Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater talks with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Thirty Acres's Kevin and Alex Pemoulie. [Photo: Cathy Miller]
Husband-and-wife duo Kevin and Alex Pemoulie moved to Jersey City three years ago with the specific goal of opening their own restaurant in the Garden State. "There's a really good energy and good vibe out here, for lack of a better word," says Kevin, a New Jersey native and five-year veteran of NYC's Momofuku Noodle Bar. (Alex still works in Momofuku's finance department.) The 32-seat Thirty Acres, described as a "seasonal restaurant" that borrows from several global influences, debuted last April and quickly earned accolades for Kevin's "explosively exciting dishes." (Waits on the weekend can now stretch up to three hours.) Eater recently chatted with the Pemoulies about the advantages of launching a Kickstarter campaign, finally securing a liquor license, and how the restaurant's opening friends-and-family night was "worst night of our lives."
Jersey City was always key to your concept. But how did you end up in that particular space?
Kevin: We looked at so many places. I looked at pretty much every available place, every retail space in downtown Jersey City. We came across this place and we were in negotiations with the business owners, and for whatever reason, they decided to back out. Six or seven months passed, and I just went in and asked them again — it was bullshit; we knew they wanted to sell. So I went back and they did still want to sell the place, so we sat down with them again, as infuriating as it was, and we came to an agreement. But it wasn't the first space.
Alex: The first space was actually the place that's now Kraverie, another restaurant in Jersey City. [...] But we fell in love with the place we have now, pretty much instantly. It used to be a pizzeria, and we walked in and the lights were off; I remember there were so many windows, that it was still totally lit even though the lights were off. I just remember thinking that it was so beautiful — even though it was a less-than-clean restaurant, I thought it was perfect. We fought for it. It took a long time. We were working on the concept for years before we opened. [...] It took a really long time just to get to a point where we were actually talking to someone about actually signing a lease.
How did build-out go?
Kevin: Less than perfect. [Laughter]
Alex: It look longer than we originally expected. We didn't do that much heavy construction. We didn't move any walls, we didn't change anything major. We just moved some stuff around, replaced the hardwood floors, it was a lot of cosmetic changes. But it still took a long time — it ended up taking, all in all, four months, which?
Kevin: We're still working on it. We're not 100 percent done yet, even though we've been open over a year.
What's still a work in progress?
Alex: Hopefully we're going to get our liquor license really soon. Once we do that, we're going to have to do some construction on the bar, to make it more useable; right now it's really just a counter space, because we don't have any liquor. But we're going to turn it into an actual bar, replace some equipment. Nothing major, just stuff that's currently not working for us.
That's funny: I feel like in most reviews of Thirty Acres, people like the fact that you're BYOB. But that wasn't part of your original concept.
Alex: No. [Laughter] It's actually really funny — Kevin and I really don't enjoy going to BYOB restaurants. [...] But New Jersey has a very unique liquor license situation in that you have to purchase liquor licenses, and the market dictates how expensive they are, more or less. So the pop-and-mom shop that we are, being just my husband and me doing everything, we pretty much could not afford a liquor license when we opened.
Kevin: We're in a better spot now. [...] I don't think there's any mystery why a business would want a liquor license over not having one. You generate much more income through having the sales of liquor? and it makes a lot of sense for a restaurant to do it because food margins are so small. It's hard to be a sustainable business and to make improvements and to do all the things we want to be able to do for our employees and for our customers — to do all that stuff without have that extra boost from liquor sales.
Alex: Not that we're trying to get rich, believe me.
Kevin: More like stuff like, fixing the sink isn't going to break the bank. Also, without having the license, what winds up happening — this is not a shot at anybody — but what winds up happening is you have to encourage your customers to move it along quickly because you need to get people in to purchase food. So people are hanging out over bottles of wine that they've brought in; you wind up just sitting there waiting, and then it becomes an awkward interaction with a customer, telling them that you kind of need them to get going. To me, in the end, we want our customers to be happy, and we want to be happy, and we want them to be comfortable sitting here and hanging out.
So tell me about the new bar program.
Kevin: The most important thing I think that we learned, from the beginning, is that we should not be overly ambitious immediately, that ambition can kind of grow with the place. We're going to start small and work on beer and wine, and make sure everyone is on top of that, to start. [...] Introducing a beverage program with cocktails is a huge deal. It's not something we can just do overnight, so we want to make sure we're doing it right.
Thinking back to a year ago, do you remember your opening night?
Kevin: Yeah, it was the worst day of my life.
Alex: [Simultaneously] It was the worst night of our lives. We opened in sort of a flurry. Because construction was so delayed, we were running out of money. Really, really running out of money. We were definitely writing checks that we were hoping were going to take a while to?
Kevin: Post-dated checks.
Alex: Yeah. So we had to open. But we still wanted to do two nights of friends and family. [...] The first night of friends and family, we accidentally overbooked — by a lot. We didn't even get our ice machine delivered until one hour before service. We'd never cooked in our kitchen until two days before that. We were still buying — Kevin and I decorated the whole restaurant — we were still buying, like, artwork for the walls an hour before we opened. So, when people got there, we were terribly underprepared. Kevin's grandma came that first night and I don't think even she ate anything? Anybody who works in a restaurant can understand, when it goes bad, it's the worst night of your life. And it was that, times a million.
Kevin: We just never recovered. We never got good, it was just a struggle the whole night.
Alex: But then, that night, we went home?
Kevin: We got wasted, actually. [Laughter]
Alex: Yeah, we got wasted, and then the next day we identified all the problems: One of the cooks who worked our first night just didn't show up the second night. We addressed all that, and the second night was the one of the smoothest services we've ever had. It went by completely perfectly.
Kevin: We just decided we needed to pare it down. Alex and I have worked for restaurants that were already restaurants. Even restaurants that you opened, that was still a restaurant group that was supportive and helped open. Momofuku opens restaurants all the time. It's a lot different to be opening a restaurant as an employee of that company than opening one that's completely funded and supported by the two of us. It's just a lot different, the stresses are totally different; we just knew we needed to pare it down and that was the best way to approach it... We just shaved the menu down to like, eight items. We had to gear everything towards the employees that we have, the amount of time we have to train them, and our comfort level. It was hard. We had to make sure we could put out food at all before we tried anything crazy.
Anything else you would have changed?
Kevin: What I would have changed — I think I speak for the two of us — is not open with no money. We were just ignorant enough that it worked out. I would never do that again; neither of us would. It would be crazy to do that again.
Alex: I think we had $33 in our bank account the day we opened the restaurant.
You guys got some early buzz before opening, for turning to Kickstarter to raise money. What made you go that route?
Alex: It was something I thought about doing earlier on? towards the end, we were starting to pinch pennies in a silly way, Kevin and I were really thinking what money we could get in any sort of way. And Kickstarter came back in our minds, like, "Wow, this could really be a way to gain a lot of connections in Jersey City." Which is actually the main service it's given us, more than the cash. The cash was amazing, it definitely got us to the finish line. But really, almost all the people who donated money have come in to redeem their prizes, and now they're regulars, and they're people we know, they're friends. One of our best friends, a regular at the restaurant, is a guy we met through Kickstarter. We met so many people through it; so many strangers donated money and showed their support, and it really gave us a huge boost of confidence. It just felt really nice to experience that support from Jersey City. Jersey City is just incredibly supportive, and Kickstarter was one of the first ways we felt that.
Kevin: I think, remembering back, we thought we didn't need any more money, which is so funny to think about [now]. I feel like when we started Kickstarter, we were like, "This will be a great way to network and show people that we're interested in being part of the community." I think we were thinking about that way more than, "Yes, we definitely need all the money"? It worked out. It was good, because we did need [it].
From day one, it seems, your reviews have been so positive. Do you see a big jump in business right after a good review is published?
Alex: Well, we have an extremely strong base of customers, that I really don't think even care about those reviews. They come all the time, they support us, they give us their criticism now matter what, and they don't really care what somebody in New York City is saying about the restaurant. But I do think some people who are in the neighborhood like the restaurant, but then reading those reviews kind of gave them a feeling of, "Hey I was right." I think they feel proud — we're friends, so they feel proud of us like they would feel proud of a friend having some sort of accomplishment.
Kevin: I think that's it more than anything. After any kind of review, or anything having to do with New York City or on a national level, we'll have a bump in business for maybe the rest of the week after that was published: Noticeably people that we don't recognize or people coming from the city. But that always goes away. [...] I think the local support, like Alex was saying, I think every time we get reviewed there's a sense of Jersey City pride. It's like a nice warm blanket.
Alex: Like a hug.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
Alex: Yes. It feel like — if someone said, "Oh, you opened last month," I would say, "Yeah, that sounds about right." It went by really really really fast. But I also feel like I'm 90, so that makes me feel a lot older than I actually am, just because so much has happened in the past year. Just so much. We learned so much; we thought we knew 70 percent of what we needed to know to open a restaurant. And we just didn't realize how much we didn't know.
Kevin: It feels — like Alex said, it feels like it's the longest year and the shortest year at the same time. It kind of feels like you're driving really fast with your eyes closed. On like, a busy street. [Laughter] I can't believe what we've accomplished in a year. It feels really good to have gotten to the year point; we have things in place, now we're just fixing and tweaking and building... It just now feels like we can work on being better instead of just straight survival.