Whatever it is that you’re doing, do it with an extra bit of flair.
At least that’s what Jeanne Cretella, co-founder and president of Landmark Hospitality, a multimillion-dollar events, catering and restaurant group in Jersey City, will say when asked for the secret to her success.
“We started out selling things like hot dogs and merchandise,” she said.
In 1978, while studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Cretella and her husband, Frank Cretella, were presented with the unique opportunity to take over a concession stand at the Staten Island Zoo.
Despite having neither experience nor family in the restaurant business, the pair began attracting attention.
“Whenever there was an opportunity at the zoo, such as the opening of a new wing, people would just assume that we could do more than what we were doing,” Cretella said. “So, we started catering for events out of our home kitchen.”
Immediately hooked on the fast pace and constant change of the industry, the Cretellas rapidly advanced from operating concession stands to operating a health food bar by Tavern on the Green in Central Park.
Their continued success led to the opening of their first restaurant in 1982, The Boathouse in Central Park, which subsequently allowed them to own and manage several restaurants in New York.
The Cretellas sold their restaurant group in 1999 in order to open their first restaurant in New Jersey, Liberty House in Liberty State Park, a little over a year later.
“We had some dynamic restaurants in New York, but we came to New Jersey because we fell in love with the site after attending an Andrea Bocelli concert in the park,” Cretella said. “If you really want to appreciate the Manhattan skyline, you need to be on our side of the river to do so.”
In opening their first New Jersey establishment, Frank Cretella would switch his focus to president of the real estate portion of their business, Landmark Developers, while Jeanne would take on the role of president for what has grown into a soon-to-be-dozen venues and nearly 600 employees.
“Our story could be anyone’s story,” Jeanne Cretella said. “Hospitality is either in your blood or not.”
She first welcomed the immediate challenge of the beautiful, secluded site for Liberty House.
“We knew it was going to take a lot more than just opening up our doors and expecting people to flock in,” she said. “We knew we needed to embrace the community.”
Liberty House Restaurant: Liberty State Park, Jersey City (2001)
Elegant restaurant and event space overlooking the Manhattan skyline, serving award-winning farm-to-table American cuisine from Executive Chef Ken Trickilo.
The Stone House at Stirling Ridge: Warren (2007)
Contemporary restaurant and event space nestled in the hills of the Watchung Mountains, serving farm-to-table American cuisine from Executive Chef Jerry Villa direct from its on-site organic farm, Dancing Goat Farm, and hydroponic garden.
Celebrate at Snug Harbor, Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Gardens: Staten Island, New York (2010)
Celebrate, a division of Landmark Hospitality, is the exclusive caterer for this expansive, 83-acre venue of lush botanical gardens and historic buildings.
Ryland Inn: Whitehouse Station (2013)
Built in 1796 and newly redesigned, the countryside restaurant and event space features award-winning farm-to-table American cuisine — often from its own hydroponic garden — from renowned Executive Chef Craig Polignano.
The Boathouse at Mercer Lake: New Windsor (2015)
Operated by Crave Events — the off-premise catering division of Landmark Hospitality — in the newly renovated lakefront event space in Mercer County Park.
Hotel du Village: New Hope, Pennsylvania (2015)
Landmark Hospitality’s newest event space also features a boutique hotel with 22 guest rooms and farm-fresh, sustainable American cuisine within the historic, French Country estate.
Logan Inn: New Hope, Pennsylvania (2015)
Bucks County’s oldest continuously run inn since 1727 features 16 newly renovated Colonial guest rooms and al fresco and fireside dining in the tavern.
The Prallsville Mills: Stockton (2016)
Crave Events will operate catering and events for this unique, historic complex on more than 11 acres of land along the Delaware River and Raritan Canal.
Alba Vineyard: Milford (2016)
With a focus on award-winning New Jersey wine, Crave Events will operate catering and events for the homegrown winery located in the valleys of Milford.
Cretella and her team did so by designing an award-winning corporate giving program they dubbed H.U.G. or Help Us Give. To this day, 10 percent of the revenue generated at three tables within the restaurant is donated to local community organizations.
That idea singlehandedly helped Liberty House become a staple in Jersey City.
“Our success has always been because we have a really wonderful group of guests that patronize our restaurant not only when they are celebrating a special occasion, but as an extension of their dining room,” she said. “We have the ability and are fortunate enough to create memories for people. My team and I love that part about our business.”
Cretella also loves that as Landmark Hospitality has expanded and diversified, her customers have retained the ability to visit all of her restaurants.
Taking a leading role in the industry
As co-founder and president of a soon-to-be-dozen establishments in three states — and with more than 30 years of experience in the industry — Jeanne Cretella of Landmark Hospitality was recently selected as the 2016 chairwoman of the board for the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association.
“With regards to legislation, the NJRHA wants to be more involved in what’s happening without waiting until a bill is introduced or passed to take issue with it,” she said.
Cretella, who started her chairmanship in January, wants to help legislators understand the issues that particularly affect the restaurant and hospitality industry without having much effect on others.
“We are going to be traveling throughout the state, letting our legislators know how our businesses work and about the initiatives that we have which encourage and reward young people who want to get into this industry with wonderful scholarship opportunities,” Cretella said.
The NJRHA’s first roundtable session with Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) took place in March, but Cretella said it is not just about informing legislators.
“It is really important, I think, for all restaurateurs at any level to be aware of the issues,” Cretella said. “If you don’t think that certain legislative changes will have an effect on your business, you are wrong. The NJRHA will be key in helping to come up with solutions.”
Such as paid sick leave.
“It’s really tough when you have a weather-dependent ice cream store down the Shore that is only open from May 31 until the first week in September, employing high school students and first-time employees,” Cretella said. “Paid sick leave could really hurt that type of business.”
However, the NJRHA recognizes that the initiative is first and foremost meant to help employees.
“So what we are looking at now is the need to have one statewide policy,” Cretella said. “A company like mine, for example, would have one ordinance to follow in Jersey City, one in Warren, one in Whitehouse Station, one in Stockton, one in New Windsor — it would become an administrative nightmare.”
According to Cretella, the NJRHA recently helped New Brunswick expand its paid sick leave policy.
“We were called in by the mayor and asked what our concerns were and how the city might come up with something that would still allow us to run our businesses,” she said. “We feel that the New Brunswick ordinance is one that we would like to see go statewide.”
Prevalent issues, such as paid sick leave, the $15 minimum wage increase, affordable health care and more, Cretella said, could push certain businesses to consider implementing technology that would cut costs by replacing employees.
“Now, you can walk into a casual dining establishment with iPads in the middle of each table for you to place your order so that can someone can simply run out your food and clear the table,” Cretella said.
Not only does that sort of inexpensive option take jobs away, but it also drastically changes the experience, Cretella said.
“Our industry was built on the connection between people,” she said. “To lose that connection would be a disservice.”
“The state has allowed us to grow from Liberty House, which is an urban setting, to The Stone House at Stirling Ridge, which is only 25 minutes away, but tucked within the Watchung Mountains,” Cretella said. “I get in my car in Jersey City, staring at the New York skyline, and I get here and I’m staring at a deer.”
It is Landmark Hospitality’s focus on creating unique properties in various environments throughout New Jersey, Cretella said, that has helped the business achieve positive sales growth year after year.
“The secret to this business is that just when you think you have it right, it’s time to change it around,” she said. “There are always so many new things, from product to preparation to wines to cocktails to service standards. It’s all about constantly keeping new and fresh. People appreciate that and will continue to patronize your restaurant.”
Good thing, then, that Landmark Hospitality always has catered to one of the most popular food trends today.
“Farm-to-table is very important today for all restaurants: Your menu today is not going to be the same as it is now due to seasonality and availability,” she said. “We recognize that if we can purchase our product from a local purveyor, it is certainly not only better for the environment, but also, a tomato in August off of a New Jersey plant tastes a whole lot better than a tomato that you can get shipped in from somewhere in January.”
Therefore, The Stone House at Stirling Ridge employs traditional soil farming on site, while the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station utilizes product from its on-site hydroponic garden.
Such distinct properties also require that Landmark Hospitality hire adequate workers.
“What I’m most proud of is that we don’t only open our doors to people for first-time employment, but also, our industry continues to allow people the opportunity to grow within the industry,” she said. “If someone is a good busboy, he will move up to a food runner. From there, he can become a server, an assistant manager, a manager — we have those success stories here.”
It is one of the reasons Landmark Hospitality is constantly growing.
“We have a team of people who are hungry to grow within the organization, so when we open up a new venue, we take people from all over and move them up,” Cretella said. “It is extremely important to create an environment in which your employees feel that they are part of something. They will then put in 110 percent because they believe in you and know how important they are to the success of the company.”
Cretella strongly believes in sharing financial information with her staff.
“Looking at reports on a daily and weekly basis, if we need to change direction, we can recoup whatever mistakes might have been made,” she said.
Landmark Hospitality’s biggest investment, however, is in the improvement of each of its venues.
“We have been in construction almost every single year since we opened Liberty House in 2001,” Cretella said.
For example, the company is currently expanding the patio and adding a new building to The Stone House at Stirling Ridge, and constructing a trellis and new ballroom flooring at Liberty House.
“We have never once reinvested without having seen our money come back almost immediately,” Cretella said.
It’s been the Cretellas’ business plan all along: reinvest and grow profit margins in order to open additional venues.
Next year, Landmark Hospitality expects to open three new properties: North River House in the Port Liberte section of Jersey City, featuring a rooftop bar overlooking the Hudson River and restaurant and event space using ingredients from the Hudson Valley; a restaurant and banquet center within Village Hall, a historic landmark in South Orange; and an unspecified dining establishment in Plainfield.
“Frank and I are both of Italian descent, so we are finally considering opening a wonderful, authentic Italian restaurant,” Cretella said.
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