Steve Farley, left, and Bill Huwyler at Riverside Park Jam, the former concession stand in Riverside Gardens Park that they’ve reinvented as a gourmet-quality takeout restaurant. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
Two years after it ended decades of underutilization, the concession stand in Riverside Gardens Park in Red Bank has a radically new mission.
Call it the no-concessions stand, because it’s not summer-only, and it’s not hot dogs and sodas — not by a long shot.
In the West Front Street space, Steve Farley and Bill Huwyler have created a takeout restaurant called Riverside Park Jam. There, they’re hoping to shatter some preconceived notions about the building and what it should be serving.
The pair’s approach is all about fresh food, using as many locally sourced ingredients as they can find to put out unique dishes for a menu that changes daily.
Scanning last week’s offerings, for example, one would see cheddar bratwurst, “from real deal German butchers in North Jersey.” A charred-scallion chicken salad sandwich. Chicken tortilla soup, and a coconut-carrot ginger soup.
Friday’s offerings included chicken tinga tacos; a beef-and-bean chili; and a Cuban black bean soup. And for dessert, tres leches cake.
Yeah, don’t expect soft-serve ice cream and a tankard of Pepsi from this joint.
“I will make hot chocolate,” said Farley, a 48-year-old Highlands resident who does double duty as executive chef at Artisan’s Restaurant and Brewery in Toms River. “But it will be a stellar hot chocolate.”
Huwyler, 35, of Red Bank, who plays bass in Remember Jones, and Farley have been friends for about seven years. This is their first venture together, and it came about after Huwyler learned earlier this year that the borough was soliciting bids for the park stand.
The backstory: When the one-story building was erected as part of the creation of Riverside Gardens Park (on the former site of Riverside Gardens Apartments) in the 1990s, town officials didn’t want it to compete with nearby business. And so for most of its existence, it was operated by Parks and Rec department employees and volunteers during special events in the park, dispensing hot dogs and sodas through the sliding windows.
But in 2016, Mayor Pasquale Menna called the stand a “wasted resource” and floated a plan to rent it to a private operator. After a bidding process, ice cream vendor Gracie and the Dudes won the right to run the stand, and did so for two seasons, but this year, decided not to pick up an option to continue its lease.
In May, another bidding process attracted an offer of $16,800 for the first year’s lease and $18,000 in 2019. But the bidder pulled out at the last minute, officials said, and the second-best bid was just $1. After a re-bid. Huwyler and Farley won a two-year-lease, at $10,000 per year.
After installing their own kitchen equipment, Huwyler and Farley opened periodically starting in late July, supplying brats instead of dogs to crowds assembled in the park for concerts and family-friendly films.
“The hard part about this spot is convincing people there’s real food here,” Huwyler said.
“You can’t make fresh hummus in there!” Farley says, imitating an imaginary customer. “Where’s the ice-cream machine?”
Instead, he said, they served hard ice cream: Häagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s. And nobody really complained, Farley said.
Last week was Park Jam’s first full week of operation. The plan, the pair said, is to run Park Jam as a year-round business, weather permitting. In addition to a daily special, which could be “a delicious sandwich… or a seasonal braise over some house-milled polenta,” Park Jam will offer two made-from-scratch soups daily, one of them a vegetarian soup, Huwyler said.
And on Sunday, September 30, Park Jam will seat a $55-a-head, three-course vegetarian dinner party on the patio to the north side of the building, overlooking the Navesink, in conjunction with Oasis Backyard Farms in Marlboro. It’s kind of a test run for eventually adding a regular dinner menu, the pair said.
Park Jam is open Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. or whenever the day’s specials sell out, whichever is earlier.