GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Following an OPRA request Tuesday, the township released photos from police of 'exotic' animals loose in the kitchen of AJ's Cafe Friday.
The owners of AJ’s Cafe on Route 9 said Sunday they hope to reopen by Tuesday, after township and county health officials shut down the restaurant over licensing and health concerns.
Look back at exotic animals at NJ Nature Rescue
Steve Serwatka has been operating NJ Nature Rescue, which is located in his back yard, for several years and it is now the home to many varieties of exotic animals including otters, skunks and alligators as well as the common ones, like dogs and cats.
Township police said they saw loose exotic birds and a cat in the kitchen area Friday, and that the restaurant did not have a mercantile license.
The cafe’s co-owners, Jacob Cohen and Joshua Harris, both of Toms River, said Sunday no animals were ever loose or in the kitchen, but that three pet birds visited and were kept in a cage in the office area. The cat was a stray kept in a cage, Cohen said.
But Police Chief Donna Higbee said Sunday she has photos and other evidence to back up the allegations.
“I have pictures of the animals running loose in the food prep area and kitchen. We have evidence to support it and will address that in court,” she said, adding the township has a mercantile license application for the restaurant but it was never approved.
County spokeswoman Linda Gilmore said Sunday the restaurant’s owners have been given permission to clean, but have not yet been cleared to reopen.
“Before the establishment can reopen to the public it must be reinspected by the county health department and receive approval from the township,” Gilmore said in a written statement.
Cohen said he and Harris were at the cafe Sunday afternoon, getting ready for county and township inspections Monday.
He said the birds are emotional support animals, and that he has a note from his doctor saying so.
“At no time did they pose a danger to the health or safety of our customers,” said a post on the cafe’s Facebook page. It said the animals would no longer visit.
Cohen insisted the restaurant had a mercantile license, and supplied a photo of a receipt for applying for one, which he said he did in his name. He acknowledged he never received the actual license.
Cohen said the cafe has had health and fire inspections, which require a mercantile license, so that should be proof one exists.
Higbee said the owner whose name is on the application has not contacted the police department or the township to resolve the issues.
Higbee could not release his name until he is served with legal papers, she said, but Cohen acknowledged his name is on the application.
The owner did not respond to phone calls Friday from police and cafe staff members, and did not come to the restaurant or the police station to be served with the charge, she said.
Cohen said Harris called him Friday to tell him the cafe was being shut down, but Cohen was in Philadelphia.
“My biggest concern is the safety and well being of our residents,” Higbee said Sunday.
An “Unsafe Structure Placard” attached next to the back door states Galloway Township has deemed the cafe “unsafe for human occupancy” and “no individual is to occupy this building until the structure is rendered safe and secure.”
Police officers had been called to AJ’s Cafe, 195 S. Old New York Road, in the Oceanville section of the township at 12:08 p.m. Friday for an unrelated issue, police said.
After seeing the animals and finding the business had no mercantile license, police said they closed the restaurant, contacted the county health department, and sent staff and customers home.
The animals were kept safely while township code officials and county health inspectors closed the cafe, which was deemed unsanitary and unsafe, police said.