By JOHN T. WARD
After 35 years as mainstays of the Red Bank restaurant scene, the owners of the Front St. Trattoria have made a quiet exit.
Read all about it, plus news of a planned CBD shop, in this edition of redbankgreen‘s Retail Churn.
For Valerie and Michael Aufiero, the end came without a bang.
Following through on a decision they made late last year to retire, the couple quietly listed the building that houses the Trattoria in January, planning to announce their departure to employees and customers once a buyer was found.
“We felt it was a good time to get out. The economy was wonderful,” said Michael.
Now in their late 60s, the Shrewsbury residents had been on their feet far longer than many other restaurateurs in town, greeting diners as they stepped down into the narrow, exposed-brick BYOB or pulled up tables on the outdoor terrace Michael built.
While they had reinvigorated the menu of Italian and Mediterranean dishes repeatedly over the years, incorporating Mexican touches, “the hardest thing about this business is that the operators get tired,” Michael said. “They stop coming in every day, the quality goes down.”
“We wanted to leave on a high note,” said Valerie. “We were starting to get burned out.”
It was also time time to pursue other passions, they said. Since late 2019, Valerie has been developing a second career as a certified life purpose coach. As she has for many years, she also remains involved as a volunteer with Red Bank RiverCenter, the downtown promotion agency.
Michael, described in a 2013 redbankgreen feature as a former surf bum, postal service employee and computer technician, has a custom cabinetry business on the side that’s been busy, as pandemic-bound homeowners upgrade their nests.
But the Aufieros’ exit strategy took an unexpected turn with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, forcing as it did for all businesses the abrupt end of normal operations.
The couple tried running the Trattoria as a takeout-only business. But with a dwindled staff, they found themselves working “twice as hard” for a fraction of the revenue, said Valerie.
“I said, is it really worth it? I didn’t find it was necessary to keep working,” she said. The effort ended after just one week, and the Trattoria has remained closed since then.
That was on a Saturday. Knowing they wouldn’t be back, the Aufieros gave away some of their food inventory to employees. The next day, they loaded up a pickup truck with fresh produce, eggs, milk and more, parked it on the West Side and gave everything away to passersby.
“Before you know it, we had a crowd,” Michael said. “It was wonderful.”
Now, with the restaurant shuttered, the Aufieros are focused on selling the two-story building that houses it, at 31 West Front, at the corner of English Plaza.
There’s no contract of sale yet, but interest in the structure, assessed at $1.2 million, has been strong, said Michael. Meantime, it’s still generating rental income from from commercial tenant Nima Fine Rugs, located next door, and three apartments.
They feel quite fortunate, Michael said, to be in their position, and feel pain for other restaurateurs who are struggling under the weight of enormous rent bills while operating under government-imposed limitations to curb the spread of the virus.
“If this had happened to us in our heyday, it would have been devastating,” he said. “They don’t know when they’re going to get back to hiring help, paying the rent, making a profit. It’s scary for those people.”
For Val, the hardest part of calling it quits is saying goodbye to customers and staffers who’ve become like family over the decades.
“There have been tears, and there’s been ‘will you make us one more pizza?'” she said. “But now, I think there will be a lot more tears.”
• In other Churn news, a store called the Green Room plans to open at 12 Monmouth Street in early August, says owner Darek Wajda.
The store sells cannabidiol, or CBD, products – “flower, edibles, oils, drinks and topicals,” says Wajda – derived from the hemp plant, a cousin of cannabis that doesn’t induce a high in users.
The shop will be Wajda’s third to open in little more than a year, joining others in Hoboken and Montclair.
The Monmouth Street space was home for just four months last year to a florist shop; before that, it was leased to a spice business that lasted five years.
A CBD store obtained approval from the borough planning office last August to open in the former Katsin’s drugstore at 192 Shrewsbury Avenue, but the business has not opened.