Kim and Michael Venutolo lived in London for near 30 years, and their venture across the pond came with some initial getting-used-to.
“The first thing we had to do was learn to survive without a car,” Michael Venutolo recalled, but the transition turned out to be a snap. London’s metro system, known as the Underground, took the couple wherever they needed to go, and Michael quickly became interested in its history and how it ran.
“We became very familiar with the underground system and I developed a love for it and started collecting Underground memorabilia,” he said.
Fast forward several decades, and the couple (admittedly “closer to 70 than 60”) have retired, ultimately settling in Normandy Beach. But the community feel of their London neighborhood stuck with them – and their new neighborhood, split between Brick and Toms River on the barrier island – began to lose some of its traditional businesses and meeting spots after the one-two punch of Superstorm Sandy and the coronavirus pandemic within a single decade.
“Before Hurricane Sandy, between 5th Avenue and 7th Avenue in Normandy Beach, there were eight businesses and a church,” said Venutolo. “There was a pizza place, two ice cream shops, variety stores. But since then, and more recently with the pandemic, all of those businesses have gone away.”
The de-commercialization of Route 35 has raised concerns among residents of multiple island towns, who have worried that seemingly-endless residential development has begun to erode the sense of community that a vibrant business district offers. Retirement, as it turns out, would see the Venutolos start a new chapter in their own neighborhood: a coffee shop literally next door to their home.
The property at 563 Route 35 North had fallen into disrepair, prompting the couple to purchase it with the hope of improving it.
“We surveyed the neighborhood to ask what we could do for the community, and having realized all these businesses had gone away, people said there was no place to congregate anymore,” said Venutolo. “You can walk to Wawa, but then you just take your coffee home. The consensus was a small coffee shop where people could talk, read the newspaper, and be a bit more than seasonal – someplace to go after Labor Day.”
The surveys were passed out at neighborhood meetings with the help of the Normandy Beach Improvement Association, with nearly 300 neighboring residents signing a petition in favor of the coffee shop’s approval before the township’s zoning board. With support confirmed, the time had come for the two worlds on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean to come together.
“When we were thinking of ideas, we thought it would be fun to decorate it with all of those things I’ve collected over the course of the last 30 years,” Venutolo said.
The “Underground Cafe,” at least in concept, was born.
This week, the Brick Township zoning board approved a variance allowing the Venutolos to build their dream business. Though the parcel of land on which it will stand is located on the state highway, it had been zoned decades ago as a residential plot, thus requiring a use variance. Contrary to most packed zoning board hearings, dozens of neighbors came out to endorse the idea before the board.
Harvey York, the attorney representing the prospective cafe owners, said such a use would work perfectly for the neighborhood.
“This is a property that is zoned residential but, going back 60 years, has been used for commercial purposes,” said York. “The only person who has a direct impact on this having a commercial use is the guy next door, who happens to be the applicant. They purchased it as a means of preserving the neighborhood.”
Walter Hopkin, the planner on the project, said the cafe would be about 1,125 square feet in area and would open at 7 a.m. to serve coffee, cakes and breakfast fare. Lunch and snacks would also be served later in the day, and the business would not serve dinner.
“From a planning standpoint, it’s a narrow lot, it’s undersized as far as area, and it lends itself to the low-intensity commercial uses,” he said. “This is a perfect location for a neighborhood-type use.”
There is ample parking on the state highway as well as side streets, though most customers are expected to walk or ride their bicycles there. Decorative bollards will be placed in front of a small outdoor seating area to protect from wayward vehicles, and the building will feature a sign reminiscent of the “Underground” logo that has long attracted the attention of travelers to Britain’s capital city.
The most important aspect of the business will be that of community, however.
“This is a small attempt to bring this area back to life,” said Venutolo. “St. Pio’s Church left, 18 homes were built, the delicatessen where we used to get coffee is gone, and so we think it’s something good for the community. My wife and I live 50 feet from the entrance to the building, and we plan to be actively involved in it.”
Members of the community, as well as board members themselves, were excited over the prospect of a community-oriented business coming to town.
“I’m the person who will drive from Lake Riviera to Normandy Beach for a coffee,” joked board members Eileen Della Volle.
“We have watched the ebb and flow of the businesses and restaurants, and they have definitely gone down tremendously,” said Sixth Avenue resident Susan Zaffira. “We look at this as a really good addition to the community – not only as a store, but as a great place to see people from the community, to talk to each other.”
The area “was devastated by the storm and then the pandemic,” said Seventh Avenue resident Kimberly D’Angelo. “We’ve lost so many small businesses, and honestly, we really need this. We’re a pretty old-fashioned community.”
With paperwork filed, plans reviewed and endorsements from the community on the record, the Venutolos received their variance with a unanimous vote from the board.
“We purchased the property for a reason,” said Venutolo. “We already have the visions of blueberry scones and such, but we’ll find plenty more for people around here to enjoy.”