Restaurateurs from throughout Cape May County met at the Rio Station Restaurant and Bar on Nov. 5 in Rio Grande for a luncheon hosted by the New Jersey Restaurant Association.

The luncheon served a fourfold purpose: to allow the association to check in with its members after Hurricane Sandy, to promote networking in the restaurant community, to showcase the benefits of membership to prospective members and to introduce new NJRA President Marilou Halvorsen.

It was the fifth day on the job for Halvorsen, who said that although starting in the aftermath of the hurricane has been challenging, seeing the community come together has been heartening.

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"Part of it's been heartwarming, because I see all the great things restaurants are doing for their community, so it really makes me proud to now be joining this industry," Halvorson said. "There's still a lot of business that has to happen, daily running of the organization, I really need to be caught up to speed, but that will happen. Right now the priority is getting our members through this crisis and moving forward, to rebuild and recover."

Halvorsen and others, including Cape May County Chamber of Commerce president Vicki Clark and NJRA boardmember David Craig spoke to the assembled restaurateurs.

Kevin Celli, of the Willow Creek Winery and the Southern Mansion in Cape May, was one of those who attended, saying he enjoys these events for their networking potential. He used the opportunity to discuss his interest in reinforcing the natural connection between area restaurants and wineries with others who attended.

"Wine and food have been going together for such a long time," Celli said. "What I'd like to do is, I'd like to bring some of the amazing wineries here in Cape May County, that can actually work together with the restaurants, to educate their staff, to properly inform their guests on how to select food and pair the wines with food."

Ric Rutherford, owner of the Rio Station and a longtime NJRA member also spoke at the event and praised the association.

He said the association came to his aid seven years before, when a strip mall that opened near his restaurant threatened to choke his business. He said the NJRA's legal team, which gives consultations to members, was instrumental in keeping the restaurant afloat.

"I called them, and I had a very good relationship with one of their attorneys, and he just kept guiding me through things. He gave me references and told me what my rights were, and he was just really helpful, so it helped me with staying," Rutherford said.

Most of the two dozen who attended were already members of the organization, although a few were not, Halvorsen said.

For Celli, who also took the opportunity to ask for help in a hurricane relief drive he's mounting, the event and others like it are a big help in building a cohesive restaurant community in Cape May County and beyond.

"If you hit a hundred of these little events and you take away 100 people that you met that were really good and a good connection (it's worth it)," Celli said. "It's all about working with the community, and building our county, and our state, as a whole, is really the goal."

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