‘Fusion’ falafel finds a home in Denville
Egyptian-born Christian Johnny Makkar opens a kosher restaurant
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
At Crisp, it’s all about falafel. The restaurant, which opened in May on Route 10 in Denville, serves a wide variety of the Middle East staple, encased in fluffy pita made twice a day. The menu also offers soup, salads, and waffle fries, but the spotlight is on the falafel.
In mid-July, Crisp received its kosher certification; as soon as the hechsher was posted, Adath Shalom, a Conservative congregation in nearby Morris Plains, hired Crisp to cater synagogue events.
Like the menu itself — which ranges from traditional Middle Eastern forms of the fried chickpea balls and pita pocket sandwich to “Mexican,” “African,” and “Athenian” novelties — owner Johnny Makkar, 29, is himself an example of Middle Eastern fusion. A Coptic Christian, he was born in Egypt, but his parents fled with him shortly after his birth, seeking religious freedom in New Jersey. He has a tattoo of a Coptic Christian cross on the inside of his wrist.
“Egypt is predominantly Muslim. That’s why my family left. And ever since two years ago” — with the Arab Spring and the subsequent ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood — “everyone not Muslim is trying to get out,” said Makkar, sitting at a table after the lunchtime rush on a recent Tuesday afternoon.
Raised in Fair Lawn, he attended Montclair State University. His black T-shirt, jeans, and neatly bald pate scream young urban American entrepreneur. Makkar never planned a long corporate career. He was working in digital marketing in midtown Manhattan with the firm R/GA in 2010 when he stopped for lunch at one of New York’s three Crisp locations. (The original Crisp, cofounded by Alon Kruvi and Rakesh Barmecha, was established in 2008.) Makkar had given some thought to opening an off-the-beaten-track franchise, he said, and when he ate at Crisp, he knew he’d found an ideal venture.
Makkar contacted Kruvi, Crisp’s Israeli cofounder, later that year, but Crisp was not franchising at the time. Shortly thereafter, in early 2011, Kruvi and Barmecha sent out a letter inviting inquiries for franchising opportunities. Makkar put together financing with support from family members and a Small Business Association loan, and seized the moment.
Makkar said he had hoped that his would be the first Crisp in New Jersey, but zoning and other issues caused enough of a delay that another ultimately opened first, in Jersey City’s Newport Mall.
The Denville Crisp is attracting a steady lunch crowd and interest is growing among the area’s Jews.
“We have a lot of customers from the Jewish community, and we’re getting phone calls every week asking if we are kosher certified, and we’re still getting calls,” said Makkar. “We’re going to post something on synagogue pages on the Web.”
Going kosher was always part of his plan, said Makkar, noting that all the Crisp restaurants are kosher. He’s savvy enough to know that there are different levels of kashrut and different certifying agencies, and wants to make sure he’s inclusive; at the same time, he decided to use the same certifying agency as the original Crisp restaurants in New York City (Cup K, Rabbi Israel Mayer Steinberg).
“Kosher food is very familiar to me — I have many Israeli friends,” he said. “I know I will get some very strict people asking lots of questions. That’s okay.”
Crisp, at 3000 Route 10 West in Denville, is open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.