Beneath the casual, laid-back veneer of Harvey Cedars Shellfish Co. lies a well-oiled machine that has been operating smoothly for nearly 30 years.
The decor of the restaurant is far from upscale, but has a charm of its own. Formerly a home, the Shellfish Co. maintains a warm atmosphere for all who enter. The dining area is comprised of simple picnic tables and benches in a space that its owners, brothers John and Mike Garofalo, call “the porch”. The casualness is reflected even in the creation of the tables and benches themselves. They were built just outside the restaurant by a friend of Mike’s while the restaurant was open for business.
The relaxed atmosphere of the Shellfish can be seen even in the way that people enjoy themselves while waiting for a table.
“People will come and wait in line and drink their beers and play Caribbean ring toss,” Mike explained.
However, the tranquil ambiance of the restaurant only applies of to its surroundings. Inside, the Shellfish functions with precision.
“We could probably hold two day’s worth of food here,” John said. “It’s not like we’re a huge place that has food that’ll be lying around. Everything is really done every day.”
The preparations begin the night before the restaurants opens. Mike does inventory and crafts a prep sheet.
“Our prep sheet is such an integral part of the preparation operation. When it’s all done, you know when you come back (the next day) at 4 o’clock that everything is ready,” John explained.
The next morning, a prep crew of five to seven workers comes into the Shellfish around 7 a.m. Mike, the head of the kitchen crew, always comes in earlier, around 5:30 a.m., citing his preference to work alone for a few hours, while John comes into the restaurant at about 7:30 a.m. By about 11 a.m. or noon, the brothers and their workers have enough prepared for their opening at 4:30 p.m. to go home.
All of this precision and success makes their meager beginnings in another location in 1974 seem so far away. At the time, a 22-year-old John asked his 18-year-old brother mike, just out of high school, to go into business with him. They focused on establishing a steamed seafood business on the northern part of Long Beach Island. With little more than their dedication, they managed to open a restaurant up the street from their current location.
“We just kind of did it before we were smart enough to know there was a risk,” John joked. “And we were fortunate enough to do it back in the ’70s when it was a lot easier for young people to get going.”
When the area of their original business was zoned marine commercial in 1976, the Garofalos had to move the Shellfish to another location. They bought a former house in the center of Harvey Cedars and managed to convert it to the Shellfish as it exists today. The staff of the restaurant consisted of John and Mike’s high school friends.
One of those close friends was the only person who was initially part of the Shellfish’s waitstaff. All food was served steamed and was cooked on a $10 electric stove. As business picked up, the porch area was added and the kitchen was expanded in 1979. A parking lot was added across the street from the restaurant the next year. The food served changed the fads in cooking.
However, certain reliable favorites remain popular. The restaurant’s fried foods are still their best sellers. This stems from the care and attention that the brothers put into the preparation of the predicts. John breads the fish daily, using homemade breading and shortening. In fact, every dish that the Shellfish offers except the coleslaw and fries is made by the Garofalos daily.
All of the effort that John and Mike put into their business has served to yield many classic dishes and customer favorites. One of the most popular is the lobster platter ($17.95), steamed lobster, corn and mussels.
The sautéed mussels ($18.95) are a selection that incorporates more preparation for an amazing taste. In this dish, sautéed mussels are cooked in white wine with garlic, herbs, and parmesan cheese. An interesting combination of tastes can be found in the scallop melt ($18.95), scallops with melted Swiss cheese, fresh mushrooms and crisp bacon. Other popular items include lobster stuffed with lump crabmeat ($19.95), Maryland lump crab cakes ($19.95) and blackened swordfish with Creole sauce ($18.95).
In order to craft these combinations, the Garofalo brothers needed to find the best ingredients. They take advantage of the store’s location on the New Jersey shore in their selection of tuna, swordfish, and scallops, all of which are caught in Barnegat. Some ingredients, including shrimp, lobster and mussels, either can’t be found in southern New Jersey or are better from other locations.
The Garofalos try to take advantage of local produce as well.
“That’s the nice thing about being open in the summer,” Mike commented, “Because we incorporate Jersey tomatoes in a lot of our dishes and Jersey corn as well.”
The brothers attribute the success of the Shellfish to their consistency.
“When people come here, they know that, when they get the shrimp scampi, it’s going to be pretty much the scampi they had every other time,” John said. He went on to attribute that this consistency lies in the reliability of the restaurant’s cooks. Some members of the kitchen staff have been with the Garofalo brothers for as longs 20 years. In fact, they’ve seen many of their employees grow old along with the restaurant.
“It’s nice. We’ve seen kids come up through high school and college and graduate school and still work here as professionals,” Mike said.
He is looking forward to watching the next generation of Shellfish employees grow up primarily because the majority of them will be friends of his son.
“I have a 16-year-old son, and we’re starting to bring in some of his friends who we’re excited about,” he explained. “We’re excited about getting my son’s friends in her because they’re the next generation that we’re always excited about.”
Despite this drive toward cultivating a new generation of workers for the future, the brothers are content with the present.
“We really enjoy our lives,” John said. “We make a good living in a short period of time. We have an opportunity to give back to the community and spend time with our families. We consider ourselves very lucky.”
Copyright, 2005, South Jersey Publishing Company t/a The Press of Atlantic City