The small group of men outside the abandoned white building in Cooper River Park were about to call it quits for the evening Monday, after discussing plans for the new restaurant that should occupy it in a year's time.
The group included restaurateurs Kevin Meeker and Mike DeBenedictis, partners in the new venture; architect John Ruiz of R2Architects; and representatives of the Camden County freeholders, who are spearheading the project.
The new restaurant is a major piece of an ongoing $23 million overhaul of the park, which comprises 374 acres in parts of Cherry Hill, Haddon Township, Collingswood and Pennsauken.
Nobody had a lot of particulars on Monday. The new restaurant will occupy a 6,572-square-foor building known as the Hadley House, which DeBenedictis said dates back about 100 years. The last restaurant there, the Lobster Trap, closed down about a year ago after the death of the previous lessee. As yet, the proposed new place does not have a name, a menu or a formal building plan.
Yet a picture was definitely emerging Monday evening. A rustic, riverside vibe and appearance, Ruiz said. Quality, wholesome food, Meeker said. Nice, but not stuffy. The kind of place where families can make a night of it, two or three times a month.
"It's not about the chef," Meeker said. "It's not about the owner. It's about the customer. When you build your restaurant around them, you'll hit it nine out of 10 times."
Meeker knows something about running successful restaurants. He's the current owner of Haddon Township's Keg and Kitchen and previous owner of the Philadelphia Fish Company.
According to Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen, celebrity chef Tony Clark will be running things in the kitchen.
Clark is a Chef and Culinary Institute of America graduate who has filled patrons' bellies at The Four Seasons, The Old Grange and the Valley Forge Casino. He is also the featured chef on Comcast's "Rock Star Kitchen."
Camden County is helping fund the new restaurant's renovation with a $1 million bond, but Keashen said the restaurant owners will pay back the county over the next 20 years.
According to a study by Rowan University, Keashen said, the park currently generates about $110 million a year for local businesses. Freeholders expect that the project, focused on making the river through the park more appealing and accessible, will generate still more.
The new restaurant is one of three components of the park's redevelopment project that county officials hope to have ready by summer, 2015. The other two are Jack Curtis Stadium, and a comprehensive dredging of the river, meant to stabilize its banks and improve its environmental health.
Keashen said the park already brings in a lot of people for recreation such as running and picnicking, as well as large crowds for special events such as regattas. Still, the freeholders and the restaurant owners intend to make the new restaurant a destination. Not just someplace where people grab a bite to eat because they're already at the park, but where people travel specifically to dine.
On a larger scale, that's what the park renovation is about as well. "The new expectation is that this will be one of the signature locations in all of the New Jersey," Keashen said.
The Hadley House is located at 5300 North Park Drive in Pennsauken. That puts it on the north bank of the river, about three quarters of a mile west of Cuthbert Boulevard, and well out of sight of motorists on nearby major roads such as Route 70 and Route 30.
But Meeker said he's not worried about patrons being unable to find the restaurant. A lot of advertising will go along with the eventual opening. And county officials have assured him that the new eatery will be eminently accessible on the site, with plenty of parking.
Plans for the refurbished park include a boardwalk and promenade along the river bank, which should also increase accessibility for the as-yet-unnamed eatery, Meeker said.
Indeed, Meeker considers easy accessibility to be one of the key factors that determines whether or not a restaurant will succeed. Other such factors include the quality of the food and service, the cost for diners, and the overall experience.
Not that the renovation will be a walk in the park, so to speak. DeBenedictis said the age of the building, plus the fact that a number of additions were built over the years, will present some logistical challenges for construction. He foresees the whole process as akin to an episode of "This Old House."
Still, he and Meeker both said they're optimistic. Indeed, Meeker said he's never fielded as many questions from the public about an upcoming restaurant as he has about this one since freeholders announced the project. The place doesn't even have a name, and it's already got some buzz.
"I see a lot of potential," Meeker said.