll. Inside features a sushi counter, booth seating and a second floor with additional tables and a private room for a large group. 

 

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Milk & Cream Cereal Bar

Historic Downtown

The Jersey City community was anxiously awaiting the opening of Milk & Cream Cereal Bar as they watched a dilapidated storefront get renovated through the fall and winter of 2019. Co-founder Cory Ng and franchisees Steph and DJ Tabao anticipated a March soft opening with a grand opening in May but construction issues and COVID-19 set them back. 

“There was so much uncertainty,” said Ng. “And of course we had to consider the safety of the construction workers, our employees and patrons.” For weeks, no progress was made. The brand’s New York City location wasn’t seeing much business; because of that the team wasn’t even sure people would want to go out for ice cream once they opened. They set the opening date for May 28th anyway. Mayor Fulop came by on opening day, along with a ton of ice cream lovers. 

“People came by the masses,” said Ng. “The energy was great! We’re new to the Jersey City community but are really proud to be a part of it.” They’ve teamed up with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Nickelodeon to make an ice cream pizza for a limited time: Strawberry cheesecake ice cream on a sugar cookie crust with white chocolate cheese, strawberry puree sauce and candy toppings. This collaboration is not only sure to excite today’s kids, but also all of my fellow 90s kids. I highly recommend you go grab yourself some slice cream.

 

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Community Impact 

In speaking with all of these individuals, it was incredibly apparent how impactful the people of Jersey City have been in helping these businesses come to life. Every single person cited the community as something they were grateful for during such trying times, for all businesses, but especially new ones. It’s inspiring to hear these diverse stories of entrepreneurship with the common thread of community running through them.

Catherine Shaw
Author: Catherine Shaw