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First Time Restaurant Owner Teams With Noted Chef to Offer New High-End Restaurant and Bar in Avalon 

Architect’s Rendering
A rendering shows the design for Black Cactus, a Mexican restaurant and bar in Avalon slated to open before summer. It will target a high-end clientele. (Architect’s Rendering)

By Shay Roddy

Jack’s Place Liquor License, Dormant Since 2017, Will Be Revived at Black Cactus

AVALON – In this resort town marked by spectacular second homes, where the median sales price of a residential property has peaked near $3 million, and where celebrities, doctors, lawyers, business owners and corporate executives regularly compete with their neighbors for residential opulence, sometimes demolishing old beach cottages in favor of breathtaking custom homes, but other times wrecking spacious 10-year-old houses that don’t quite match their preferences, Ed Kennedy thinks something is missing from the restaurant and bar scene.

Kennedy, a Stone Harbor homeowner who’s been coming down to the Seven Mile Island for 20 years, sees a growing but underserved clientele with deep pockets but few places to get a good dinner and a cocktail on a Friday or Saturday night.

He’s been frustrated himself, having to go to Cape May for the dining experience he was looking for, or drinking wine from a liquor store while eating at an Avalon BYOB, only to end up sweating in a crowded bar if he wanted to continue the night out afterward, where he found only beers and basic cocktails available.

Kennedy said he plans to open a Mexican-themed restaurant called Black Cactus in downtown Avalon prior to Memorial Day 2024, with a coastal, wood-fired concept and offering a menu featuring shareable plates complemented by thoughtful craft cocktails.

He purchased the former Coldwell Banker real estate office, at the northwest corner of Dune Drive and 27th Street, for $3.1 million in 2022. He also acquired one of the town’s few liquor licenses, for $2 million, which hasn’t been in use since Jack’s Place closed after the summer of 2017. He said $1 million is a fair estimate for construction and startup costs, putting him $6 million in before Black Cactus opens its doors.

The former Coldwell Banker real estate office, at 27th Street and Dune Drive in Avalon, will be converted into a Mexican restaurant with a liquor license. (Photo Credit: Shay Roddy)

The plan is for the 12-seat bar at Black Cactus to feature an agave list of mezcals, sotols and tequilas. There will be no dance floor or nightclub.

Instead, he said, the focus will be on precision and an environment where, on a Saturday night, patrons won’t be waiting for a bartender who is opening beers and pouring vodka sodas for people muscling up to sneak in front of them.

Patrons at Black Cactus may still have to wait for their drinks, but instead of being served across a bar, they will be at a table, ordering through a cocktail server, with the drink made carefully by a bartender, squeezing fresh juices, measuring ingredients and prioritizing quality over volume, he said.

The High-Profile Chef and the Bromance

Kennedy – who said he sold a tech company seven years ago and has done some real estate development on the island since – has no restaurant operations experience but knows what he likes when he’s out to eat or drink, and he thinks Avalon is missing it.

He teamed up with Jason Cichonski, a critically acclaimed chef and restaurateur, who helms the kitchen in three Philadelphia establishments: Messina Social Club, just off East Passyunk, Tulip Pasta and Wine Bar, in Fishtown, and Attico Rooftop, above the Cambria Hotel in Center City.

Chef Jason Cichonski, left, with Black Cactus proprietor Ed Kennedy. The restaurant and bar will be Kennedy’s first foray into the industry. (Photo Credit: Shay Roddy)

“I love food. He’s a chef,” Kennedy told the Herald. “People love athletes and have bromances for them. I’m more of a chef guy.”

Cichonski made his name at the Queen Village bistro Ela, which opened in Philadelphia when he was 26, and which he eventually bought out from one of his mentors, the chef Chip Roman. Cichonski closed Ela in 2018 to pursue other ventures.

“I wanted somewhere I could come that I knew that the food was produced at a level that I like in Manhattan or Philadelphia,” Kennedy said during a December interview on his property, where the existing building will remain and be utilized mostly for the kitchen as well as a small dining room and bar. A porch will be built around the former bank, and a naturally landscaped courtyard and patio, featuring a wood-burning fireplace, will be built in its former parking lot.

Kennedy said he enjoys and respects other local establishments, including the Princeton, Il Posto, the Diving Horse and the Whitebrier, but none of them puts all elements of the concept he envisions together.

“I’m not saying anything negative about it … but I haven’t been to the Princeton in years because, God forbid, I run into my son,” he said. “It’s like two worlds colliding. Instead, [Black Cactus] is for the people that don’t want to be elbow-to-elbow, they want to sit down, they want to have a proper cocktail.”

Although the rare Avalon liquor license carries obvious value that can offer more immediate returns in a volume-focused concept, Kennedy and Cichonski see other untapped potential in the market.

“It’s a restaurant first and then cocktail bar later,” Cichonski said during a joint interview with Kennedy, while construction crews worked in the background, converting the bank’s former parking lot to an outdoor patio and garden space.

“There’s been no place for me to go at night and sit down and have a couple of drinks that I enjoy that’s not … crazy packed,” the chef said. “So, at night, after the restaurant closes, we’ll be able to actually have people in here, but it’ll be more of a person-per-seat type of situation, as opposed to just a nightclub.”

Cichonski has been the recipient of two different but impressive honors: He received a coveted Three Bell review for Ela, from influential Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan, and was recognized for his looks by Eater as Philadelphia’s “Hottest Chef” in 2012. He also competed on the television program “Top Chef” on the cable channel Bravo in 2013.

Even LaBan, a notoriously blunt cloak-and-dagger critic whose reviews carry enough weight that his photo hangs in the kitchens of many of Philadelphia’s most popular restaurants, some of which have hired private detectives to find and photograph him, couldn’t help but mention Cichonski’s appearance while lauding his cooking.

“Cichonski has rocketed like a hot kumquat high into the national brackets of a search for the country’s hottest cook,” LaBan wrote in the Inquirer’s 2012 rave review of Ela. “I’m here to tell you that Jason Cichonski is, in fact, a very dangerous man. Because, darn it, the tall, tousle-haired dude cooks even better than he looks.”

Cichonski said he met Kennedy through mutual friends about 10 years ago, but the two bonded over food, and their relationship grew butchering chickens and drinking wine together in the basement kitchen of one of the chef’s first Philly restaurants.

Once the business is running, Kennedy said, it will be Cichonski’s show.

“We’re doing everything the right way, so that once we get off, we have our process. And then, obviously, once I’m done doing this [planning and development stage], he takes over and I get to sit down and have a cocktail,” he said, laughing.

The Business Plan

While the business will target what Kennedy sees as an underserved demographic, preferring craftsmanship and tranquility over speed and liveliness, much of his target market disappears from September until May.

Even though the vast majority of Avalon houses remain dark in the off-season, there are still so few options in the county fitting Kennedy and Cichonski’s vision that the two believe Black Cactus can be a year-round hit, even when the New York license plates Kennedy said helped reassure his confidence in its viability disappear for the off-season.

Cichonski referenced Cape May’s Ebbit Room and the city’s new Cricket Club as similar concepts that have proved their feasibility.

“You see how, when somebody’s doing something quality and putting out good food and good cocktails, things that are thoughtful, people are flocking there. You can’t get in. They’re huge. So, the demand for it down here is enormous,” Cichonski said.

The proposed floor plan for planned Mexican restaurant and bar Black Cactus.

Black Cactus plans to bank on a reputation for consistency, uncompromised during the peak summer season, to build a loyal base to sustain its success beyond the tourism months, the two agreed.

Kennedy, who lives in Stone Harbor full time, said he may only close the place in January and February, although Cichonski cautioned that schedule may be short-lived, or that at least its hours may be limited in the off-season to weekends, if there is not enough of a customer base to support full-time operation.

“It’s also about feeling out demand,” the chef said. “We’ll see. First year, we’ll go and see how everything goes and kind of make business decisions based on what’s going on. But the goal is to have something that’s actually an amenity for the whole down the shore community year-round.”

Cichonski will be in charge of hiring and said he will bring a chef down who has a home in North Wildwood. The not-yet-hired management team will be mostly local, he hopes, so that they are available to work beyond the peak tourism season.

He and Kennedy said they settled on Mexican after considering its natural fit in a coastal town with an oversaturation of Italian restaurants. Some inspiration came from Kennedy’s trips to Mexico and a visit to a pop-up in Tulum called Noma, which drew international praise while charging $600 a head before tax and tip.

“I think it was also reaching towards coastal areas and what makes sense by the water,” Cichonski said. “I think a lot of coastal Mexico, in terms of flavor profiles and freshness, and how complex but light things are makes a lot of sense for a shore town. It’s easy to incorporate a lot of the sea into a restaurant like that. And without wanting to go Mediterranean or Greek, because there’s a lot of great restaurants down here that already go into that concept. It was a lot of the reason we leaned in that direction.”

They will aim to feature fresh local ingredients from the farm and the sea in the Mexican-inspired recipes, the chef added. Kennedy said they were already in the process of working with local farmers, but declined to elaborate on specifics because, he said, no formal agreements have been reached.

“It’s almost like New Jersey ingredients, through a Mexican lens,” the chef chimed in. “We’re not doing any freezer-to-fryer stuff. We’ll work with as many local purveyors as possible.”

They said they will offer a decent small-plate menu and an extensive list of tacos, serving tables bowls of meats, seafood or other main ingredients accompanied by stacks of homemade corn tortillas and communal condiments.

“We’re going to really encourage more family-style, large-format dining, where you sit down and we curate a few things for you,” Cichonski explained.

Still, they recognize that food service is a competitive and challenging industry, even if backed by an Avalon liquor license.

“He would tell me I am crazy,” Kennedy said Cichonski had advised him, when asked by the Herald why he chose to make a $6 million investment with no experience in the competitive industry.

While numbers vary with sources, the National Restaurant Association estimates one in three won’t survive their first year. And that’s conservative, relative to other published numbers.

“I am a career restaurant person,” Cichonski said. “I’ll do it until I die, and I spend more time trying to talk my friends and investors out of getting into the business. Mostly just so that they’re aware that it is not just an easy ‘Hey you, put something here, it’s going to work.’ [Kennedy] wants to do it very much for the right reasons, which is why ultimately we decided to do it.”

Despite Cichonski’s experienced disclaimer, Kennedy did not waiver from the confidence in his vision. Referencing the famous line in the Kevin Costner movie “Field of Dreams” – “If you build it, he will come” – Kennedy said he has proved doubters wrong before by trusting his instinct, and he thinks it will work again at Black Cactus.

“If I do it right, it might take a little time,” he said. But, trust me, if you do something of quality, there’s enough quality people down here. This is a great town. People are like, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”

“I’m confident that between all the skills that Jason brings to this and our concept and how we will execute, we will get that.”

The Current Scene

In Avalon’s downtown now, which consists of the strip of Dune Drive between 20th and 32nd streets, there are only three establishments that serve liquor – the Princeton, which includes the Circle Tavern, the Whitebrier and the Rock’n Chair.

Also serving liquor in the borough are the Avalon Yacht Club, at 7th Street and the bay; ICONA, the former Golden Inn, a 79th Street beachfront hotel with the popular Sand Bar, restaurants and banquet spaces; the Windrift, an 80th Street beachfront hotel, with multiple bars and dining spaces, also owned by ICONA, and the Concord, a small restaurant and bar attached to a strip of efficiency condo units at 78th Street.

The Yacht Club is members-only, and the Concord, Windrift and ICONA are all at the Stone Harbor border, and only one mile from Stone Harbor’s 96th Street business district, compared to about three miles from where Kennedy plans to open in Avalon on Dune Drive.

Avalon businesses have struggled to find a model that can afford the mortgage in a town where real estate prices have consistently topped charts in New Jersey and ranked in in the top 100 nationally, but customers are mostly seasonal.

One by one, those businesses not protected by zoning are falling in favor of residential development. Properties zoned only for businesses are subsidizing the first floor commercial space with second- and third-floor condos, but where the upstairs neighbors’ HOAs have often implemented regulations to eliminate downstairs restaurant tenants, whose smells, noise and trash are unfavorable to upstairs neighbors, who are often paying over $2 million for their condo.

Kennedy’s business is seen as a welcome and well-timed addition, Avalon Borough Council member Jamie McDermott told the Herald.

A rendering of Black Cactus, as seen looking north from 27th Street, on file at Avalon’s borough hall.

“The council is very aware of the importance of the business district, and I’m sure the mayor is, too. And I did see a slump in the business district, but I see a nice comeback,” McDermott said, referencing the recently completed construction at the Avalon Real Estate property at 30th Street and Dune Drive, the soon-to-be-completed construction where Nemo’s, Tortilla Flats, Shades and the Spot used to be, at 26th Street and Dune Drive, and Kennedy’s project.

“We welcome him with open arms. Anything the town can do, we’ll do,” McDermott said.

In the interest of full disclosure, the author bartends at the Whitebrier in Avalon during the summers. He was featured in a Do the Shore article this summer. You can learn more about Shay Roddy’s connection to the Avalon bar and restaurant industry here.

To contact Shay Roddy, email sroddy@cmcherald.com or call (609) 886-8600 ext. 142.

Reporter

Shay Roddy is a Delaware County, Pennsylvania native who has always spent as much of his summers as he could at the Jersey Shore. He went to Friends’ Central and is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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