NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – New venues opening in the Hub City offer live performances to attract passersby through their doors. Friends Cafe, which opened at 52 Robinson Street in April, began the first of its outdoor music series on Friday and Saturday, June 11-12. On June 6, hundreds attended the grand opening of Hidden Gems Literary Emporium at 55 Morris Street to see a live band, vendors and visiting authors.
In addition, Chamber 43, a coffee, vinyl records and vintage shop which opened at 356 George Street in February, hosts multiple live indoor events each week that promote the local music and arts scene. It all indicates that the challenge of restoring New Brunswick’s celebrated arts scene from the doldrums of the COVID-19 pandemic is being met head on by an ambitious set of entrepreneurs.
At Friends Cafe, owner Mohammad “Mo” Fakhrzadeh first leased the 52 Robinson Street location in 2018 from former tenant Buday Meat Market, which specialized in Hungarian products.
The storefront, at the intersection of Robinson Street and Central Avenue, has long been home to food spaces; Arkosi Delicatessen reigned in the 1940s, while Toth’s Meat Market was a Hungarian butcher shop there during the 1970s and 1980s.
But in recent years, the address in the largely Rutgers-student residential area was mostly neglected while its former tenant directed its business elsewhere.
“I saw this place and I thought this would be very ideal” for a cafe, Fakhrzadeh said. He and his wife, Josephine, who is “the master behind everything,” had the idea to open a café that would showcase her baking talents ever since they were married in 1993.
“But in fact the place didn’t look like this,” Fakhrzadeh said. “It was in really bad shape. You’d have to have a vision. Outside, there were overgrown weeds about 10 feet tall. And gradually, I cleaned everything up and I brought it up to form.”
There were a couple stops and starts to opening the cafe since 2018, including last year’s pandemic shutdown, but Fakhrzadeh says the “clouds have kind of cleared out a little bit,” and he believes he and his wife have the formula for what it takes to be a successful cafe bakery.
Josephine bakes all the goods in the store herself, and she and the couple’s daughter came up with the name for the café: “Friends,” the sitcom they all all enjoy.
The bathroom walls are adorned from floor to ceiling with Friends paraphernalia, and the furniture pieces – the red couch and plush chairs – allude to the show’s iconic red couch from its Central Perk coffee shop.
Outside, Fakhrzadeh installed a patio with tables for guests and space for musicians. On June 11 and 12, local musician Kevin Chedid alternated on keyboard and acoustic guitar from 6 -10 pm each night, mingling with guests, family, café staff and its owners in between songs and sets.
Wired lights were draped over the patio, while teas, coffees and pastries were brought out by servers. After a successful inaugural showing, Fakhrzadeh said the music nights showed the cafe’s potential in bringing together a crowd of patrons that just want to relax on the patio, enjoy a beverage or pastry and chat with their friends.
“Call me old fashioned if you want, call me anything you want,” Fakhrzadeh, who also runs a landscaping business, said. “But I’m a guy that likes soft music. I like jazz, I like Frank Sinatra, I like soft pop music. And I thought my first night out would be maybe jazz, maybe classic.”
“Everybody has a different taste in music, and I just like the calm music,” he added. “I feel like it gives you serenity. And I don’t want to represent our café with some heavy metal. This is the tone. So it seems like the next event is going to be something in the form of jazz, saxophone, things like that.”
The ambiance and that serenity are two of Fakhrzadeh’s motivating principles inside Friends Café. In an area populated by many college students, he wants Friends Café to be a refuge where students can relax, have a drink or snack, and utilize the cafe’s free WiFi to study.
“And not just the students,” Fakhrzadeh said. “The students would actually bring their parents, and the parents, knowing that their kids would have a place like this to come and study, for them it was a sense of relief,” he said.
“I heard from many many parents that it was like we were the kids’ chaperone! It was like, ‘Oh we’re so happy that you’re here, so at least now we know that our kids don’t have to go a big distance to have good casual food or coffee or to study.’ They were thrilled.”
And not just the parents either, but the “furry friends” too. Fakhrzadeh hopped outside to serve dog treats, also made by Josephine, to a couple of canines being walked. “We have a big big list of fans, furry friends we call them, that they stop by to get their treats,” he said. “They love this place.”
Opening in April gave the Fakhrzadeh’s a taste of life with the Rutgers student body, with Mo reporting that lines were out the door and that the cafe was a hit during finals weeks. He’s optimistic for their return in the fall. “I believe it’s going to be the cafe for the students in New Brunswick, Rutgers, or wherever they come from.”
Meanwhile, the summer break has allowed him to test out the new music format. This first weekend helped the café get its feet wet, and they’ll improvise the frequency and type of events as they go.
Aside from the music, Fakhrzadeh is focused on the cafe’s atmosphere and on having exceptional products. Friends Café uses a top of the market Italian coffee bean that Josephine’s Italian family has always enjoyed.
And the pastries are all made in the store with no preservatives. Mo’s current favorites are cream puffs and eclairs, and they’ll be adding his “favorite favorite favorite” of Josephine’s confections for sale later this summer.
“I strongly believe my wife in particular has what it takes, to represent to people the quality of goods, the ambiance, the atmosphere,” Fakhrzadeh said.
“We want if somebody comes in here from all ages, whether they are students, whether they are clergymen, whether they are government employees, when they come in here, I tell everybody: This here is an extension of your own living rooms at home,” he said.
“That’s what I’d like to accomplish. I want everyone to be comfortable, 100%, feel good and enjoy what they consume.” Friends Café is open seven days a week, from 6 am to 7 or 8 p.m., and later on music nights, at 52 Robinson Street, New Brunswick.