Zebu Forno, the eccectic regional chain of European-style bakeries and cafes, has reopened its doors in Morristown after a nine-month absence.
Although run by a new owner, the restaurant retains the franchise's signature menu of freshly prepared food, industrial chic decor and its downtown South Street address. In other words: same bread, new blood.
The unusual name, derived from a south Asian humped ox ("zebu") used to transport coffee beans, and the Italian word for oven ("forno"), drives the philosophy behind the restaurant, which boasts its proprietary five-bean blend of locally roasted coffee and wide selection of fresh baked goods and breads prepared daily from the restaurant's dining room oven.
It's the "forno" that lies at the heart of the restaurant, supplying its customers from morning to night (7 a.m. to 10 p.m.) with everything from bagels and breakfast sandwiches to lunchtime paninis to pastas and hand-tossed, thin-crust pizzas for dinner and cookies for dessert.
"Part of the appeal—we think, we hope—will be this cornucopia of visually appealing, good-smelling food," said owner and restaurant business newcomer Bill Oliver. "Everything is baked fresh on the premises, from the cupcakes to the pizzas."
The previous incarnation of Zebu, which had only opened early last year, was plagued by bad timing. It opened during the height of the recession and in the midst of a neighboring condo development project, 40 Park — a veritable construction zone was created around the restaurant. The foot traffic normally built into a prime location in the heart of downtown never made it inside, with the sidewalk closed in front of the entrance. By the time the condo construction ended about six months ago, it was simply too late—at least for the previous franchisee.
Before he became Zebu Forno's newest owner, Bill Oliver was a faithful customer of the franchise's flagship Red Bank location. A real estate developer working in the area, Oliver would stop in often for pizza and chat-up owner and franchise president Andrew Gennusa.
"I'd talk to Andrew occasionally about opening up one of these stores but I was involved in real estate and he probably laughed at me and thought I'd have absolutely no chance of being successful in the food business," Oliver said.
But when the Morristown location opened and then folded, Gennusa reached out to Oliver.
"I think Andrew must have gone through his whole list of everyone he knows in the business, and then everyone he just met, and then the phone book, and then finally said, 'Let me call Bill,'" Oliver said.
Despite Oliver's lack of experience in the restaurant business, Gennusa took a chance on him. The two men struck up a deal and the result is the smell of fresh baked goods wafting once again through the opened doors of 9 South St.
Inside the restaurant, patrons will find an inviting atmosphere that encourages lingering long after their meals. In addition to sidewalk cafe and table seating, groups of leather easy chairs are placed throughout the restaurant in view of the various wall-mounted muted flat-screen televisions.
But customers will find it hard to focus on the Weather Channel with a collection of massive original wall murals commanding their attention. Painted by Toms River artist Gregg Hinlicky, the murals celebrate famous artists and historical figures.
"I try to make at least one connection to something local," Hinlicky said. "In the Morristown painting I included Gilbert Stewart for his famous connection to George Washington."
Hinlicky's paintings are commissioned specifically by Zebu Forno and grace the walls of each location, the third being in Freehold.
"The murals form part of the original restaurant concept and its signature look," Oliver said.
Oliver said he is particularly fond of Hinlicky's twist on Norman Rockwell's famous "Freedom from Want" painting, modified with Zebu Forno-logoed dinnerware.
While the new Morristown Zebu Forno officially opened its doors on Aug. 3, Oliver calls it a "soft opening." The grand opening, he said, is slated for September.
The Morristown Partnership has not yet had the opportunity to meet with Zebu Forno, but marketing director Jennifer C. Wehring said she is excited about the re-opening.
"We are delighted to have businesses open in downtown Morristown," she said. "Supporting local business solidifies a sustainable local economy; we encourage the public to think local, shop Morristown.'"