Maplewood’s Belmont Eatery Keeps it Fresh, Stretches Through Growing Pains

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Belmont Eatery's Chicken Pot Pies

Belmont Eatery’s Chicken Pot Pies


Tom Bell stands behind his employees, giving direction. “Take that burger off the grill in 30 seconds,” he says to one. “OK, this is how long those fries should stay in.”  He deftly goes station to station, making corrections and offering help. He says that knowing how to do every job in the restaurant is the most important thing he’s learned in the six months since he opened Belmont Eatery on Maplewood Avenue.

“Every morning, I get a text from someone who can’t show up,” Bell says. “With a small staff, people have things come up every day, and I understand that happens. I know now that I can do every job, and that took a huge load off my shoulders. I’ve learned to be a jack of all trades.”

After years spent as a television food writer and time working in Chicago restaurants, Bell decided to open Belmont Eatery in his hometown of Maplewood, NJ.  But becoming an owner has not been without its challenges. “I wake up anxious, but when I get here and start baking bread in the morning, or making pot pies, it all kind of goes away,” Bell says. “This is my first restaurant, so I’m new at it and I knew I was going to make a lot of mistakes.”

He is aware there has been some criticism on local social media, including comparisons to the space’s former occupant, Village Burger. But Bell hopes his humility and willingness to improve will resonate with Maplewood customers, many of whom he says have been supportive despite some initial snags with service and food availability. “I have a lot more to learn, especially about the business side, but I am just trying to plow forward and make good food for people.”

Regulating quantity and preparation schedules when foot traffic in town ebbs in the summer months was hard to anticipate.

“The pot pie is a wildcard,” he notes. “Now that it’s getting cooler, the pot pie is more popular. Over the summer they didn’t sell; sometimes, I had to throw them away because they were a day old,” Bell says. “Then, someone would come in and ask for a pot pie, and I wouldn’t have any. I don’t like to throw food away, so I’m trying to find a rhythm.” Bell says that he tried to donate unsold pies and other items to local food banks but was told they only accepted pre-packaged food.

People are reacting positively to the food, he says, citing the Belmont Burger as a best-seller. As for pot pies, soon he will begin to offer mushroom and squash in addition to chicken. He’s busy building a “pot pie” cam in the window, a functional bit of creativity he says will show customers how many fresh pies are available during the day. Bell hopes to add an open mic night for music or poetry, something he spearheaded at a restaurant he worked at in Chicago.Maplewood Belmont Eatery

Bell says he has adhered to most of his original commitments to making everything fresh and not frozen, but has stopped making homemade ketchup simply because “people didn’t like it.” He still makes fresh hamburger buns daily, and is working on baking fresh hot dog buns from scratch. He continues to make veggie burgers, salmon patties, tomato jam for burgers, and pot pies.

“I haven’t made many changes to the menu since we opened, but the pastrami Reuben was a lark at first, and people really like it, so now it’s a staple. Then there is “Mike’s BLT”: a customer named Mike came in once and wanted a BLT, and it’s not on our menu, but we made it anyway for him,” says Bell. In Mike’s honor, the restaurant started smoking its own house bacon and made the BLT a regular menu item. “I don’t think he’s been back, but the bacon is really good, and I’m proud of it. It’s a very popular item.”

Bell says all are welcome at Belmont Eatery, especially parents with kids. “Seventy-five percent of the people who come in [are] with kids. This is a family neighborhood, and I like that.” A recent Groupon offer brought in a host of new customers. The restaurant plans to change their night-time hours in the fall, cutting back on some nights, but will soon start experimenting with a later-evening “commuter special” box dinner option a few nights a week — a boon for hungry New York City workers arriving by train after family dinner hours.



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