It’s been several years since politics hindered Jersey City’s success as a dining destination. The last major scandal was in 2009, when a crackdown on a thriving downtown food-truck scene, which included the Taco Truck and Cinnamon Snail, uncovered outdated ordinances and led to the investigation of a health department official accused of selling more than 100 bogus permits. At the same time, new brick-and-mortar businesses attracted to the vacant storefronts surrounding the Grove Street PATH station faced countless delays for construction and inspection.
Now, though, business is booming on the sidewalk and curbside.
Following the trans-Hudson expansions of Barcade and Two Boots, incoming talent from Momofuku, Casellula, and Arturo’s in Maplewood have respectively opened Thirty Acres, Third & Vine, and Razza, all to regional acclaim, while Vendy-winning food trucks and a new generation of bakers and cheese makers feature in expanding farmers’ markets and street fairs like the Jersey City Project and 6th Borough Market.
Now, the biggest hindrance for exploring the Jersey City dining scene is getting here, a political headache out of the city’s control. Earlier this year, the Port Authority suspended weekend PATH service between the World Trade Center and Journal Square, home to the area’s best Indian restaurants and the new Mana Contemporary arts center. It’s also the shortest route to Jersey City’s west side, home to old-school cop hangouts like Carmine’s Deli, Greenville’s red-sauce townhouse Laico’s, and Mod Cup, a former Hoboken coffee shop now roasting beans in the Jersey City Heights.
A year and one summer after downtown councilman Steve Fulop became Mayor Steve Fulop, we sat down with him to learn how he’s easing mass transit headaches, whether a coffee shop can really gentrify a neighborhood overnight, and where the avid runner fills up on penne Bolognese before his next marathon.
The biggest impediment to New Yorkers now wanting to discover Jersey City is the Port Authority. What’s going on with the PATH?
We’ve been talking to the Port Authority about expanding the frequency of weekend travel, and I’ve said, to make this an extension of the culture of New York, we need to have mass transportation functioning as if it’s a subway. Dealing with the Port Authority is probably one of the worst things anybody can ask for in life, and the reality is they feel today that they need to be accountable to nobody. So we’re trying to change that culture.
You didn’t expect you’d have to petition for a weekend ferry program to fill the void of the World Trade Center line?
We had to twist their arms. They’ve been so difficult. It’s been a huge success, but they are brutal to deal with. Brutal. Government is generally regarded as dysfunctional, non-efficient — people have all different ways to describe government, right? — the poster child for all those bad things is generally the Port Authority. And we’re trying to change it; what can I tell you?
One thing you’ve copied from Mayor de Blasio’s predecessor is the introduction of pedestrian plazas. In New York it seems locals avoid them and they’re gathering spots for tourists, but residents flock to the new plaza on Newark Avenue, beside the Grove Street PATH station. Do you think that signifies a lack of public spaces in Jersey City?
We’re investing a lot of money in our park systems, so it’s growing. We have a very diverse community, and a young community and an old infrastructure. And the young families moving here value open space. When you think about the branding of millennials, it’s a very sharing and inclusive type of culture; they’re different than 40-, 50-, 60-, 70-year-olds. Every generation has a different DNA how they approach things. Millennials are more sharing, more we-oriented, more entrepreneurial — so community spaces tend to flourish in cities like this. That’s just my anecdotal opinion, but I’m happy it’s worked.
You can now go to the Thursday farmers’ market at the Grove Street plaza and buy dinner from a food truck, and dine at the picnic tables set up along the Newark Avenue plaza. Do you feel there’s a detente now between the brick-and-mortar restaurants in the neighborhood and the food trucks?
Do you still get a lot of feedback from both sides?
I get some. There are 25 to 30 restaurants now opening in that area. There’s Talde, who has one in Park Slope, opening here. You have Porta, in Asbury Park, opening here. Roman Nose, opening here. It’s growing.
The food trucks are always difficult to manage because the brick-and-mortar people feel that they’re infringing on their business. Obviously, you can really argue that it’s a different market from a sit-down restaurant. The guy who’s having a steak is different from the guy looking for a $3 empanada. It’s a different sort of person in that moment, what they’re looking for. So, yes, there’s some direct competition, and we try to limit that, like pizza versus pizza. But relatively speaking, the food trucks, food options, and farmers’ markets we’ve grown have been huge successes. Huge.
You’re introducing new ordinances now allowing food trucks to pay a lower one-time fee to participate in markets and festivals and in plazas. Do you think the markets are a happy medium, to help trucks hampered by lunchtime parking issues?
The reality is you have to realize some sort of market trends, and there’s demand, and you can’t stand in the way of the reality of that. It’s like the Uber situation. You have to recognize technology at some point is going to overtake you. So there’s demand for those food trucks. To bar them or limit them is not productive, so we’re trying our best to bring them into the fold in a productive way, and that’s where we are. Actually, I eat at them.
You were seen as an opponent of the trucks five years ago, when you were a councilman downtown, but now it seems your administration has changed course.
Maybe it’s when they were less clean. I didn’t know a lot about them initially. It took awhile for me to get comfortable with [eating] my food from a truck, that whole dynamic, and it actually is really good food. Maybe I’m a little slow climbing the curve there, but now I like them. I try to manage it back and forth between the brick-and-mortar and them, but it’s not easy.
A recent article in the New York Times focused on a couple priced out of Williamsburg who moved to the Jersey City Heights, discovered Mod Cup coffee, and found it the epicenter of an expatriate Brooklynite community. If one coffee shop can be representational of that kind of impact, do you worry about the neighborhood gentrifying too quickly?
The Heights is awesome. It’s attracting families, people who have been priced out of downtown, people who are looking for a different feel. Mod Cup Coffee — we had a festival on Sunday and I got to spend some time with the owners of Mod Cup, and I was blown away. The amount these guys know about coffee is crazy, literally crazy. They’re in the top 2 percent in the country. Am I concerned about gentrification when people like that are moving in there? No. I think they’re a good asset to have, and we want to see them succeed.
Mod Cup was lured to Jersey City from Hoboken, and they’re not the first. What is it about Jersey City that businesses are leaving Hoboken to open here?
It’s a different person in some ways. The fact that the feel in Jersey City right now is we don’t have a Gap Kids, we don’t have a Banana Republic. That’s not the feel of the different communities here in Jersey City. That creative class, which is important to growing a city, you have to figure out how to attract them. They’re not interested in Gap Kids, in chain food stores and retail options. Jersey City not having that but still growing is attractive to those people.
Whereas Jersey City historically hasn’t popped up first on the radar screen — somebody might come across the river either because they’re coming to New Jersey or for a price point — and their first place to explore might be Hoboken, because it’s the easier brand to know, and eventually, as you learn the region, Jersey City becomes more and more appealing. I think that’s how the progression works.
I remember when Barcade opened a few years ago, and it was such a coup — it was among the first bars and restaurants to expand from New York into Jersey City, but it took two years to open. There were crippling permit issues under the previous administration; now it seems a new restaurant is opening every day. What has your administration done different to facilitate the ease with which businesses open in Jersey City now?
We’ve tried to change our building department to move things faster through the system. We’ve hired more inspectors to turn stuff around quicker, and we’re using technology more. Those guys were dinosaurs before. They would lose plans, and you’d come in and say, “I’m ready to go,” and they’d say they lost your plans and you’d have to start again. The more efficient it is, the more money we’re making as a city, the more permits are coming in, so that’s great. The investment is paying off there.
In Jersey City’s other wards, away from downtown, you’re introducing even more farmers’ markets, and you’ve also introduced a program giving educational supermarket tours to promote smarter, healthier shopping, which is funded by grant money from Share Our Strength. Do you find one of those programs more beneficial than the other, or do they work hand in hand?
I think they go hand in hand.
Do you think even when the grant money is there, it’s hard to get people to want to take part in the program?
Yes, I think there’s an education component that is difficult to achieve. We have that program where we’re taking seniors through supermarkets, teaching them healthy purchasing. It’s an education process. I’ll get the numbers at the end of the year to see what kind of success it’s been. TBD.
Regarding the city’s prisoner reentry program, Cocoa Bakery was one of the local businesses that participated in hiring through the program. How did it come together, and do you find more businesses responding to it?
It’s important, because every city in the country has the same problem. We have a couple thousand per year who come out of the jail system and come back to Jersey City. And if you’re not providing addiction treatment, and housing, and job training — all three — the cycle just repeats itself. So people ask, why are we devoting resources when it’s only 1 percent of the population? The truth is that 1 percent impacts the other 99 percent, because if that 1 percent is doing bad things again and again, it impacts all of us.
So we created this model, and it’s working. It’s a challenge to educate the businesses and get them to feel comfortable. We’re doing it one at a time. Cocoa is a good example; Shuster Development is a good example — that they’re hiring them, and once they’re hiring them, they realize these people really want to reform their lives. They turn out to be their best employees, because they don’t want to go back into the same cycle. It’s just a matter of getting the employer comfortable with that.
In your most recent campaign expense reports, you’ve spent money at Batello and Brightside Tavern — do you ever eat at fundraisers?
Oh, not usually, no.
So where do you eat in town?
I kind of rotate between restaurants. I like Laico’s, on the south side of the city. It’s great. What I try to do, when a new restaurant opens up I spend time there because I like to help them ultimately move forward. I spend a lot of time at Left Bank. Union Republic, right now I go to. Park & Sixth, which is great. I bounce around.
And you’ve also been accused of eating at Carmine’s Deli. Is it a better place to eat or hide?
At Carmine’s? [Laughing] Eat, eat.
And where did you carb-load before your last race?
Before the last Iron Man race I went to Roman Nose on Newark Avenue. OK? I had their penne Bolognese, if you really want to know.
To go back to the Heights, and the example of Mod Cup, and how one business moving in can raise rents in a neighborhood, one business couldn’t do that all on its own. So what else is happening in the Heights people don’t see that’s changing the community?
What I love about Mod Cup — I’ll give you two other examples of businesses here in a similar situation. If you go across to Razza, or Virile on Jersey Avenue — Razza, the guy loves pizza. Not just pizza, he makes his own butter, every ingredient is so precise when he makes his pizza, because he loves pizza. We’re lucky to have him. The guys at Mod Cup love coffee. If you spend some time talking about the different grains, it’s unbelievable, and the passion shows through. The guys at Virile, it’s their second barbershop, and it’s modeled after a turn-of-the-century shop. It’s a really cool place.
Are they your barber?
They are now, and I’ll tell you why. They love the art of barbering. They take their barbers on a field trip to the oldest working barber in the country in upstate New York. He’s like 100 and still cutting hair, and they wanted to talk to him. I love the fact that there are people so passionate about what they do. So Mod Cup is up in a community where they see he’s so passionate, and it’s infectious, and that’s it. I think people like that and they want to be around that, and that’s where that comes from.
Do you think there’s enough transportation options in the Heights to support so much growth?
There’s not. We need to redo the bus lines. Number two is our bike share initiative, to integrate with New York City. So the goal is that — people talk about the bike share stations — the reality is the best option for where to locate these stations is the Heights, and I’ll tell you why. We want to integrate it into being a core part of transportation. So you’ll pick up a bike in the Heights from your bike share station, ride it down to the Journal Square PATH and drop the bike at the station there, then get on the PATH, come across the river, and with the same card or key fob, pick up another bike and just ride to work. It’s one seamlessly integrated transportation system.
Downtown you’re closer to the PATH, so people rely on walking. You can use the bike share to minimize distances in areas like the Heights and it’s going to be good.