By Pam Hersh
The last time I saw Princeton businessman and entrepreneur Jack Morrison was at the gym – one year ago.
A few weeks prior to the gym encounter, I had interviewed Jack, along with Chef Nicolas Demurge, at Jack’s most recent Princeton restaurant endeavor, the French bistro Kristine’s. Located in the heart of Princeton at Hinds Plaza, aka Library Plaza, Kristine’s, thanks to Chef Demurge’s culinary skills and business background, grew into a popular lunch and dinner destination and had just started offering breakfast. My health-conscious daughter-in-law, whose name happens to be Christine, had eaten there and was wowed by the creativity, simplicity, freshness, “no heaviness” of the offerings. The menu also included vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free options – something very crucial to the insane food restrictions of my family members, whose only food option suitable for everyone is Styrofoam.
As Jack got his cardio workout on the exercise bike, I told him I was preparing to write my column about Kristine’s, but I wanted to explore a bit more thoroughly ‘Why.’ What on earth possessed him to open up another restaurant – always a stressful and dicey business venture – at a time in his life when people expected him to be retiring to the south of France, instead of opening a restaurant featuring the food of France. Jack Morrison also is the owner of two highly popular Princeton restaurants – The Witherspoon Grill and Blue Point Grill, as well as a seafood market Nassau Street Seafood.
Kristine’s was a labor of love for Jack, a “truly enjoyable project,” Jack said in my original interview. “Sure, I wanted it to be successful, but I was not going to stress over it. More than anything I just wanted to do it right,” he said. “I had always wanted to have a French restaurant that featured bistro-style, health-conscious food served in an environment featuring camaraderie, and conviviality.” He noted that he was willing to take a risk with Kristine’s, because he was in a financial stable position with his other Princeton business ventures that included the food operations, as well as 75 residential apartments in downtown Princeton.
I never got the opportunity to drill down on his motivation, because within a few days of our gym conversation, Kristine’s, instead of serving up omelets, was serving nothing. COVID invaded the landscape, and Princeton restaurants closed. Jack Morrison’s world, and that of all other Princeton merchants, became surreal, unstable and scary.
Although I never talked to Jack during the COVID upheaval, it didn’t take much imagination on my part to understand the devastation that he must have felt – not only the obvious financial impact on him personally, but also the emotional turmoil he was experiencing regarding the impact on his employees. Several times during the course of my interview, he mentioned to me how his “family” comprised all those working for him at his three restaurants and Nassau Street Seafood. He ran a family business that consisted of not only his blood relatives who work in the business, but also everyone who had a role in the success of his operations.
“I met Nicolas Demurge through a mutual friend and knew instinctively that he would be perfect for Kristine’s. Although he grew up in the countryside of Lyon and was immersed in French culture and cuisine, I wanted to make sure that he and his wife and two young children would be comfortable in their new home and considered me and my family as their family. In fact, I feel that way about all of my employees. I have 160 families to take care of,” said Jack, who opened Nassau Street Seafood with his wife in 1982.
“Actually, I think of all Princeton merchants as family – we play a role in each other’s sustainability. A vibrant business community helps all of us,” Jack said to me at a time that now seems like Halcyon Days, when unrelated people could talk and eat together – inside.
The next time I saw Jack Morrison was a year later on the morning of Jan. 14, 2021 – not over breakfast at Kristine’s but over Zoom at a meeting of the Princeton Merchants Association (PMA). Jack, who is president of the Princeton Merchants Association, looked composed and confident, not like someone who had navigated a painfully treacherous year consisting of little sleep and whiplash decision making about big and small challenges, such as illness, COVID testing, COVID safety protocols, unemployment benefits, business loans, heat lamps, canopies, tents, weather reports, masks, hand sanitizer, food delivery, web and social media presence.
The PMA meeting agenda included a message from Mark Freda, Princeton’s new mayor, a report from Jeff Grosser, Princeton’s health officer, and an update from Princeton University officials. Attendees learned that Mayor Freda listens a lot and only talks when he has something worthwhile to say – “I try not to talk just to make noise … My role is to be here and listen to you,” Mark said.
COVID is still a major threat, said Jeff Grosser, and vaccine doses thus far are limited in number. The vaccination implementation is slower than anticipated, because of supply, but also, the process of actually administering the injection is more labor intensive than that of a regular flu shot. Each individual right after they have gotten a COVID vaccine has to be observed for 15 to 30 minutes to make sure that no adverse allergic reaction occurs.
The merchants, eager to get Princeton University students – masked and socially distant – back into their retail establishments, learned that 3,000 Princeton University undergraduates (graduate students have already been on campus) were returning to campus in a staggered fashion, starting the weekend of Jan. 16, and were going to be conforming to very strict and elaborate COVID safety protocols. All classes (which begin on Feb. 1) , however, will remain virtual.
At the Zoom meeting that had 60 participants, Jack hearkened to the theme of our conversation a year ago. He talked about how being part of the Princeton merchant family – how the camaraderie, the support, the determination, sustained and motivated everyone during this challenging time. “PMA proved to be of great value – probably greater value than ever before to Princeton. We let people know that Princeton was an excellent place to visit” with outdoor historic attractions and merchants who were innovative in finding COVID safe ways to sell their wares and serve their food, in spite of the overwhelming stresses and challenges, Jack said.
The future may be uncertain, but Jack was sure of one thing – the members of the family will be there for one another.
The Princeton Merchants Association meets the first Thursday each month at 10 a.m. www.princetonmerchants.org