Kim Jackson initially thought opening a third restaurant was daunting, but keeping it open is what has her most concerned.
“It wasn’t hard for my business to open,” she said. “It may be hard to keep it open.”
Jackson and her husband, Kelsey, already have a reputation for serving soul food in Atlantic County, but they want to expand their brand with the addition of a restaurant in the Tourism District, a block from the Boardwalk.
Along with typical challenges — namely, a restaurant space larger than what either one has managed in the past and delays associated with obtaining a liquor license — the move is placing the couple in an Atlantic City market longtime restaurateurs say comes with its own challenges.
“The thing that you have to understand about Atlantic City is there are different markets,” said Maureen Shay, 47, whose family owns two of the city’s longest running restaurants, the Knife and Fork Inn and Dock’s Oyster House, as well as a newcomer, Harry’s Oyster Bar and Seafood. “If you want to do really well in Atlantic City during the course of the year, you need to cultivate all of the markets.”
There are 322 full-service restaurants in Atlantic County employing about 6,600 workers, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau and its 2010 county business patterns survey. The industry is a major source of jobs in the area, on par with the number of casino dealers employed locally, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Just like the casinos, Atlantic City’s restaurants have had to contend with an economic downturn and the loss of visitors to nearby gambling markets. Restaurants once were able to count on making money solely from the swell of casino visitors in the summer. Today, with fewer visitors, restaurants and other establishments in Atlantic City are embracing a year-round model.
“There’s more of a desire and demand for year-round (businesses),” said Joseph Molineaux, director of the Small Business Development Center at Richard Stockton College.
Business owners have to look elsewhere for new customers over the course of the entire year, Molineaux said.
Shay said the crush of tourists during the summer represents one segment of the customer base. But restaurants also need to be flexible during the remainder of the year and market to visitors who come during the offseason and midweek, including from conventions and shows.
The third important segment is local residents, who can be finicky and difficult to attract depending on a restaurant’s location inside Atlantic City’s 11 square miles, Shay said. The Knife and Fork’s loyal customers come from nearby Ventnor and other areas, but would not consider going the few extra blocks to Dock’s or navigating casino traffic to get to another restaurant, she said.
“Different crowds like different parts of the city,” Shay said.
The Jacksons already are familiar with catering to different customers, drawing mostly locals and takeout clientele at their Pleasantville restaurant and attracting many visitors who stay at a nearby hotel to their Gardner’s Basin restaurant.
Kelsey’s, their new restaurant near Kentucky and Pacific avenues, features a much larger dining room and kitchen. The restaurant is within walking distance of the Boardwalk and casinos, which could allow it to draw more tourists.
Locals already have found their way to the place. On a recent Friday night, every seat in the restaurant was filled, and lines of patrons stood along the walls.
While Kim Jackson said she appreciates the local business, she also wants to find a balance, particularly after fielding several requests recently from local residents looking to use the space as a catering hall.
“The phone is ringing regularly with these kind of requests,” she said.
Jackson said she will have to start turning down such requests, because they conflict with the restaurant’s regular hours, or she may ask that the request be rescheduled to days when the restaurant is closed.
In some ways, the Jacksons are behind schedule. The couple had wanted to open last spring but spent months clearing the necessary regulatory hurdles — in particular a liquor license that finally allowed them to open in November. By then, business had slowed substantially during one of the leanest months of the year.
But with no major damage from Hurricane Sandy and a rent check due, Kim Jackson said, the couple had little choice other than to open. She said the couple hoped the slow period would allow them to hire more staff.
Finding reliable employees has been one of the most difficult parts of opening the new restaurant, Jackson said. During one particularly busy Friday night, the restaurant had three servers who didn’t show up, she said.
Debbie Tarsitano, whose family is one of the owners of Tony’s Baltimore Grill, reported similar problems with finding dependable staff.
“We sometimes overstaff to make sure people show up,” she said. “When you find somebody who shows up, you don’t let them go easily.”
At some of the more established restaurants, such as Dock’s, Shay said, there is little to no turnover in the wait and kitchen staff. But at Harry’s, where the restaurant hires additional workers in the summer — generally younger ones — finding the right employees is more difficult.
“It is very hard to find people who are really focused on working,” Shay said. “They want to work, but they also want to play.”
Molineaux said he sometimes helps restaurants with hiring by connecting them with hospitality students. But in most cases, finding the right employees starts with the owners, who must set the tone of what they expect out of workers, he said.
The Jacksons have “proof of performance” with two successful soul food restaurants, Molineaux said. With time, he said, they will be able to find the right workers.
“If I look at all the elements, they do exemplify those elements,” he said.
Staff Writer Brian Ianieri contributed to this report.
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