Crystal Plaza celebrates a century of simchas

Crystal Plaza celebrates a century of simchas

Landmark venue prizes tradition, adapts to changing tastes

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Dorothy Bleiweis and Harold Janoff on their wedding day in 1947. The event was held at the Janoff family’s Alpine Caterers in Newark. Seated at right is Rabbi Louis Weller. Photos courtesy Janoff Family
Dorothy Bleiweis and Harold Janoff on their wedding day in 1947. The event was held at the Janoff family’s Alpine Caterers in Newark. Seated at right is Rabbi Louis Weller. Photos courtesy Janoff Family

On a recent Saturday, guests indulged in the “after party” bakery treats set up in the entryway of the Crystal Plaza in Livingston; the bride and groom said their goodbyes. Behind the scenes, dozens of employees were in place, ready to transform the space. 

Within 30 minutes, the elegant afternoon wedding setting was gone and, in its place, a Mardi Gras-themed bat mitzvah party was emerging.

With about 50 staffers working in the ballroom, floral centerpieces gave way to displays of feathers, masks, and beads. The wedding’s color scheme changed from ivory to bright purple. An area that had held formal tables and chairs was converted into a kids’ lounge. The wedding band departed, and the group for the bat mitzvah party was setting up their sound system. 

Guests would not arrive for another hour and a half, but the facility’s cocktail lounge was already festooned with green, purple, and yellow decorations, and a mask-themed ice sculpture was being pushed into place. Downstairs, the kitchen staff washed the last of the afternoon event’s dishes and began preparing the next menu. 

Members of the Janoff family, owners of the Crystal Plaza, have been presiding over simchas for 100 years, choreographing and coordinating the milestone moments in people’s lives. This particular day was not so different from those at the facility’s original site in Newark after Max Janoff, a Russian immigrant, opened Alpine Caterers on Clinton Street in 1917. 

Well, maybe it was a little different: Back then everything was kosher and there would have been no non-Jewish clientele having affairs on Shabbat; and the tab for a wedding did not run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

The Janoffs are celebrating 100 years as a community institution, a history that reflects the evolution of the surrounding Jewish community. Their longevity has always rested on a deep of understanding of the people it served, and an uncanny ability to stay just ahead of the curve. 

As the community went, so went the Janoffs. They moved from Newark to the suburbs, first to Maplewood, then Livingston. As in many families, kosher observance gave way to both stricter and more relaxed practices, and palates widened to include food far beyond the traditional Eastern European fare. Mid-20th century celebrations featured gefilte fish, baked chicken, stuffed derma, relish trays, and “crisp table celery.” Today the cocktail hour alone includes sushi served in dragon ice sculptures, Peking duck, caviar, Korean barbecue, beef sliders, mushroom ragout — not to mention craft beer, sake stations, and vodka served in an ice luge. 

Of course any discussion of Crystal Plaza’s hors d’oeuvres would be incomplete without mentioning the near-mythic baby lamb chops — perfectly seasoned, cooked to perfection. Who hasn’t been asked, “Did they serve the lamb chops?” (Even Ronnie Janoff-Weinstein, a third-generation family member in the business, acknowledged a weakness for them. “Whenever there are lamb chops in the kitchen, I have to eat one or two. They are so delicious!”)

If the food tells one part of the story, the numbers tell another. By the mid-1940s, the cost of a wedding in Newark for 123 people and seven children was $3,577.50, according to one contract signed April 1, 1944. That’s $49,987.69 in today’s dollars, according to the CPI Inflation Calculator of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The runner, the cloth placed in the aisle for the bridal party to walk down, was $20 extra. “We charged for every little thing in those days,” said Dorothy Janoff, who joined the family in 1948 when she married Harold Janoff, the second-generation owner. “It’s what was expected.” 

Dottie, as everyone calls her, remembers mid-20th-century affairs as “much more modest” than they are today. Maybe that’s because they took place in a single room, in a commercial district of Newark. “We used to have to walk upstairs, a whole flight of stairs, to get to the party,” she said. “We had the one room, and we used that for the chapel, plus we used it for the party.

“We sort of took them out” — she said, explaining that guests had to leave the room while staff changed the set-up — “and somehow we brought them back into the room, and that was it.” 

Another detail she recalled that’s long gone: “There was a heart-shaped cut-out on the door where the bride would show her face.”

Weddings at that time would have required 25-35 employees, estimated Allan Janoff, third-generation owner and Ronnie’s brother. Today, an extravagant affair at the Crystal Plaza can involve 211 employees, including porters, servers, office staff, managers, and 21 chefs, as for a recent event. So what does it cost today to be surrounded by lush landscaping and dazzling ballroom fixtures, with valet parking, custom lighting and decor, music and flowers, all created by inhouse event planners? The average cost is well into the six figures, according to Allan Janoff. 

“We have more chefs today than they had employees altogether” in the early days, he said.

Marty Shachat, former executive chef — now considered chef emeritus — who has worked with the family for more than half a century, learned his craft at the famed Grossinger’s Resort Hotel in the Catskills. He remembers when dinner at the Alpine consisted of baked chicken, potatoes or brown rice, and noodle kugel. But Grossinger’s is shuttered, while the Crystal Plaza endures. Shachat believes that it at least in part because he learned not be complacent: Knowing what people want has long been a guiding principle. When sauces started to trend, he said, “I went to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] and took a class for a week to learn sauces.” He continually “upgraded” his skills, as he put it, with courses at the CIA. 

That’s part of the “secret sauce” of the Janoff success. It’s how they avoid becoming passé. 

The other part is passion. There’s a joy this family has in their work that’s palpable.

Allan started working with his father when he was just 11; his sons recall playing with the walkie-talkies in the office when they were boys. Ronnie said, “When I was little, and I had a not-so-great day at school, I’d get on my bicycle and ride to the Alpine. It was happy there. There was always music and a party.” Just being there, she said, always made her feel better. 

Even today, she added, “It’s contagious to be around people celebrating.”

But joy and passion alone cannot keep a business running for so many years, especially as the community it chiefly serves evolves; if they were still serving stuffed derma in Newark, perhaps they wouldn’t be in business anymore.

In 1948, when Newark’s Jewish community was at its peak — with 56,000 members, about 12 percent of the city’s population, and some 60 synagogues — Harold and Max Janoff moved the business to Springfield Avenue in Maplewood. They sought to capture what they saw even then as a growing suburban market. 

Their view was prescient; the first trickle of the exodus of Newark’s Jewish community had already begun. Some 29,000 Jews were living in neighboring communities, according to “The Enduring Community: The Jews of Newark and MetroWest,” by William Helmreich. Helmreich says that the move to the suburbs began for Newark’s Jews even before World War I and would pick up significantly in the 1950s and ’60s. 

The Janoffs exhibited the same business sense when they moved to Northfield Road in Livingston, into the mansion that had housed a restaurant called the Condor. Dottie has often been quoted as saying she liked the facility’s many crystal chandeliers, and gave their new place its name for that reason. It was 1965 and Allan recalled that once his father and grandfather decided they wanted the mansion, they spent all night with lawyers until the transaction was completed. 

While Allan remembers Livingston as being sparsely populated at that time, calling it “God’s country,” Jews in fact had begun establishing a presence. The town was already home to the Livingston Jewish Center, which would become Temple Beth Shalom, formed in 1951; Temple Emanu-El (which will close its doors in June) was founded in the town in 1955. 

A boom followed. The Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center would be established in 1969 and Temple B’nai Abraham would move from Newark to Livingston in 1973. The family understood where the Jewish community was heading.

Sons and daughters of the earlier generations were attending college and becoming more affluent than their parents. The Jews were showing they had arrived, building large synagogues and homes; they needed a celebration space to match. The Janoffs provided a stately country mansion with sparkling chandeliers and a gilded ballroom. According to lore, it was designed by the great American architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White, the storied Gilded Age firm, though facts have a pesky way of contradicting legends; records show that construction on the facility likely began in 1924, long after White’s death. Nonetheless, the story has become intertwined with the facility.

The Janoff family earned recognition from the broader catering world. In 1975, at the New York Coliseum, the Crystal Plaza won first prize for classical cookery in the Hotel and Motel International Exposition for a smorgasbord display created by chef and decorator Sol Ferling. 

Over the next 20 years, the Janoffs tried to expand. The space as designed had a small cocktail room and an attached ballroom, with the kitchen behind it. It could hold 150 comfortably. The zoning board denied request after request, six in all, for a variance. 

Finally, in 1995, a seventh request was granted. In short order, the cocktail room doubled in size, an entirely new ballroom was added to the back of the building (with its own crystal chandeliers), and the kitchen was moved downstairs. But instead of one kitchen, it became three: kosher, glatt kosher, and non-kosher, reflecting the needs of the evolving clientele.

“We really saw the world going glatt or not,” Allan said. 

It was the beginning of the rightward shift of the religious community and the splitting of the Jewish community along new fault lines: Orthodox and liberal. 

The days of Jewish caterers seeking only Jewish clientele were fading. In a different time, Janoff said, “kosher scared non-Jewish customers.” Allan understood their demands and the business potential. “We lost a lot of business when we only served kosher,” he said.

But he was conflicted. “My family had been doing only kosher for our whole career. I thought my father and grandfather would not have wanted” to make the switch, he said. So he did what Jewish boys do: he talked to his mother. She recalled telling him that his forebears would have gone ahead with the change; “they absolutely would have done it,” she said, “because people are demanding it.” And that was that (with the blessing of the kosher supervisor, along with the requirement that the glatt kosher kitchen be locked whenever supervision is not present). 

Today, nonkosher clientele make up 65 percent of Crystal Plaza business, with 30 percent glatt kosher and 5 percent kosher.

There have been other challenges along the way: the wedding party held — by candlelight and with the aid of a food truck — the day after Hurricane Sandy, and another wedding that was interrupted by a fire, which resulted in photos of the bride and groom on the fire truck that had rushed to the scene. The economic downturn that struck in 2008 did some harm– in some cases people skipped the baby lamb chops, always offered at a premium. 

Recently the company, at the suggestion of Allan Janoff’s sons Hunter and Max, both in their 20s, was rebranded as the Crystal Plaza Group, to emphasize the offsite catering offered in New Jersey and New York City. 

Family members wonder if they will have to adapt again to changing tastes and find a new style for the grand ballroom. The younger generation wants hipper, more urban spaces, said Hunter. At 27, he sees where his peers often hold their affairs: in lofts and other stripped-down venues. “People don’t necessarily care that the building was designed by Stanford White anymore,” he said. “They want to see where the DJ booth would be cool, or how to arrange a shot bar.” 

He added, “We try to be mindful about what needs to change. There’s a lot of history in this building. People have a strong relationship to it, but we have to be okay to change. You have to be open to what people are coming and looking for.” And what those clients want, he said, is customization: “non-traditional, out of the box, different kinds of china, healthy food, inside out and upside down.”

“There are still a lot of people who walk in and say, ‘Wow.’ But others would rather pay for our food and have their event at a warehouse in Brooklyn. We will have to find a balance,” said this Janoff, a member of the fourth generation in the family business.

In the meantime, there are Mardi Gras-themed ice sculptures to carve, sushi to roll, and Korean barbecue to grill. But Allan promises that no matter what else changes over the next century, in 2117, baby lamb chops will still be on the menu.

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