By JOHN T. WARD
After nearly two and a half years of town-splitting arguments, Fair Haven now has a Dunkin’ coffee shop.
Considering the wringer he went through to get to this point, owner Domenic Sequeira was in a pretty affable mood Wednesday morning.
“We’re here to be part of the community, to embrace the community,” he told redbankgreen, two days after he quietly opened the shop for business in the River Road strip mall anchored by an Acme supermarket.
The sun wasn’t yet up. Outside in the parking lot, two construction vans idled, their occupants drinking coffee or napping, as the occasional customer came and went. A single car idled at the far end of the otherwise vacant parking aisle, near the Acme entrance.
Though it was early, in the midst of a holiday week and an historic pandemic, the level of activity was indicative of what can be expected most mornings, Sequeira said.
“This is a very complementary use” to the rest of the shopping center, he said. “The other stores are closed at this hour, which is our busiest time of day, and when they’re busiest, it’s our slowest time.”
Along with other family members, Sequeira, a Lincroft resident, owns a Dunkin’ shop in his hometown; two in Red Bank (on Water Street and in Riverview Medical Center); one in Shrewsbury; two in Tinton Falls; and one in Atlantic Highlands.
Last week, they closed their Sea Bright store, which was in a building slated to be demolished to make way for a new Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge. That store’s crew now works the Fair Haven counter and baking area.
In literal terms, Sequeira was a third party to the drama that preceded the opening. The “application for amended site plan and change of use” was submitted to the town planning office by Fair Haven Retail LLC, the owner of the shopping center, which had to make the case that it should be approved.
Likewise, it was Fair Haven Retail, along with the borough and its land-use boards, that got hit with two lawsuits filed by a borough resident. Before he was told by redbankgreen that both have now been dismissed “with prejudice” by the Superior Court, Sequeira was unaware of their status, he said.
But it was the Dunkin’ image that blew open a pandora’s box of doomsday predictions, as well as impassioned defenses of a small, locally owned business – a mom-and-pop that just happens to be affiliated with a universally recognized brand.
The plan prompted claims that Dunkin’ trash would litter the parking lot. Traffic would back up within the shopping center, and motorists would face a nightmare trying to pull out onto River Road, especially those headed westbound. Kids on bikes would get run over by impatient drivers.
Some opponents also argued that allowing a chain store into a town that had banned them in 1973 – and famously fought off a challenge by McDonald’s – would diminish Fair Haven’s small-town charm. That sentiment helped drive a revisiting of the borough’s land-use ordinances even as the Dunkin’ hearings were underway.
Others, however, pushed back, claiming snobbery: no one, after all, had raised a stink about Booskerdoo opening a coffee shop in a tiny space just a few blocks east in 2013, some noted.
Exchanges on the Fair Haven, NJ Facebook page got so abusive that the moderator shut down commenting on the issue for months.
Sequeira acknowledges the arguments weren’t easy to endure.
“We don’t want to go anywhere we’re not wanted,” he said. “But we felt this was a good fit. We definitely fit into the shopping center, into the neighborhood. I don’t think it sticks out, or undermines anything.”
Finally, after a series of hearings that had to be held in a school gym to accommodate turnout, the planning board approved the shop in August, 2019, on a 7-2 vote.
Now, with the store open, Sequeira said he hopes all that conflict is in the past.
“For us, it’s business as usual – we run great stores all the time,” he said. “We just hope everyone regrets all the negativity going into it and realizes, hey, it’s actually a good thing.”
Dunkin’ took over the space vacated more than four years ago by a beloved borough institution: Laird’s Stationery. The business was forced out when the landlord refused to provide a new lease, owners Rose and Bob Budnick said at the time.
Fair Haven Retail acquired the 1950s-vintage strip mall for $5.8 million in 2014, and gave the place a makeover after a number of tenants, including Laird’s, moved out.
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