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Food and beverage in N.J. One step ahead of the rest – Harvest Restaurant Group has been setting the pace in the state for two decades

Chef Bill Hendra, top left, culinary director, and Grant Halliday, director of operations, Harvest Restaurant Group, inside Roots Steakhouse.-(PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Bill Hendra had been cooking with Executive Chef Bruce Johnson in the kitchen at Restaurant 28 in Montclair when they were both given an opportunity to significantly alter their careers.

Chip Grabowski — now co-founder and operating partner of Harvest Restaurant Group in Morris Plains — and his business partner, Robert J. Moore, wanted to open Trap Rock Restaurant & Brewery in Berkeley Heights.

It was 1996 — a time in which the craft beer trend was just starting to appear.

“The idea was to create small craft brews on premise while serving a farm-to-table, bistro-style menu that was more sophisticated than typical brewpub fare,” said Hendra, now executive chef and culinary director.

Grant Halliday, director of operations, knew Grabowski was ahead of his time in more ways than one.

“You used to have to go to a white-table-cloth restaurant where gentlemen needed jackets for fine dining,” Halliday said. “Chip saw that the times were changing and built his restaurant on both quality and the environment. (He) provided a dining experience that would later become coined as casual elegance.”

The plan was to open three “upscale casual” locations within Harvest Restaurant Group’s first five years of operation.

Halliday got the call to join their team in 1999 as they were opening 3 West in Basking Ridge.

“I had known Chip and (his wife) Cheryl for quite some time,” Halliday said. “They were getting ready to open their third restaurant.”

As regional manager for Back Bay Restaurant Group in Boston, Halliday had been overseeing 12 restaurants in five states.

“But my family was living here in New Jersey, my kids were getting older and I needed a change,” Halliday said. “The Grabowski family was committed to growing their company and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Hendra, Johnson and Halliday have all remained with the multimillion-dollar Harvest Restaurant Group as the family business — now including Chip’s son Jake Grabowski as director of finance and Cheryl as sommelier — has since grown to 11 restaurants throughout northern New Jersey and nearly 725 employees.

Harvest properties
Trap Rock Restaurant & Brewery: Berkeley Heights (1996)
Combines seasonal craft brews with local, American food.
Huntley Taverne: Summit (1998)
“Chip Grabowski’s wife, Cheryl — our wine director — wanted to create a West Coast, Napa Valley environment with (fresh, seasonal, locally-sourced American) food to match,” said Grant Halliday, director of operations.
3 West: Basking Ridge (2000)
Harvest Restaurant Group’s third restaurant, west of its previous two, focuses on wines and New American cuisine with a contemporary twist.
Roots Steakhouse: Summit (2006),
Morristown (2011), Ridgewood (2014)
“The classic (New York-style) steakhouse concept doesn’t go out of style — that is why we now have three of them,” Halliday said. “Even with our side offerings, we go beyond the $10 baked potato to make them with more sophistication and flair.”
Tabor Road Tavern: Morris Plains (2007)
“We cast a big net with Tabor Road Tavern — it’s directly accessible from five or six towns, so we also have a great lunch crowd due to the corporate density,” Halliday said. “The design elements from each of our other four previous restaurants are all under Tabor Road Tavern’s roof.” Tabor Road Tavern serves upscale, eclectic, American comfort fare in ski-lodge like surroundings.
Grato: Morris Plains (2007)
“The building across the parking lot became available as we were building Tabor Road Tavern. We bought the building with the idea of not only creating an (upscale, casual Italian) restaurant, but also renting its additional retail space,” Halliday said. “Both restaurants were so successful that we instead chose to use that space to expand our office and support center for the restaurant group.”
Urban Table: Morristown (2011), Basking Ridge (2013)
“We wanted to get into the casual dining segment to create an approachable Harvest restaurant where diners could eat more often,” Halliday said. “Our focus was to offer (eclectic, American) breakfast, lunch and dinner menu options for under $20 seven days a week.”
Addams Tavern: Westfield (2016)
Expected to open in June, Addams Tavern will feature high-end, progressive tavern food with an emphasis on wine and farm-
to-glass cocktails.

“From the beginning, the idea was to bring New York sensibility to New Jersey to cook seasonally with local ingredients,” Hendra said. “That has become a part of the fabric of Harvest Restaurant Group. The restaurant and its menu are constantly evolving and our guests have come to trust us.”

In an increasingly difficult industry, Harvest Restaurant Group has seen positive growth year over year for the last 20 years.

“What makes the restaurant business so difficult is not only that wages go up, but also the price of food, the price of wine — our margins keep shrinking,” Halliday said. “The only way to combat that is to offer quality product in quality settings.”

Harvest Restaurant Group’s executive chefs do that by formulating the menus as much as possible with what is available seasonally and locally.

“We use those ingredients to great effect, utilizing their full value and appreciating them for what they are,” Hendra said. “As far as it being cost-effective, fresh, local ingredients last longer, which makes a big difference, and consumers now also recognize local, which adds perceived value to the dish.”

In order to purchase ingredients and serve them within a short turnaround, Harvest Restaurant Group works with companies such as Zone 7 in Ringoes — which delivers daily 100 percent local farm fresh food from more than 120 regional farms — and Local 130 Seafood in Asbury Park, a boutique seafood distribution company that services local wholesalers, restaurants and the public.

“We receive a list from Zone 7 three times a week as to what is being grown and harvested, and we then harvest to order,” Hendra said. “And we’ll get a text from Eric Morris, the owner of Local 130 Seafood, telling us what boats are coming in with what kind of catch, and we order according to that.”

Competition within the restaurant industry forces Harvest Restaurant Group to be “ever-changing and progressive,” Hendra said.

Shared equity
Three pairs of Harvest Restaurant Group establishments — Roots Steakhouse and Urban Table in Morristown; 3 West and Urban Table in Basking Ridge; and Tabor Road Tavern and Grato in Morris Plains — share liquor licenses.
“A liquor license is a huge commodity,” said Grant Halliday, director of operations. “This has enabled us to get more return on our investment.”
The company worked with each individual municipality and the New Jersey Alcoholic Beverage Control to connect kitchens in order to share the licenses.
“We weren’t the first to do this in New Jersey, so we did not receive much difficult pushback at all,” Halliday said.

“Our ownership spends a lot of time traveling and looking at trends on the West Coast and in Manhattan — that, and from our guests, is how we learn,” he said.

For example, right now, the trend patrons really care about is knowing where their food comes from, Hendra said.

“So, we try to source as much local ingredients as possible, not only because we feel it enables us to create better products, but, also, because it is the right thing to do for the environment,” Hendra said. “Even in cocktails, now, whether they are pureed with fruit or use fresh herbs, spirits are being created and even distilled locally — and we want to promote that.”

It helps, Halliday said, that Harvest Restaurant Group is headquartered in Morris Plains.

“We benefit from being in the Garden State by having a lot of open space and farmland, as well as being so close to New York so that we have an audience that appreciates culinary trends,” he said. “New Jersey is also dense. Our population per capita lends itself to people dining out both corporately and privately.”

It is why Harvest restaurants — while all “elegantly and handsomely designed” with multiple offerings, Halliday said — also puts an extreme focus on providing a certain level of consistent service every day.

And with the various employment issues facing the restaurant industry today — tipped wages, health care, talent shortages and more — Harvest Restaurant Group must be the best in order to hire and retain the best.

“We are fortunate in that our tipped employees are earning above average due to our restaurants bringing in the revenue that they do and the volume that we see,” Halliday said. “We also want Harvest Restaurant Group to be an attractive place to work; therefore, we have always tried to come up with the best possible benefits for our employees, such as health care, for example.

“As we grow, and more people become involved in such a plan, prices become much more accessible.”

The company also often promotes from within in order to provide its employees with growth opportunities.

“We have a junior sous chef program, which has in the past been quite unusual. It is a career level between line cook and sous chef that prepares our staff for future roles and allows our hiring to be sustainable within our organization,” Hendra said. “Now, almost every restaurant group has a program in which their staff learns how to butcher, restaurant management skills, how to work within a budget and more, so that when the time arrives to open a new restaurant, they can simply look to their own staff.”

On average, Harvest Restaurant Group opens a new restaurant every 22 months. This June, it will officially open its 11th restaurant, Addams Tavern in Westfield, featuring high-end, progressive tavern food with an emphasis on wine and farm-to-glass cocktails.

“We knew the clientele from Westfield because they had been coming to the Huntley Taverne and Roots Steakhouse in Summit,” Halliday said. “We kept hearing from those guests that there was a need for our style of restaurant in Westfield, on the other side of Route 22.”

But its next endeavor, a project scheduled to begin in late July in Morris Plains, will not even be a restaurant at all.

“Our next project will be to open a production brewery on a much larger scale than Trap Rock,” Halliday said. “Our brewer, Charlie Schroeder, hopes to distribute packaged as well as draft beer within northern New Jersey to our restaurants, as well as to other restaurants and liquor stores.”

Twenty years later, Harvest Restaurant Group is coming full circle, returning to its roots at the height of the craft beer trend.

“The staying power of what is there, I think, is really admirable,” Hendra said.

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

Meg Fry

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