A new restaurant in New Jersey is causing quite a stir with locals. Not only because of their delicious and appealing menu choices, but because of its modern and enticing design.
Prime 94 Steakhouse and Grill in Fairfield, NJ, is owned by Joe Meli and hopes to bring a Manhattan quality dining experience with the warmth of a hometown setting. Serving up a vast array of choices, the restaurant will have something for everyone’s tastes. From fresh oysters to signature burgers and, of course, some of the best cut steaks around! And to pay homage to his Italian background, Meli has prepared authentic pasta dishes that rival some of the best Italian restaurants in the city.
But what’s even more enticing is the fact that the restaurant is perfectly designed to host a social hour, which is why Meli decided on such a large bar area. With its own social hour menu, Prime 94 is not only going to be a restaurant of choice for those looking for a delicious dinner, but also a hangout for those looking for a good drink and craft appetizers at the bar.
Joe Meli, Owner, Prime 94 Steakhouse, Fairfield, NJ
The Equipment and Supply Dealer:
Michael Konzelman, Senior Project Manager, Economy Restaurant Supply, Clifton, NJ
Joe Meli’s Approach
I remember getting home from school in Italy every day and my grandma making pasta. She would make these wonderful sauces that smelled delicious. Every day the beautiful tomatoes and basil became her amazing pesto. My career started at a fine dining restaurant in Siracusa near my home. A friend of a friend said come see what we do. Like all good stories, someone got sick and the next thing I knew, I had a job.
Prime 94 came to be because of prime meats and a prime location. My wife and I wanted to set the bar high and the name represents that goal. For many years the space was a German restaurant called The Bavarian Inn. Then it became an oyster bar and then an Italian restaurant for a number of years.
When we got here, it was really run down. You could just see the old oak interior had potential. We had to take the oak out, which was heartbreaking, but in many ways, it sparked our creative juices for the new design.
I wanted to become something great for everybody. So not only are there top quality steaks six different ways to order, but we also have a full menu of everything – from homemade pastas to our own handmade Bell and Evans chicken cutlets. The budget was supposed to be 250K, but if you promise not to tell my wife, we’ve spent over $1 million. For our team, we are blessed to have a young chef, Jesus, and my wife handles the finances. We are surrounded by a number of talented people.
As far as the experience, you have to understand that this is a very different animal than Manhattan. You simply don’t have thousands of people walking down the street. That is balanced by the staggering costs of beef in New York. So our goal is to be able to serve real value consistently.
For the bar, Michael Konzelman from Economy really took the time to show us how important the right bar could be. The existing bar was small. His vision helped us create an amazing food bar made from gorgeous rich tree trunks. We’re lucky that there is a local company, Endgrain in Bloomfield, who was able to give us a really special look.
Michael also challenged us to create a vision on a modern, functional bar that had the feel of Manhattan. So he took us to a number of locations that had utilized Krowne’s modular design. We love how easy it is to clean because all the Krowne design pieces are modular, which keeps refrigeration access underneath easily accessible.
For the dining areas, we worked with an architect. We wanted the warmth of reclaimed wood. But there were some initial issues relative to the amount of waste the structure could support. So with the help of another great local company Boards and Beams in Fairfield (who specializes in reclaim board and finishes), we were able to accomplish our design goal.
The former kitchen was basically untouched for 15 plus years. We started with new doors and worked our way in. I have known the Konzelmans for 30-plus years and they understand us. Economy had a really good sense of what I wanted. I really like Southbend. I also knew we needed a Southbend flat top so we could consistently serve our great burgers.
I’m convinced it’s the best equipment on the market for broiling/cooking steak. The choice is a reflection of getting the meat right. It’s amazing to me the difference between choice and prime cuts of beef. We tried five or six different vendors. I’m going to a gem in South Jersey, Vrola Meats. I knew it might cost a little more, but we simply had to get this right.
I knew as soon as I walked into the space that the dish machine belonged in the right corner of the L-shape. We love the value that CMA’s dish machine provided. I could see the 10-feet we needed for the two compartments to make it work.
We were also able to upgrade the basement to handle our walk-ins. We added a new Mr. Winter Box to give us storage capacity to handle a full menu of beer on tap and repurposed an existing box to age our meats.
As far as marketing, it’s so interesting to see how important photos of your dishes are. We have a website and I want pictures of our dishes, not stock ones. I’m driving our web designer crazy because I want everything to be authentic.
For our success, I don’t buy the idea that you need to wait a year to figure it out. We will know in 30 days exactly where we are at. We need 350 to 400 plates moving every night!
Michael Konzelman’s Approach
Joe Meli has been a customer of Economy for a long time. We’ve done countless work for him, maybe five or six places prior. When I came on, the place already had two other owners and they totally turned the place into something different than the original building, which we worked with, too. It was nice to be able to put it back together. The building needed a lot of love and Joe and his wife gave it back.
We chose the bar position first since it was going to be a focal point. We decided to do the bar this big because we wanted to attract a more mature clientele. We didn’t want a sports bar feel that attracts a much younger clientele. It needed to be this mature place where a friend can stop to have a glass of wine and chitchat. We needed to have access to the kitchen given our social menu, too. It’s just really gorgeous. We worked with Joe’s bar manager and got all the stations and stuff perfect. We went with a wood finish on the bar that’s distressed; it needed to be easy to clean. And if it gets a bang or a bump, it’s hard to tell.
For the kitchen, the design started with the dishwasher. Some guys start with different areas, but that’s where I like to start. For the flow, I want to get the soiled dishes to stay by itself. It’s actually in the same location it was originally in the previous kitchen, so that was the best position for us, too.
Since it’s a steakhouse, Joe needed the equipment to do everything. He seems to love the Southbend oven. We used the 400 Series because it’s like a battleship. You have everything you need with it. Joe is happy with all the equipment choices we made and where they’re placed. We also have a substantial bank of fryers in there from Pitco. It’s to support the fresh cut French fries. He wants to make all the social menu items on his own. He makes his own wings, fries and a full bar menu.
The hood and ventilation were there already and we just made sure to revamp it with new fans. Downstairs we have a large Mr. Winter Walk-In Box for the beer. Then we have an older box for meat. We made sure to seal the floors down there to make it all presentable, too. Our business is not a 9 to 5 job so your life’s down there. We wanted to make it easy to clean. It’s got to be that way when someone walks in there any time.
The Prime 94 furniture is by G&A from New Jersey. We went through a catalog with Joe and saw things we liked. We picked out the distressed barstools right away. And the community tables are great for the bar. It gives us extra room. Meli also loved this booth banquette from Rollhaus in the corner, which we’re calling “lover’s corner.”
We were also able to help Joe select the right tabletop for Prime 94. We brought him to several showrooms so that he could touch and feel. We’ve built a great table top strategy including, high quality steak knives from Walco, Libbey’s World Farmhouse patterned china, gorgeous glassware from Hospitality Design and a full array of Mercer’s Barfly mixology supply line.
The building is not a big building in general and it’s narrow. So by opening up and adding all those windows, we feel that it’s larger now. We didn’t have the ability to up and raise the ceilings and give it an open feel.
To learn more about dining at Prime 94 Steakhouse and Grill, visit their website.