Downtown Freehold is about seven blocks long by four blocks wide.
In just a half mile by quarter mile space, 1,500 businesses, give or take, enhance the quaint, community-driven area of Freehold Borough.
Downtown Freehold has a wide mix of businesses from lawyers, doctors, accountants and many other professions that revolve around the county offices, to photographers, music and dance studios, florists and art galleries.
Downtown Freehold has more than 40 restaurants, many hair salons, tailors, dress makers and many other retail shops.
There is a community theater and the Monmouth County Historical Association Museum.
“We only had two restaurants go out of business during COVID and they were immediately replaced by other restaurants. A number of the music studios are still not fully operational yet. We have also had a boxing gym close but that too was quickly reoccupied by a sign store. A couple other new businesses opened, as well Cohen’s Fashion Optical closed their store in the [Freehold Raceway] mall and bought a small preexisting optical boutique in downtown; an eyelash spa called House of Glam opened, and a salon named Cozmo’s changed hands and is now called Leela’s,” said Jeff Friedman, executive director of Downtown Freehold.
One very fortunate restaurant is Federici’s Family Restaurant, which was able to survive the pandemic and prepare for its 100th anniversary this summer.
Mid-March 2020, restaurants in New Jersey were ordered to halt all indoor dining. Federici’s co-owner Mike Federici said curbside pickup was acceptable, but it cut his business in half.
“It was still better than nothing,” he said gratefully.
In June the governor allowed outdoor dining, and Federici said because the restaurant had been offering outdoor dining for 30 years, they were ready to go. They already had tables and chairs ready for set up.
Then, Labor Day weekend, indoor dining at 25% capacity was allowed – so Federici’s was operating at 25% indoors, 100% outdoors and curbside pickup.
“It took our business to a normal level,” Federici said, noting that during the first three months of the lockdown, their restaurant made no profit. He said all of his dining room staff had been previously laid off – bartenders, servers, bus boys, hosts and food runners – but have since been rehired.
“I’m very lucky, very blessed. Outside of the first three months, our business did not suffer,” Federici said.
Restaurants also received PPP loans from the government, and laid off employees received bonus money through unemployment. He said he wanted to make sure everyone had some type of paycheck.
“I kept all of my kitchen staff working, which was very important to me. They all have families,” Federici said.
Another business owner concerned about her family is Marlene Rogala, who owns Especially for You Florist with her husband, Stephen Rogala Sr. Her children, Steve Jr. and Laura, work at the shop as well.
Their business just had a successful Valentine’s Day before the pandemic closed their store in advance of Easter, Passover and Mother’s Day.
Their nine full-time employees were basically jobless at first.
But, Rogala said there was a need for community support, either to send people a pick-me-up bouquet, or to send get well arrangements to those who were sick.
“This allowed them to express their sentiments and have some contact with people,” she said.
Since they operate a delivery service they were able to reopen, plus they allowed patrons to pick up their orders curbside.
“You got creative and you did what you could do,” Marlene Rogala said. “It put a little spark in the economy and picked up people’s morale.”
At first, only Rogala and her family would come in to do the work, and they reduced their hours.
At the time, funerals were not taking place, and there were limited or no flowers ordered for any large gatherings since weddings, Communions, proms and graduations were postponed or canceled.
“We just coasted along and let people know we were here if they needed us,” she said.
Calling Mother’s Day 2020 a “Mother’s Day like no other” since people weren’t visiting with family, Rogala said, “We filled the gap for them” with floral arrangements.
“It was so heartwarming that we could make people feel good or put a little light in the dreariness,” she said. “Flowers always say everything for people.”
Plus, she was able to bring some of her staff back in four-hour shifts to help with the Mother’s Day workload.
Fast-forward to Mother’s Day 2021, and Rogala said her staff prepared for a busy weekend.
Weddings are up “a tiny bit” Rogala said, though a lot of brides haven’t been able to rebook yet, but that could bring business back soon, too.
Plus, Main Street has always been a good location for retail businesses, she said, so being in the view of the public eye from foot traffic and vehicular traffic has helped them sustain their vitality.
“This community is one fabulous community,” said Rogala, who followed in her mother’s footsteps of community service, and is a charter member of DowntownFreehold.com and is a two-time former chair. “It’s a really, really good community: good retail, good economic area – and really pretty.”
Foot traffic is certainly important to the Court Jester Saloon & Eatery, which sits amongst a series of restaurants along West Main Street.
Since 1977, the Jester has offered burgers, sandwiches, wraps and other pub food, along with a selection of beer and cocktails.
Mike Page, along with co-owners Tony Ciafordini and Ryan Jones (son of late partner Jeff Jones), experienced a pause to that well-known service as the novel coronavirus spread.
“It initially knocked us down to nothing,” Page said. “We slowly came back to about 25% with takeout. Last year, I think about this time, when the outside opened up, it allowed us to get back to about 60% normal. We would have an odd weekend where we would be 75%.”
Yet after the holidays, without outdoor dining, businesses dropped back down to 50%, he said.
All along, the Jester has been offering takeout, curbside pickup, and delivery through a third party. Page said this actually turned out to be a good learning experience, because they had to adapt to better takeout practices. For example, he said, they packaged meals differently for delivery, and figured out how to run the food out to cars.
“The things we learned to do – we learned to adapt,” he said.
Although about 60% of the staff was laid off last year, the full-time staff remained employed, and many workers have since returned. However, Page said until capacity is back to 100%, they will not be able to be at 100% re-employment.
He said the federal PPP loans and a streamlined permit process from Freehold Borough were big factors in their ability to serve their customers continuously.
“The Borough of Freehold was wonderfully cooperative and allowed us to expand our outside and use areas not allowed before,” he said. “The town was great. We really appreciate that help, it was tremendous.”
Page is optimistic as the weather warms up and people get vaccinated. He said people have more confidence and are starting to return.
He said customers will come in and announce, “I’m here!” because they are so excited to be back inside the building.
“When you have regular customers who are loyal and are your regulars and you’re not around for a month or two, they’re going to go somewhere else and you’re going to lose them,” he said.
But he said having a cluster of restaurants is especially beneficial for a downtown area, because it makes the area a destination. He said their neighbors make them stronger, and it has allowed all the businesses to thrive and positively affect each other.
Although guidelines are constantly changing, Page does believe the summer will be profitable for the business.
“Either way, we’ll have a decent summer,” he said.
Rob Kash of Metropolitan Cafe expects the same, especially as Gov. Murphy lessened the prior restrictions in regards to indoor dining capacity.
“Last summer I learned what it feels like to own a car wash and be dependent on the weather. I hope for no rain, a country that reopens and to serve as many guests as possible, while we all remain healthy, happy and as close to back to normal as possible,” he said.
Kash and Joe Mosco co-own Metro, which has been in business for 22 years.
But last year was like no other.
“What we thought was going to be a two-week shutdown wound up being months. We initially thought we would pay everyone for the two weeks and obviously we had to turn to unemployment,” Kash said.
“We turned to selling groceries, paper products and cleaning products. I spent every day like an old time grocer, adding bills on a calculator, packing bags and delivering to homes.
“We remained completely closed for a month until around April 15, then did the grocery thing until mid-June when the governor allowed us to open for outside dining. We did curbside and delivery with the groceries and did especially well for Easter and Mother’s Day catering. Once we opened for outside dining, curbside (to go) became fairly busy,” he said.
However, during those first few months, almost everyone was laid off.
“There was a lot of uncertainty as far as the virus was concerned – literally no business, and unemployment was just too rich for me to ask people to come in and basically stand around and do nothing besides clean, paint and worry,” he said.
However, once Metropolitan Cafe opened for dining both outside and inside, they have been doing a decent amount of business, Kash said.
“Our customers have been very supportive and wonderful. We did a great deal of retrofitting, outside improvements and inside rearranging to maximize the comfort and safety of our guests while still following the government guidelines,” he said. “The hardest part was the uncertainty when discussions of new strains came along and worrying about staff potentially being exposed.”
Kash owns Tre on Park Avenue in Freehold, Nonna’s Citi Cucina and Rosalita’s Roadside Cantina on Route 9 in Englishtown, and Metropolitan Cafe, employing more than 240 employees, in addition to the partners and all their families.
“After over 30 years in the restaurant business, these places are my life. I spend way more time here than I do at home, and my employees are not just workers, they are my friends and family. Some have been with me since we opened. Perseverance is not an option – it would be like giving up on your friends, your family, your life,” he said.
That perseverance is part of why Metro Cafe has been a mainstay in Freehold Borough.
“I have seen a lot of change in Freehold Borough over the years. The restaurants downtown are a small community; rather than being competition, we are friends. We share a lot of the same guests, and often dine at each other’s places. When the pandemic hit, we all knew what everyone was going through and pitched in to help one another any way we could, whether it be grant opportunities, borrowing items or even helping out employing someone temporarily.
“This is a small town; most of the players have been here a long time. It’s nice to have friends who have similar lifestyles and interests right next door. We share the same problems, often the same staff and the same customers. It helps when you tend to work 60-plus hours a week,” Kash said.
Laurie O’Kane had quite a unique experience during lockdown, having to move Cohen’s Fashion Optical from the Freehold Raceway Mall on April 30 when their lease expired to 26 E. Main St. in the borough.
“During the lockdown, we had many adjustments to adapt to. With a limited staff, we had to reach out to our patients and clients so they could continue to order their contact lenses and glasses, as well as notifying them that we would be moving to a new location. Moving during lockdown had both its challenges and its benefits. Within a month, our team was able to set up the new store in every way from paint to phones. We had plenty of hours during the day to work on the store, but we missed seeing our amazing customers,” she said.
While the store was closed, services were quite limited – there were no eye examinations or fitting of patients for glasses or contact lenses.
“However, existing patients and customers with their prescriptions were still able to order contacts through us via phone, and we were able to personally sanitize and perform contactless delivery on orders that had been fulfilled prior to us shutting down,” O’Kane said. “Our employees were furloughed during that time, and while no one is back to their full hours quite yet, as business picks up and the CDC provides further guidelines, our staff is moving toward full-time once again.”
O’Kane believes her business was successful because of the support of their loyal customers and the local community who focus on supporting small businesses.
“We thank you for continuing to patronize us during this pandemic, and we look forward to servicing the Downtown Freehold area. We appreciate you,” she said. “The area is beautiful and quaint with such a positive atmosphere. We love opening our door and seeing people enjoying themselves at the restaurants and shops in the area.
“The community is so strong and vibrant, and we love being a part of the Downtown Freehold family.”