By JOHN T. WARD
When Tommy Bonfiglio first toured the property that was long the home of Sea Bright’s post office, he was so fixated on an idea that he barely noticed the building at all.
“I only wanted the land,” on which he envisioned putting up an 18-room hotel and restaurant overlooking the Shrewsbury River, Bonfiglio told redbankgreen on Wednesday. Because of that tunnel vision, he never even stepped inside the two-story building fronting on Ocean Avenue, which he expected to tear down because of damage from Hurricane Sandy.
But when he realized he’d have to run a gauntlet of environmental permitting that could take years, he decided to examine the building out front. What he found shocked him.
Bonfiglio inside the building, which was home to the post office and three businesses on the ground floor. Below, the structure as seen one week after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
The founder of Tommy’s Coal Fired Pizza in the Galleria Red Bank had found the home for a new dream: a restaurant called Tommy’s Tavern + Tap, which Bonfiglio and his wife of 25 years, Yvette, expect to open in the next four weeks..
This isn’t about empire-building. Having grown the Red Bank business into a three-location operation over six years, the Bonfiglios sold it in March to concentrate on the creation of the new restaurant, which Tommy said he sees as the next steps in an “evolution” from his days running the Dockside restaurant, now the home of Eventide Grille, a decade ago.
Having paid $1.6 million to acquire the building, and with a contract to buy the vacant former Sunoco station next door for use as a parking lot, “I’m all in,” Bonfiglio said.
The interior demolition work that began several weeks ago exposed blackened brick walls – a vestige of the October 31, 1953 fire that “severely” damaged the building and destroyed two hotels just to the south, according to a report in the Red Bank Register. A third floor and corner turrets were removed after the blaze.
Now sandblasted clean, the bare brick walls and exposed wood of the ceiling joists are complemented by steel beams and exposed ductwork resulting in an “urban industrial kind of look” reminiscent of the Galleria building, Bonfiglio said.
Removing the inner walls that separated the post office and three ground-floor businesses walls produced a vast, 5,600-square-foot dining room centered by a long rectangular bar featuring 24 taps, many of them pulling craft beers, with two exposed coal-fire pizza ovens and a sushi station off to the side.
A back room will hold a whiskey bar, featuring a wide selection of bourbons and other spirits and giant garage doors that roll up in good weather, offering views of the Shrewsbury River.
Unlike 165-seat Red Bank restaurant, where the 166th customer “would have to wait two hours” for the next available seat, the Sea Bright location can accommodate 250 diners indoors, and another 100 out back in nice weather.
Every few feet on the underside of the bar are USB charging outlets so customers can juice up their cellphones and laptops while having a drink or watching one of the 30 TVs.
“People can camp out here all day,” Bonfiglio said. “I really don’t care if they have two drinks in eight hours.”
The liquor license came from the long-gone Tradewinds nightclub, where Bonfiglio was once a patron.
The restaurant menu expands on the pizza-and-wings foundation of Red Bank to include sushi, burgers. Tommy’s will make its own mozzarella.
Driving the vision is the desire to create a comfortable space with fresh food that’s moderately priced, Bonfiglio said.
“Yvette and I eat out three nights a week,” he said. “The things we like, we put in here.”
Though its been vacant since Sandy, the building has only flooded twice, he said: once in the northeaster of 1992, and again during the hurricane, which knocked out every business in town.
But he’s not worried about the river and Atlantic Ocean coming in through the doors again, Bonfiglio said. With a day’s notice, he could relocate most of the restaurant’s valuables to the second floor. And even if the building does flood, “I’ll lose a few refrigerators,” he said with a shrug.
“Any time you open a business, you take a risk,” he said. “I’m not going to be afraid of an opportunity because of a chance there might be a flood.”
The Bonfiglios won a variance from the town planning board for a 150-space parking shortfall, which Tommy said is the largest in the town’s history. The municipal parking lot across the street is expected to meet most of the demand.
The challenge, he said, will be to bring in customers in the off-season, and meet demand during the summer.
Yvette, who said the restaurant’s pasta is made from her recipe, was “the face of the business” in Red Bank, and credits her for that operation’s success. She’ll continue in that role in Sea Bright.
The couple, who live in Monmouth Beach, also brought over their management team from Red Bank: Jim Orecchio as general manager, Tim Selcov running the food and beverage side, and Brian Smith direction operations.