Ben Bernstein, 27, came into The Green Chicpea mid-morning on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Although he usually gets a chicken “bowl” (two Middle Eastern-style salads topped with grilled or fried chicken), the day’s frigid weather convinced him to choose one of the homemade soups (lentil or split pea, both vegan).
“This place is a rare find. It’s got fast service and a warm vibe — that’s a difficult balance,” said Bernstein, who formerly worked in the Jewish community and now teaches at North Star Academy, a charter school in the neighborhood. “This place has made my life so much better. It’s nice to have something kosher in the area.”
“This place” is a kosher Middle Eastern restaurant catering to Jews and non-Jews, vegetarians, and meat eaters, on Halsey Street in Newark. While kosher options in Newark are few, owner Martin Weber doesn’t want to limit his customer base. Instead, he wants people to come to Green Chicpea because the food is good.
“Jews find you through word of mouth. Other people don’t even realize it’s kosher,” he said. He loves when construction workers and students from nearby Rutgers University drop in. “One day I had a guy in here who was doing mathematical equations” on the chalkboard tabletops, he said.
On a recent Wednesday morning just before Thanksgiving, Weber and his wife Ronit, who live in Fair Lawn, sat down with a visitor over Turkish coffee and Middle Eastern pastries.
The Green Chicpea is not the Webers’ first restaurant. They had three in Manhattan, now closed, all called House of Pita. (The restaurants got good reviews on Yelp; but after they lost the lease on their original space, they sold the other. The third, they said, was not doing well and had to be closed.)
Martin Weber trained as an accountant but left that behind 15 years ago for both culinary adventures and real estate development in Newark. It was through his work in Newark that he began to see a niche, and he believes his extensive real estate connections will help him bring in business.
He is trying to attract people looking for alternatives to standard lunch fare, or what he calls “grease on a plate.” While the menu offers chicken shwarma, schnitzel, and shish kebab, he and Ronit keep the meat out of everything else, so there are plenty of vegan options. With two fryers — one for meat and one for veggies — he said, “This is a vegan playground.”
Open since late August, the storefront facade still reads “Wallpaper Paint Paperhanging.” There is a homemade sign for The Green Chicpea taped across the window.
“Cory Booker was supposed to come for a mezuza hanging, but he’s been so busy since his run for the Senate,” said Weber. “I’m working on the signage, and we’re still trying to coordinate something” with Booker. The restaurant is definitely on the radar of the former Newark mayor, who tweeted about it in November.
There are no obvious indicators of kashrut, aside from the telltale Bissli snacks and Israeli drinks. But the certificate from the Vaad Hakashrus of Flatbush is easy enough to spot on the wall if you are looking for it.
Weber’s wife, Ronit, of Tunisian and Algerian descent, is in charge of the menu and the cooking. Although she has no formal culinary training, she has a flair for bringing the essence of each vegetable to a flavorful peak without overdressing, over-marinating, or over-seasoning. Weber brings the pita in from a bakery in Queens and it is soft, thick, and pillowy — a perfect companion for her salads.
Martin boasts that when the pair married, Ronit spent two months in the kitchen with her grandmother and her mother, learning their secrets. “And she has an innate culinary ability,” he said.
Weber also offers a passionate embrace of the oft-touted but so-far-unrealized Newark renaissance. His version centers on his location, where new bars and restaurants are catering to office workers and college students, where Prudential is planning a corporate tower, and where Military Park is undergoing a renovation. Whole Foods is expected to move into what used to be Hahne’s department store.
“I’m trying to get the merchants’ association in the area to build a brand for Halsey Street, like Dumbo and Noho in Manhattan,” he said.
Still, he also acknowledges that even in the summer, business dries up by 7 p.m., and in the winter, he closes by 6. “After that? Fuhgeddaboudit,” he said.
Weber acknowledged that he needs to pick up the breakfast traffic and add plenty of catering to recoup his investment and turn a profit. Still, he is optimistic about his future.
If his planning is as good as his wife’s food, he should be fine.