#ChefColumns: The Pemoulies
How our Dream Restaurant, Thirty Acres, gave way to something unexpected.
October 20, 2015
Alex and Kevin Pemoulie are the dreamers behind New Jersey's brilliant Thirty Acres. They are in the process of closing the doors on their beloved restaurant, and striking out West—to cool, misty Seattle—to find a new beginning. They are documenting the process here on ChefsFeed.
Kevin and I met a few weeks after I began working at Momofuku.
I was hired as an office assistant, and Kevin was the chef de cuisine of the newly-relocated Noodle Bar. We began dating, then pretty soon after that, got engaged. We moved from my six floor walk-up on 2nd avenue to a tiny apartment on 12th street, to a larger apartment in Williamsburg—across the street from the BQE. Much of this time was spent staying up late and talking about Our Dream Restaurant. What it would be like, what kind of food, what kind of feel. To be honest, I can’t remember if any of the ideas we had back then made it into Thirty Acres, but they definitely shaped our relationship. The idea of it is woven into the very fabric of our marriage.
In 2010, Kevin left Momofuku to work full time on opening our restaurant. Kevin grew up in New Jersey, and I had fallen in love with it through his eyes, so Jersey City was perfect. We found an apartment downtown, and a couple of months later, got married in a bar a few blocks away.
We had barely anything saved. We met with potential investors and offered them insultingly low equity percentages for astronomical amounts of money. We worked tirelessly on a 30-page business plan that never really saw the light of day. Everyone turned us down. In retrospect, the whole thing was hilariously naive.
In the meantime, I became the director of finance for Momofuku, and they sent me to part-time business school at NYU. I took classes on nights and weekends, and we saved and saved and saved. Kevin looked at space after space until, in the fall of 2011, we found the perfect little pizzeria. It already had hoods and walk-in refrigerators, which was important because we had no money to install them. We found a local contractor with a good reputation, agreed on a budget and a timeline, and got to work. The plan was that it would take four weeks to complete the work that we needed to do. We weren’t moving any walls, just doing some superficial changes. We allowed ourselves six weeks, two months max. We hired a sous chef so that we could start recipe testing. The clock had begun.
Every day that went by was more payroll dollars, more rent dollars, more utility dollars. Four weeks became eight weeks became twelve. We pleaded and yelled and flirted and did anything we could do to get our contractor to finish the work, but time just kept passing. We completed a Kickstarter campaign and managed to make enough to keep us alive.
Four months after our first contractor had begun, we changed the locks, hired someone else to finish it, and set an opening date of April 6, 2012. We ordered an opening inventory on credit and hoped to god that our first month would be busy enough to pay for it.
Right off the bat we faced massive staffing issues. Kevin and I cast the net wide and began interviewing immediately, but couldn’t pull the trigger because we didn’t yet have a tangible opening date, nor could we afford to pay them for any training. On top of that, we didn’t have a functioning kitchen in which to work with any cooks until the day before we opened. So, to our horror, we opened that first day with a FOH staff that had been through one day of training and a BOH staff that we had never before cooked with. Looking back, I still get a pit in my stomach from how humbling that was.
Those first few months are a blur. For some reason, we opened serving lunch and dinner, seven nights a week. I woke up, went into the city, worked all day, took the train home, worked all night, closed the restaurant, stayed up late drinking and talking about everything that we needed to change and fix, slept for a few hours, and then did it all over again every single day. We took criticism extremely personally, and I cried over every single negative Yelp review. We tried and sweat and thought and worked. We were busy, lines out the door every night. Still, we weren’t making money.
Although we thought opening in Jersey City would take us out of the NYC spotlight, we found ourselves being reviewed by all of the major publications much the same way we would have been if we had opened up across the river. All of the reviews were positive, and when we received two stars from Pete Wells at The New York Times, we were thrilled. No other restaurant in New Jersey had ever received a review from the NYC restaurant critic. On top of that we were on the short-list for the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant, and were included on the Bon Appétit list of 50 Best New Restaurants in 2012. From all outward appearances, we were a success.
But one day at work at Momofuku a few months after we opened, I broke down. I hadn’t been sleeping, I was stressed beyond anything I had ever experienced, and I wasn’t handling it well. I was drowning. As much as we wanted to do this all on our own, in that moment we just needed someone to tell us what to do. Dave, my boss, cornered me and started yelling, which is his way of showing compassion. He told me that we needed to do something ASAP, or we would die. He made me promise that we would close for lunch, and close one day per week. We took his advice, because he was right.
Never, in any conversation that Kevin and I ever had, did we ever imagine opening a BYOB restaurant. We love wine and beer, and we love restaurants that serve it, but liquor licenses in Jersey City cost upwards of $150k. We didn’t have enough money to buy a sound system, never mind a liquor license, so we had simply opened without one.
Then, by some stroke of luck and good karma, a very good friend lent us the money for a liquor license, and 14 months after we opened, we began serving beer and wine. We chose an American-only wine list, and brought in a sommelier friend of ours to train our staff. We were thrilled; this was the restaurant we had always wanted. We couldn’t wait to provide our guests with the “whole experience.”
We had underestimated the allure that our BYOB policy held for our guests, so the backlash was not something we saw coming. Our diners didn’t like our wine list, didn’t like not being able to bring their own wine from home, didn’t like they could no longer afford to eat at our restaurant. We stuck to our guns. We knew that we needed to sell alcohol if we were ever going to turn a profit.
People will forget, we told ourselves. After enough time they’ll stop comparing us to what we were before. But the damage was done. We were a restaurant that used to be a better value and wasn’t anymore, and so many guests stopped coming. We cut staff, shifted our menu around. We changed our beer & wine lists, got better stemware. It would get better.
And then, I got pregnant. I was still working full-time at Momofuku, and my salary was our only real income—the only money we ever took from the restaurant was for a down payment on a tiny condo nearby. Obviously the prospect of working two full-time jobs and having a baby was daunting, so we gave ourselves the goal of figuring out how to make Thirty Acres sustainable by the time the baby was born.
When our daughter Vivian arrived, we had to face reality. Despite our dreams of having both of us work at the restaurant with a kid strapped to my back, I spent the first three months homebound with a colic-y baby that would not sleep. I went back to Momofuku part-time and was miserable. I missed my daughter. I’d been with Momofuku for seven years by then; if I couldn’t give them my all, I didn’t want to be there.
After I gave my notice, it became clear that Thirty Acres would never be enough to support our family. Kevin was struggling. Whereas we used to be a team on the floor, every night, I was now at home putting the baby to bed, leaving him to run the kitchen and the front of house and all of the other admin work that I was usually in charge of. We were both miserable, having built this life so that we could share it, and now living completely separate lives. We knew that closing Thirty Acres and moving on was the solution, so we found a broker and listed the restaurant for sale. We gave ourselves a year to wrap everything up.
Meanwhile, we made a drastic change: a switch to a tasting menu format. It allowed us to streamline our kitchen, anticipate sales, potentially increase our check average. Mostly, it was something that Kevin really felt like he wanted to do, and we figured we were closing anyway, so we may as well give it a shot. We thought it had the potential to be wildly successful, but we knew it could very well flop. As a fail safe, we kept an a la carte bar menu.
The change wasn’t well-received in Jersey City. Our regulars felt like they couldn’t come as often and many felt like it was too expensive. Our sales took a hit. We were committed, as always, because we were so proud of the food we were serving. We figured people would like it, and word would spread. We still have that hope, even if there isn’t that much time left—after service on November 28, 2015 we will close, three years and eight months after we opened.
So, that’s it. That’s the story of Thirty Acres. We took risks—some of them incredibly stupid, but all of them worth it. We are not the people that we were when we opened this restaurant. We know a bit more than we did then, but more importantly, we know how much we still don’t know.
And we did do it after all, we opened Our Dream Restaurant. It just turned out that in the end, once we had done it, it didn’t make us happy. So we closed Our Dream Restaurant. We are still married, we are not bankrupt, and we have a beautiful baby daughter who is the coolest person on earth. We are simultaneously humbled and proud.
After we close the restaurant, Kevin and I will be packing our bags and moving across the country to my hometown. We are in need of a change, and Seattle is our answer. We are so ready for this next chapter.