Taste of success How three women entrepreneurs are thriving in vibrant Jersey City food scene

Meg Fry//January 9, 2017//

Taste of success How three women entrepreneurs are thriving in vibrant Jersey City food scene

Meg Fry//January 9, 2017//

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There are more than a quarter-million multicultural residents living in Jersey City.
Thousands more visit the metropolitan area’s bustling restaurant scene each year.
Everyone wants to feed them — and three diverse women entrepreneurs are helping to make that happen.

Djenaba Johnson-Jones, founder and CEO of Hudson Kitchen, runs a culinary incubator out of Jersey City and is preparing to open a commercial kitchen and coworking space for Hudson County and its surrounding areas.

Alessia Aron, co-founder and CEO of Jersey Girls Food Tours, provides unique guided tours of the city’s many restaurants, food vendors and bars.

And Alysis Vasquez, founder of Chilltown Kitchen, a chef collective and pop-up supper club, also co-founded Midnight Market, a monthly indoor food market and dance party at the Harborside Atrium.

Each entrepreneur partners with local businesses and the Jersey City Economic Development Corp. to help launch, grow, showcase and employ various food vendors, restaurants, bars and chefs within Jersey City and the surrounding areas of New Jersey and New York.

Here’s how:

Alysis Vasquez and Perla Nieves

After graduating from the International Culinary Center and working in Manhattan restaurants such as Tom Colicchio’s Crafts NYC, Vasquez began privately catering before creating Chilltown Kitchen, a chef collective and pop-up supper club in Jersey City in 2014.

“I partner with a restaurant when it is typically closed and bring in my staff for the night to cook and serve dinner to between 25 and 35 people at a communal table,” she said.

Vasquez continues to partner with various restaurants and chefs in Jersey City, employing a rotating roster of cooks to host monthly, multicourse-themed dinners that cost about $65 a person.

Vasquez also works as a private chef for a family in Jersey City and teaches kids how to cook at a private school in Manhattan. She also was a runner-up on a recent episode of The Food Network’s “Chopped.”

“But now that it is winter, all of the outdoor markets are over and there is nothing super innovative happening in the city,” she said.

Vasquez decided to take on her fourth job when she created Midnight Market with her friend and partner Perla Nieves.

Midnight Market invites a disc jockey and a global variety of local food vendors, such as Taste of Poland, Kimchi Smoke and Me Casa, to create a party-like atmosphere in the Harborside Atrium from 6:30 p.m. to midnight each month.

“The vendors serve nice-size samples of their food for $5 or less, and it is a $5 entry fee,” Vasquez said. “A few bars are also on site serving $5 cocktail specials.”

Midnight Market makes it possible for local vendors from Jersey City and the surrounding areas of New Jersey and New York to keep their prices low by charging a flat $150 vendor fee.

And with help from sponsors such as Mack-Cali, a publicly traded real estate investment trust in Jersey City, FastBoy, an online multirestaurant delivery service for Jersey City, Hoboken, Bayonne and Queens, New York, and marketing via the Jersey City Economic Development Corp., Midnight Market has become an overnight success.

More than 4,000 attended its first events in November and December, garnering many participating vendors thousands of dollars or more in one evening.

Now, everybody wants in.

“We spend a lot of time and energy curating our vendors,” Vasquez said. “Vendors must apply, too, so we can then ask them questions and taste test the food.

“It is like an audition, because we need to make sure that their menu will create the right experience.”

The next Midnight Market will take place Feb. 10. Vasquez hopes she can further design the market to the point in which it becomes more like a “plug-and-play” to be able to expand with ease.

“We would like to take Midnight Market to other neighborhoods in Jersey City, to other cities in the state and to other parts of the country,” she said.

Djenaba Johnson-Jones

Johnson-Jones had worked in business development for media brands such as Conde Nast and Hearst for over 15 years.

When she was laid off, she wanted to do something different.

“I had planned to launch a health, fitness and food concierge service, which included booking training sessions for busy clients and the delivery of prepared meals,” she said. “However, when I discovered that the preparation and delivery of meals from one’s own home is illegal in New Jersey, I began searching for a commercial kitchen.

“I was told by local food entrepreneurs that they would simply rent church kitchens and restaurants after hours.”

Johnson-Jones instead decided to turn this pain point into a business opportunity when she created the concept for Hudson Kitchen in 2015.

Working closely with the Jersey City Economic Development Corp., Hudson Kitchen helps food entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses with low risk by raising brand awareness and connecting them with retail and catering opportunities.

“My overall vision for the business is to help 500 food businesses generate $50 million in collective revenue and create 1,000 jobs over the next five years,” Johnson-Jones said.

The busy mother of two is up at 4:30 a.m. each day in order to achieve that goal.

Hudson Kitchen works with a team of consultants to provide services such as package design, food photography, marketing and event management for food entrepreneurs, including Om Sweet Home, a gluten-free and plant-based bakery set to relaunch in Cliffside Park.

The business also provides low-cost culinary business workshops and networking opportunities throughout the year, such as “Pricing Your Food Product for Profitability,” and its quarterly networking and educational series, Table Talk Live.

Hudson Kitchen also recently launched its Food Business Bootcamp at Hudson County Community College, a $300 seven-class series that takes an entrepreneur from concept to retail. It will launch a 12-week food business academy in the fall.

Later this year, Johnson-Jones plans to launch a 24/7 commercial kitchen and bakery rental with a co-working space.

“The dollars are leaving the city when entrepreneurs travel into New York City to make their food, to then come back to New Jersey and sell at farmers markets,” she said.

“Having a space here in Hudson County and in North Jersey will allow those dollars to stay in New Jersey.”

Alessia Aron and Janis Borroto

Aron had worked in sales at Yelp and Hale and Hearty Soups before she found herself working in the restaurant industry after returning from a backpacking trip to South America.

“It helped me to understand (restaurants), how hard they work and how difficult it is to get an amazing plate out to a customer,” she said.

In her travels, Aron said she would always attend food tours.

“If you don’t know anyone, it is a great way to meet new people and experience a location through food,” she said.

“I would always think, why doesn’t Jersey have anything like this?”

Aron started Jersey Girls Food Tours in 2014 with co-founder Janis Borroto.

“In three hours, we visit about five eateries, sampling a variety of foods with optional drink pairings, all within walking distance of each other,” Aron said.

The pair soon ran into entrepreneurial challenges.

“We thought people would grab on to the concept quickly and that tickets would sell, because we saw other companies turn profits in two months,” Aron said. “But (Jersey City) did not have the tourist market that cities such as New York and Seattle and San Francisco do.”

To pay the bills, Borroto became a real estate agent with PRIME Real Estate Group and Aron became the director of marketing for the Hudson County Tourism Office.

That is until Jersey City sponsors such as Silverman, a real estate developer, NJ Beer Co., a microbrewery, and the Jersey City Economic Development Corp. got involved to help promote the tours.

Aron left her marketing job in March to commit to Jersey Girls Food Tours full-time after the boom in business.

“We’ve grown from giving one tour a month to having multiple tours throughout the month plus special events,” Aron said.

Revenue consists of what the company makes in online ticket sales — 30 percent of which goes to its restaurant partners.

Tickets range between $50 and $100 depending on the tour. For example, “The Best of Downtown” tour runs from 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and costs $75 per person plus a $15 additional drink pairing.

Typical tours require a minimum of four people, but Jersey Girls Food Tours also runs corporate tours, such as its largest in October with over 100 people from Johnson & Johnson.

Aron hopes such offerings will help to quadruple business and expand into other areas this year.

“Our business model, whether that be streamlined year-round tours or pop-up seasonal tours, could work in other cities, too, such as Hoboken, Morristown, Montclair, New Brunswick, Red Bank and Asbury Park,” she said.

In fact, Jersey Girls Food Tours already has brought back its tours in Rutherford.

For now, expansion is still focused on Jersey City, as the company seeks an additional local tour guide and digital assistance.

“Our job is to feature the artisans, chefs and owners behind some of the best food-based businesses, first here in Jersey City, and slowly expanding around the Garden State,” Aron said.

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