By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
A relationship that began nearly three decades ago at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Margate has led to one of the hottest new breakfast spots at the Jersey Shore.
Alicia and Keven Stauffer have been together for 24 years and married for the past 20, and have three children, Taylor (16 years old), Drew (14) and Brielle (9), and are the proud owners of Hooked On Breakfast on Asbury Avenue in Ocean City, right next to PLAAY Yoga and near the corner of 9th Street. Alicia, a Mainland Regional High School graduate, and Keven, an Ocean City alumnus, began working together at Uncle Bill’s during their high school days and about a year later started dating.
They’ve always had an affinity for the restaurant business, Alicia as a waitress for many years and Keven as a chef, and in the years that followed their wedding day they often joked about how cool it would be to run their own restaurant. Well, a little more than a year ago Alicia, a teacher in Galloway, and Keven, who works at Borgata, decided it was time to take a chance on their dream. They sold their house in Linwood, bought the building that now houses their restaurant, and began the arduous task of gutting the entire place and rebuilding it from the ground up.
“The front part of the building is more than 100 years old. We took it down to the studs, we had to move a lot of plumbing pipes,” Alicia said. “We’ve put so much of ourselves into this property, so there’s that satisfaction of when you look at it now it’s done and clean, and fresh and beautiful.”
“We took this place all the way down to the sand. We had beer bottles from the 1800s that we found in the sand underneath,” Keven added.
It was quite the risk they were taking, but early indications are that the eatery that opened on July 6 is well on its way to becoming the next iconic Ocean City destination. In a little more than a month, Hooked On Breakfast already has more than 1,500 likes on Facebook and has a 5-star rating.
“Keven and I met back in the mid 1990s as a cook-waitress duo at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Margate. We worked there for a while, we met when I was still in high school and worked together for about a year or so, then started dating. We’ve been together for 24 years, and married for 20,” Alicia said. “We both worked in restaurants a lot growing up. I worked for Uncle Bill’s for about a decade before taking some time off, and I went back about three years ago and started waitressing again. And he grew up in the restaurant business — he’s been a bus boy, a dishwasher, a cook, a waiter, a prep cook, a kitchen manager, he’s kind of done it all. We’ve always just talked about wouldn’t it be fun one day if we had our own restaurant, and he’s always wanted to do it. It’s probably been 15 years we’ve been talking about it. About four years ago we started getting serious about it. He’s been working in the casino industry since 2000 and the casinos have been good to him and he’s still there, but I think being in business for yourself and being your own boss and feeling like you’re working hard for yourself instead of someone else’s bottom line — I could tell he wanted a shift and wanted a little more family focus and this is something he’s always wanted to do.”
Nearly two-thirds of restaurants end up failing, and couple that with the coronavirus pandemic and it may seem that the odds are stacked against Hooked On Breakfast. But Alicia and Keven are banking on not only their experience in the restaurant business, but also the quality of their food and service, to carry them through to success.
“It was 100 percent risk for us. We bought the whole building and we live upstairs, which is ideally what we wanted. We wanted a mixed-use property so we could live upstairs and just come downstairs and go to work. Our kids are right here if they need something, and we love this downtown strip. We want to be open all year and we feel like we’re right in the heart of that downtown strip,” Alicia said. “When I go back and tell someone the story, and I hear everything we’ve lived through the past couple of years, that’s when I’m like, ‘wow, this has really been a lot!’ But in the day to day, we both just really believed it would work, and it would be awesome.”
“There can be such a huge reward in this, but this is also what I love doing. I went back to Uncle Bill’s (in Ocean City) last year just to do a summer, and it was fun still. It has re-energized me. When I’m working in the casinos I don’t get to see my kids much, and now my son is cooking with me, so there is more bonding time,” Keven said. “I think knowing we’re doing the right thing (will lead to success).”
The duo was so nervous about the July 6 opening that they barely got any sleep for two straight days prior to that morning.
“Nobody slept that night. I don’t think I crawled into bed until about 3:30 a.m., I laid in bed for about an hour and a half, and then we got down here around 5:30. We barely slept for two days,” Alicia said. “Our first customer was a take-out order. One of our best friends, Vito DeMarco, had told everybody about us for the past two years, and once we got the building he was telling everybody. The first woman was parked outside at 6:05 a.m., and we didn’t open until 6:30, and she said, ‘Vito said I had to come try you guys so I’ll wait until 6:30.’ Then another couple, Bob Greenwood and his wife, was riding by and stopped to have breakfast, and they didn’t even realize they were our very first customers. We’ve gotten tremendous support from people we know and it made us feel so good.”
It may sound simplistic, but the quality of the food can make or break a restaurant, and Alicia believes Keven’s cooking can stand up to even the harshest critic. She knows, she’s been enjoying his dishes for nearly 25 years.
“I think Keven’s food is going to get people to come back. The food is just good. He’s creative in the kitchen and I think he puts a different twist on breakfast. Some things are the same — everybody has two eggs, home fries and toast, and so do we — but the sticky bun French toast is his homemade sticky buns that he’s turning into French toast. There are so many homemade items that set us apart. He’s been offering this special, sushi pancakes with apple cinnamon egg roll, and it was amazing,” she said. “It’s the food, and I hope we make customers feel welcome. To me, you can have the best food on the island, but if you’re not getting that friendly service you’re not going to come back.”
Service is also hugely important to the success of any restaurant, particularly in this day and age when a negative review can go viral online. That’s why Alicia, who runs the front of the house, spends so much time trying to get her staff to understand that a smile and a kind word can really go a long way.
“Keven and I believe in the philosophy that you lead by example. He’s busting his tail in the kitchen every day and I’m out front every day. I’m going around greeting customers, clearing plates, getting people more coffee — I’m trying to show what good service looks like, not just saying it and then standing around doing nothing. We have a split staff where we have servers who have 20-plus years of experience and they know how to naturally multi-task, be friendly and give great service. And we have other girls who have never waited tables before. So we have good leadership. We try to teach the younger workers in a positive way because we want them to be with us for a long time. The teacher in me is always wanting to teach,” Alicia said. “We tell them, it’s breakfast and lunch, we’re not saving lives. Nothing is going to be such a big problem that we can’t fix it. Tell the customers we can handle pretty much any request, and if you’re not sure, just check with the kitchen and if Keven can’t do it, he’ll tell you why. People are on vacation and are here to have a good time, or if they are locals we want them coming back all the time. People have their places in Ocean City they have to get to, like Johnson’s Popcorn or Manco & Manco Pizza, and we want to be on that list. We impress upon our staff that you’re the face of us, and how you act makes a difference.”
Added Keven, “we had a two-day orientation program with our employees and the one thing we kept telling them is we are selling a positive dining experience for a profit. That’s the bottom line in everything we do. You can go to a fast food restaurant and get pancakes for $1.99 that fill your stomach, the same as you can here, but we’re selling the positive dining experience. So everything our employees do has to be positive.”
Both Keven and Alicia are still holding on to their career jobs for the time being, but they hope one day they’ll be in position to just have the restaurant to worry about.
“Aside from the pandemic and hot weather with no inside dining, I feel like we’re in a good flow. It is a challenge serving all the way down the block, because we’ve been fortunate enough to serve in front of our neighboring store, PLAAY Yogo. (Their owner) was very generous in letting us put tables in front of her place and that has saved our summer because it doubled our outside space. Factoring in all the challenges, we’re very happy with the business volume we’ve had, and the staff dealing with the heat and serving down the block. I keep telling the staff this is the hardest it’s ever going to be. And they have really stepped up,” Alicia said. “We’re in this for the long haul. We don’t really have a plan B, we feel like this is going to be our future.”
It has been less than two months since Hooked On Breakfast opened, but if the first few weeks are any indication, the Stauffer family is well on its way to becoming a fixture on Asbury Avenue in Ocean City.
“We have gotten such positive feedback on his food. It’s great when your friends are supportive, and we have great friends from all different circles of life. When your friends compliment us, is it because they are our friends and love seeing our dream come to life, or do they really love Keven’s food? Or is it a combination?” Alicia said. “So when someone I don’t know — this one guy got take-out and when he came to get it, I said, ‘I hope you really love it. You’re going to love the roll, my husband makes these homemade rolls for the burgers and they are so good.’ The guy called back and called to speak to the owner and he said, ‘I know you guys just opened and sometimes people complain, but I have to tell you, this was the best lunch I’ve ever had. That burger was amazing.’
“I said to Keven, ‘that’s the stuff where you know you’re doing something right.’ For me, that’s the most rewarding thing, that people love the food and are happy with the service. I just think this is going to get better and better.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays