How Mike Hauke's Tony Boloney's Thrives in Troubled Atlantic City and Hoboken
Mike Hauke inside the original Tony Boloney's in Atlantic City.
All photos by Adam Robb
More than a dozen successful restaurants -- including Marc Forgione's American Cut, four Jose Garces concepts, and the House of Blues -- shuttered on the Atlantic City boardwalk last weekend as Revel and Showboat casinos closed their doors. But, in their shadow, Tony Boloney's has only thrived over the last five years, drawing casino employees, construction crews, and savvy tourists to his beach shack-like BYO pizzeria on an undeveloped stretch of Oriental Avenue, where he serves a Shopsin's-sized menu of eclectic subs, pies smothered with toppings like fried chicken and waffles, and truffle-buttered Brussels sprouts.
Since winning LIVE with Kelly and Michael's Truckin' Amazing Cook-Off last summer, Hauke's invested his $20,000 prize into opening a Hoboken pizzeria. He also caters for Manhattanites, and he's eying Philadelphia for his next move.
We spoke with Hauke about using a $2 billion casino as his prep kitchen, how he got kicked out of the Hamilton Park farmers' market, and what he's bringing to the Hoboken dining scene besides Rando Bakery's sub rolls.
What made Hoboken your first choice for expansion beyond Atlantic City?
My family's from North Jersey, from Newark and Perth Amboy. After I sold my first company that I started in college -- a laundry delivery service called Dirty Business -- I came back to Jersey, rented an apartment in Jersey City, and opened a business in Hoboken. I had an office in Hoboken for two years, then moved to Chelsea, but I knew Hoboken really well. I loved Hoboken. I thought Hoboken was a great place, great community, great demographic; there's a lot of character in that town.
People in Hoboken have always seemed pretty loyal and content with their restaurant scene. What do they make of your menu?
I feel like there's a lot of old school places, so people are really loyal to those places, and Hoboken's not lacking quality, it's just that these places do what they do and people do what they do because they love the nostalgia. I think [these restaurants] still boast a quality product, it's just that they go by an old school standard. For us though, we're so far outside the norm. We're so whacked out with what we do, that mindset doesn't affect us. So if you're old school or new school or both, people get what we do and they become a lasting customer.
The Benny Tudino crowd see it as "it is what it is." They're about big slices, and drunks, and they have their niche. You have Vito's, Luca Brasi's, which is catty-cornered to us. They do their own thing. The guy from Luca came over all the time trying to figure out what we're doing and we told them if someone comes in asking for a turkey sub, we'll make it for them but we'll probably tell them, "Why not go to Luca Brasi's because that's what they do?" That's their specialty. They do classic Italian, that's not our schtick. We try to tell people to order off our menu.
We'll make you whatever you want, but order off the menu. You close your eyes and point, and you're going to like it. Just try it. One customer came in and said, "Let me get a veal parm." And she said, "What kind of place doesn't do veal?" And we said, "We're not that place." Even if we were, you're in Tony Boloney land. Don't come in here and say you want a meatball sub with provolone. Close your eyes when you eat here and get rid of all your preconceived thoughts, and you'll love it.
Our pizza isn't like anybody else's pizza in Hoboken. Our subs use Atlantic City rolls that get trucked up every single day fresh. We use Rando's. Rando's is the oldest bakery in Atlantic City, the AC sub roll. It's the third oldest family-owned bakery in the country. So Hoboken's getting a different product.
A lot of these kids in Hoboken went to Rutgers and they're used to fat sandwiches, and there's this misconception we're doing fat sandwiches. We say no, and they say, yeah but you guys put rice noodles on your sandwiches, etc. But we say this is not chicken fingers french fries, mozzarella sticks, honey barbecue sauce, and they get it. This is a different level. We're not throwing crap on a roll and seeing what happens because you're drunk and we don't care what you think. We make our own Thai sauce from scratch. So they're finding it now and getting it, and we're getting die-hard customers.
Is there already a standout best-seller then?
Our Boken Boy sub is a huge hit. It's grilled chicken with garlic and lemon aioli, Sicilian sopresatta, house-made smoked mozzarella, and they love the Let My People Go. It's slow-roasted Jewish brisket, melted havarti cheese. It's a Passover plate on a sub.
How does business in Hoboken and Atlantic City compare?
Atlantic City is different. Everyone thinks because of all the casinos there are lots of employees so we should get lot of business, but even the hospital has its own commissary, all the casino employees eat for free at the dining hall. So we get them because they don't want to eat dining hall every day. A lot of Revel, a lot of Showboat employees come over, but you're confined to these buildings. In Manhattan, Hoboken, etc, you have your pick of 40 to 50 places in a two-block radius; here you don't. You walk out and there's nothing.
Were you worried about sustaining the Atlantic City location with Revel and Showboat closing?
No. A customer walked in yesterday and he hadn't been in in two years and he said he got laid off, moved to Delaware, and it dawned on me there's probably so many people I'm forgetting that I used to see every day that aren't going to be here anymore because of jobs, and 4,000 more people are going to be gone with Showboat and Trump Plaza closing. Even if they come in after work, or on the weekend with kids, they don't have that disposable income anymore. It's just nuts.
But for us, we do our thing. We're a destination place. We get locals, semi-locals, we do the food truck. We're consistent all year round. We don't cash out in the summer. A lot of people have to make their money in the summer; it's not like that for us.
Though you won't see any more construction business like when Revel opened.
Yeah, the construction workers came here, but that was a tough racket. Those guys got to get in and out in five to 10 minutes max. They have a 30 minute break for lunch and they want 30 subs and they want them now. They just want it fast, but the thing is, we make everything from scratch and do it to order. It sustains us and we do okay, but we couldn't take those orders. Getting 150 subs done in 20 minutes, that's not us.
Then how do you handle those orders in Hoboken?
Our kitchen in Hoboken is half the size of the kitchen here in Atlantic City, and they just pump it out. Everything is still to order. it scares me to go into a bigger space, to a bigger commissary, bigger kitchen. I'd rather get smarter on prep, on execution, on fulfilling those orders.
And now you're looking to expand beyond Hoboken?
Yeah, to Philadelphia, right now. One guy came to us, he has a spot on Passyunk that he wants us in bad. And a restaurant in DC wants us to come down there. We get hit from a lot of sides.
Are you more concerned with staying within driving distance of all your pizzerias?
No, it's not that. We get hit by this one group from California. Every other day they call. It doesn't scare me operationally or recipe-wise or prep-wise. It's really regimented. I'm just kind of jaded here because it's so hard to find good people, but in Hoboken, it's great. The head chef from here, I brought up to Hoboken. He moved his whole family up there. He's in the kitchen, I make the pizza. If he wasn't there, forget it.
You make all your own mozzarella, why didn't you enter Hoboken's mozzarella competition?
Oh yeah, from scratch. It was too late, but also we had to use Polly-O curd, and we make our own curd, So we're not going to put out a product that's not ours.
We try to tell people its not like Hoboken mutz. It's AC mutz, it's different. We make Chipotle mutz, Vietnamese mutz, it's different. We make sweet smoked mutz, with agave, hickory and molasses. We don't do a plain smoked mutz. I think most people get it, but a certain segment said we want an eggplant dinner with pasta, and we don't do pasta. We're not interested in doing stuff because it's a commodity.
Do you ever think the quality of water place to place impacts what you can do where?
That's bullshit. People are nuts. if you get the same recipe, I'll say yeah, but you alter your recipe to accommodate. We make our own yeast, if our yeast was in Denver it would be completely unusable because of altitude, humidity levels; you have to adjust.
I was out in California visiting my sister-in-law and I was making pizza, making mozzarella, and it tastes just as good as it does here. In Hoboken, it's exactly the same. Put two slices next to each other, it's the same density, everything. We adjusted our recipe for the water, we adjusted the salt, we made our yeast a little different. The water is a little different but it's bullshit.
But there was a difference between making mozzarella in your kitchen versus down the block at Revel.
They aerate their water. We were making mutz at one of the kitchens there, making all the mutz for the burger at [Robert Wiedmaier's] Mussel Bar, the smoked mozzarella for Relish. We were making our mutz at Luke's Kitchen, [Luke Palladino] said listen, I know you're short for space, you can make it here. So we started doing it and they aerate the water in a certain way that makes the curd unusable. It added so much air into it that it turned into ricotta. It was just weird. We couldn't form it back together again, so you have to accommodate. We adjusted it, let the water sit longer, adjusted the salt. I Googled it and we figured it out. So it's bullshit to ship water from Brooklyn, that kind of thing.
And now you're selling your mozzarella at farmers markets in Jersey City, too.
We're doing a market in Van Vorst Park every Saturday. We were doing it in Hamilton Park on Wednesdays, but the guy from Pizza Vita had a shit fit. He came over -- "How the fuck is this possible! You can't let these people do this!" We said, "Wait a second, you guys do Neapolitan pizza, we do flatbread and mozzarella." He said, "That's just pizza in a sheet pan, it's going to take away from our business! It's either we go or they go!"
I don't agree with that, and to me competition is healthy. If you're a mutz vendor at a market, I don't think it's fair to have another because it a specific thing. But it's a good market, we like doing it. There are four bakeries in Hamilton Park that do similar stuff, but we do what we do.
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