A group of Asbury Park entrepreneurs who plan to launch a hip restaurant district in Burlington City are also buying homes there. Some of them are relocating - the group's architect, a head chef at one of their bustling eateries at the Jersey Shore, and a project manager. Future plans call for a culinary school or test kitchen in the Delaware River community.
The group, which simply calls itself Smith, owns and operates six trendy restaurants, mostly in Asbury Park, known as the place where Bruce Springsteen got his start and now as a popular destination. Smith also has plans to open two other restaurants in that area over the next six months. After that, it hopes to open three to four restaurants in Burlington City, now a depressed community with many vacant storefronts and several boarded-up homes.
The group sees Burlington as ripe for revitalization and wants to tap into its scenic waterfront and rich colonial history.
So far, Smith has purchased three Burlington buildings - including a fire hall with a historic clocktower - to convert into restaurants. But the principals in the group have also bought seven houses.
Jim Watt, an architect and one of five partners in Smith, bought a historic home and says he is making it his primary residence. "We fell in love with Burlington," he said, including his colleagues and his family in the "we." The head chef at Porta, who is also a creative director for Smith, also is relocating from the Asbury Park area along with a project manager.
“There’s an amazing inventory of beautiful authentic homes” in Burlington, Watt said, adding he looks forward to watching the city change and to be part of that.
Mayor Jim Fazzone, a longtime resident, says the house purchases are a sign of the group's commitment to the city. He said government funds and loans are available in the redevelopment area of the city.
Smith began opening restaurants in Asbury Park seven years ago, Watt said, long before that community became a hotspot.
Now, he said, it's Burlington's turn.
“We like to be the first one in … going in and realizing a vision for a community worth restoring,” Watt said.