Amid pandemic, businesses launch, revamp, and stay resilient

Business. Hope springs eternal for the local business community, which has continued to open new shops and restaurants, and revamp established ones, even when Covid came knocking.

Newton /
| 22 Mar 2021 | 01:58

The lockdown has clearly put a damper on local businesses. Yet, new businesses continue to open, undaunted. Established businesses, too, are reinvigorated and giving themselves makeovers.

Opportunity knocks

The building’s history and original 1720s kitchen were a huge part of Brandan Ullmann and Tyler O’Toole choice for the location for their new restaurant, The Circle Restaurant in Newton, which recently held a soft opening.

“The kitchen includes a wood fire bread oven,” Ullmann said. “It’s surreal that we’re so lucky to walk past it every day.”

O’Toole said they were drawn to the idea of opening a restaurant in a former farmhouse built hundreds of years ago. “The character of the building can’t be recreated elsewhere, and it’s ultimately part of the guest’s dining experience,” he said.

While Ullmann was out of work due to Covid-19, the opportunity arose to purchase the building. “I had never imagined myself back in my hometown, let alone opening up a restaurant here,” said Ullmann. “But after touring the home and experiencing the 300-year-old building’s beauty, I knew I had to come back to my roots.”

They knew there would be challenges at the get-go, including being able to open only at a percentage of normal capacity.

“Some have questioned our sanity when they find out we’re opening up a restaurant during this time,” O’Toole said. “To us, there is no better time than the present.”

The chef/owners met while working together at Jean-Georges in New York City. For more than three years, they would talked often about their shared dream of opening their own restaurant.

“Our palates have always aligned, both when it comes to food and ambitions,” O’Toole said.

● The Circle, 310 NJ-94, Newton


Opening just to transition

Carlos Rivera opened Carlos’ Pizza & Catering in Fredon in February 2020, just before the lockdown hit. Customers immediately flocked to the new restaurant on Route 94, and then, everything closed.

“It was difficult, but we wanted to do anything we could to be there for the community,” Rivera said. “We offered delivery and take out. It was a hardship for everybody but I had to work no matter what and keep going. I’m behind on a couple of bills but now things have really picked up again.”

● Carlos’ Pizza & Catering, 397 Route 94 Fredon


Ready, set, shut

Rachel Polk was ready to go. Her dream of opening Fitness Haven, a boutique-style fitness studio, was in the works in the Newton Plaza. Construction was moving along, and she was looking at opening dates.

Then the world stopped.

“For us, it was at least six months to a year in the making,” Polk said. “And then the pandemic hit, and it all went downhill from there. We were originally looking to open in mid-May of 2020.”

Polk adopted a day-by-day approach. She started virtual classes. She used the parking lot outside her building to hold distanced workouts.

“We still had to pay all of the overhead,” she said. “We found out from the government that we had to have been established prior to February of 2020 to qualify for any of the stimuluses.”

They kept their fingers crossed. When Governor Murphy gave the okay, Fitness Haven opened on July 2nd at the 25% capacity allowed fitness studios. .

“Things are going well, and we hope to open at a higher capacity soon,” Polk said. “This pandemic can’t last forever.”

● Fitness Haven, 17 Hampton House Road, Ste. 15, Newton,


The long haul to open

AG Pizza has had locations in Branchville and Lafayette for a long time. When Max’s Station House closed, AG’s owners, the Galvao family, saw the large space as a great opportunity to add a two-story restaurant and bar to the business.

Construction began.

“Our vision was to be open months before the pandemic ever happened,” said Brian Murphy, who has worked for the family on and off for the past 14 years and manages the “front of the house” in Andover. “There were issues with permits and inspections, and things kept on getting pushed back for an opening date.”

Finally, about this time last year, the restaurant was gearing up to open, and the pandemic hit.

“Our brakes came to a screeching halt,” Murphy said.

During lockdown, construction was slow. But when crews were able to work, they masked and practiced social distancing.

Two weeks ago, AG in Andover opened.

“Anyone inside always has a mask on,” Murphy said. “Andover is a completely new operation with two floors of full dining service compared to the flagship AG in Branchville, which is a mom and pop where everybody knows everybody. Hopefully Andover will have the same thing but on a much larger scale.”

The restaurant is open according to the governor’s mandates, at 35%. But some folks don’t like this.

“It’s kind of tough to navigate Friday and Saturday nights,” Murphy said. “People see we have so much room and ask if they can sit down. We have to say ‘No, we’re at capacity.’ Occasionally you get people who don’t want to hear about the Covid anymore and are not willing to wait for a table.”

Chef Luis cooks up the restaurant’s hallmark pizza. Murphy said they have the best buffalo chicken in the county.

“We’re confident that though everything different, any challenges that come our way, we can handle it,” Murphy said.

● AG Pizza & Restaurant, 131 Newton-Sparta Road, Andover


Dreams don’t wait on a pandemic

Sasha’s Famous Empadas opened at the end of last week on Main Street in Sussex. The business started as a food truck in Westtown, N.Y., then operated out of a deli. The plan to open in Sussex spawned because people wanted a place to sit down and eat, which was not an option at the former location, and New Jersey customers wanted something closer. Owned by Sasha Peralta and her fiance, Darnell Thomas, the business is open at 35% and plans to use the garden for outdoor dining.

“We’re a combination of Spanish and soul food,” Thomas said. “Sasha grew up with her mother teaching her Argentine cooking, and my mom taught me to cook soul food.”

The eclectic mix pairs beans and rice with fried shrimp and all sorts of combinations from both cultures.

“We are blessed that we have customers who are so supportive and have helped us to lead to this opening,” Thomas said. “We’re taking all Covid precautions and are hoping that as the vaccinations increase so will capacity limits.”

Thomas and Peralta said they saw the opportunity and decided, pandemic or not, it was time to pursue their dream.

● Sasha’s Famous Empadas, 50 Main Street, Sussex


A business revamp

Skylands Ninja Warrior teaches techniques from the popular competition/TV show American Ninja Warrior. They are taught by ninja veterans helping youth and adults gain the strength and skill required to tackle obstacle courses like the pros. The business had been in existence prior to the pandemic but Chris Ennis wasn’t happy with his location and wanted to make some changes. The lockdown was his push to relocate and reinvent his business.

“Pre-Covid, the gym was doing ok,” Ennis said. “The only customer complaints were regarding the appearance of the building. The 102-year-old building was falling apart and needed a lot of repairs. When I realized that the landlord wasn’t try to fix the problems, I knew I needed to find a new location. The shutdown gave me the time to move my facility to a nicer space in Sparta.”

Skylands Ninja Warrior opened after the new year.

“I adapted my business model, be flexible and cater to the changing needs of the customers within the governmental regulations,” Ennis said. “These changes required more working hours to bring in the amount of people to pay the bills. Without employees, my workload has doubled. However, I feel lucky that as a small business owner I’ve been able to muscle through everything and keep the gym’s doors open.”

Post lockdown, changes have included private sessions.

“What was once an open gym where kids could walk in at anytime became private sessions by appointment only,” Ennis said. “The group classes became one-on-one classes. As things begin to go back to normal, I’m slowly introducing new events similar to ones that I offered before the pandemic. For instance I had a Nerf war last month that was very successful. It felt good to see kids having fun and feeling some type of normalcy again.”

● Skylands Ninja Warrior, 10 Park Lake Road, Unit 1-3, Sparta


For better or worse

Tante Baci Cafe has been a staple in White Deer Plaza, in Sparta, for the past nine years. The fare is handmade, exquisite Italian cuisine. When the pandemic hit, owner, Sam Marsh, stayed open for take-out and delivery right from the get-go.

“My business model is that I can not just take people’s money and business when people are happy,” he said. “You have to be there for them when times are not good just as importantly. It’s the same thing we did during hurricane Sandy.”

The day the governor shut restaurants down, Marsh said he called his employees together. “I told them that we would stay open as we were allowed, and if they were not comfortable working, they could take unemployment,” he said.

They all worked. With protocols in place, Tante Baci transitioned to take-out and delivery.

“I have really really good people working here,” Marsh said. “Now we’re back open at 35%. People are so ready to go out. We are hoping for more capacity soon.”

● Tanti Bachi Cafe, 2 White Deer Plaza, Sparta


“Some have questioned our sanity when they find out we’re opening up a restaurant during this time. To us, there is no better time than the present.” Tyler O’Toole, Circle Restaurant