MILLVILLE — The doors to Jim’s Lunch here opened for the season at 6 a.m. today with lots more of the same.
There is the same menu, staff, booths, location and sandwich sauce that founder James Arnes created from a recipe he borrowed — some family members claim he stole — from a Philadelphia restaurant early in the 20th century.
But there is one difference: The legendary local eatery is now under the control of a new generation of the Maul family.
Jim Jr., 42, and his sister, Nichole, 36, are running the restaurant that has operated near the intersection of Main and High streets since 1923. They are taking over from their parents — Jim Sr., 65, and Rochelle, 64 — who took over operations in 1988 and have spent a combined 94 years working at Jim’s Lunch.
Jim Sr. and Rochelle are stepping down from a job they still love, but whose six-day-a-week, 12-hour work shifts are becoming a little difficult to handle.
“It’s getting to be a lot of work, and I’m not that young anymore,” Jim Sr. said.
If so, why are Jim Sr. and Rochelle still at the restaurant — and intend to stay there until, maybe, around Christmas?
Jim Sr. says it is simple: He just wants to help out the kids.
“I don’t think he would know what to do with himself if he wasn’t here,” Jim Jr. said.
Despite the help, Nichole knows it is up to her and Jim Jr. to run the operation.
“They’re big shoes to fill,” Nichole said taking over from mom and dad. “People don’t realize there’s a lot of hard work to do. Your mind is always on this place.”
Nichole and Jim Jr. are no strangers to the restaurant.
Nichole said she used to wear her uniform to Millville High School during her junior and senior years. She would go to work at Jim’s Lunch right after school.
For Jim Jr., his stint at Jim’s Lunch began after he misbehaved at school years ago. His punishment was to work at the restaurant after school and on Saturdays.
“I guess I’m still on time-out,” he said.
Jim’s Lunch is a little different operation.
When people talk about “the season” in New Jersey, they are usually referring to the summer tourist season that traditionally runs between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The season for Jim’s Lunch runs from Columbus Day to Memorial Day. The place closes for the summer, and not because it has no air conditioning.
According to Rochelle, Arnes, her grandfather, took his wife for a month-long vacation to Greece at some point after he opened the restaurant. The vacations to Greece started growing longer, reaching the point where the family eventually decided to shut down operations for the summer.
The annual reopening is a big deal. The crowd can get so big that Nichole — who works the grill in the front window along Main Street — said orders can back up for two hours.
The staff is used to the rush. Servers do not even have to ask some long-time customers what they want to eat.
That includes Jerry Hinckley, a 62-year-old former city firefighter. Hinckley stopped in to see the Mauls on Thursday, something that becomes especially impressive because Hinckley lives in Milwaukee.
Nichole said today’s opening will mark about the 13th time in 14 years that Hinckley returned to the city for Jim’s Lunch’s annual reopening.
“I have my specials that I don’t get in Milwaukee,” Hinckley said.
Nichole knows exactly what Hinckley will order: A concoction that includes Texas wieners, eggs, onions and green peppers. The order will be served to Hinckley in his usual booth.
While Jim’s Lunch serves traditional fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it is the sauce that has made it locally famous.
Ask Nichole if she will disclose how it is made and her answer is a brief, firm, “No.” The recipe it so secret that it is known only to Jim Sr. and one other person.
Despite its popularity, especially on hamburgers, customers will find only one reference to the sauce in the restaurant. Printed under the list of hot sandwiches on the menus is the phrase “JUST SAY EVERYTHING — Mustard, Onions & Sauce.
As for Jim Sr. and Rochelle, they have full confidence in the way Jim Jr. and Nichole will run the restaurant.
And once they finally leave the eatery, they will — maybe in April or May — start a months-long trip on their 30-foot sailboat. The voyage will likely include a stop in Milwaukee, Jim Sr. said.
“I’ll visit Jerry,” he said.
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