By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Mike Juliano had been thinking for a while about remodeling his restaurant, Juliano’s Pub & Grill in Egg Harbor Township at the corner of Ocean Heights Avenue and Zion Road. It would be a big investment, however, north of 50 grand to put in a new bar top and revamp the entire interior. It had to be the right time.
Well, one morning a few weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring, Juliano woke up, then rustled his wife, Melissa, awake. She didn’t even have to hear what he was about to say, she knew Mike was ready to launch the long-overdue remodel, and she was on board.
“We talked before COVID about doing a remodel and actually met with a builder, because the place just needed it. It was old and outdated, and the sports theme was just kind of worn out. It needed a facelift. But then COVID hit and we were like, ‘well, we’re not doing it now.’ We had no idea, financially, what was going to happen and I wasn’t about to put another $50,000 out of my pocket,” Mike said. “I woke up one morning and said to my wife, ‘Melissa, wake up.’ She said, ‘let’s do it. Let’s go and do it.’ So we called the builder, met with the guy who did the bar top (Trade Images). My wife did every speck of paint that you see now, all the decorations, the stencils, the pictures — all done by her. It probably took about two months when it was all said and done.”
Renovations began in May and were completed by mid-June, and have given Juliano’s a completely different look — while at the same time appealing to the restaurant’s large crop of blue-collar regulars. Gone are most of the sports memorabilia that had adorned the walls for the better part of two decades and there’s a bit more of an upscale dining look that you might see in some popular brewery type of restaurants. Coupled with a brand new bar top are all new tables and chairs that Juliano hopes will encourage clients to stay awhile, have dinner and a few drinks, and keep coming back to the cozy new confines of their favorite neighborhood bar.
“It felt refreshing. It felt like it was a brand new restaurant. And with COVID, it made us feel safer, it felt cleaner and it kind of went with what was going on. Our regulars absolutely love it, they think it’s fantastic. I’ve been doing this for a long time and when you make changes, nobody really even notices. I said, ‘I bet nine-out-of-ten people walking in here won’t even notice.’ You can’t even imagine how many people came in and went, ‘whoah, what happened in here?’ Because it was such a drastic change. Everything has changed. I think this will promote more dining — before, we were more of a sports bar where people would come in and grab some wings and a beer,” Juliano said. “I told my wife, one thing I don’t want is to make it to prissy. If we make it too prissy, the locals won’t feel comfortable. But they feel very comfortable with what we did. My wife decided on all the colors and decor. She has a gift where she can envision something, but not only envision it, put it together, and when it’s finished it all looks as one. I just kept saying, ‘wow, how do you do this?’ She just sees what it can be in the end when she starts it. It’s like a puzzle to her and she has a very keen eye for decorating and putting things together.”
The pandemic has been brutal on the restaurant business, as thousands in the U.S. have been forced to close in the past six months. But Juliano’s has been able to survive because of a veteran staff that was able to quickly adjust to a big increase in takeout business, and then outdoor dining in the summer.
But it wasn’t always easy, that’s for sure.
“I saw the shutdown coming. Eventually, we knew it would have to happen. But when you sit back after it’s all said and done, you’d never expect it to be that long. (To prepare) you have to rely on your expertise, knowing your area and your customers, but by the same token, a lot of our regular customers had to accept that they could only get takeout, a lot of them started cooking more at home. In the beginning, people were afraid of everything,” Juliano said. “But then things really broke loose for takeout, and that was different for us because we’re not that type of business. Yes, we do takeout, but on a very low scale. So when you go to only takeout, it’s a totally different game. People think, ‘well, what could be different about it? You’re just putting it in a box.’ Well, it’s not like that. You have all the phone calls you need to take, all the timing is off for the kitchen staff — and you’re accruing a lot of big expenses with takeout boxes and paper supplies. And at the time, it was hard to get that stuff, so it was a challenge.
“It was scary. I’ve been in business for 40 years and we’ve gone through ups and downs. This business is a roller coaster. You have great weeks and the next week you might have a bad week. You try to prepare yourself (for bad times) but being prepared for COVID-19 was something I hope I never have to experience again,” Mike continued. “It was totally different because there were so many unknowns. I’ve told people before, I’ve been in business for 40 years, and shame on me if I didn’t save enough money to prepare for a ‘rainy day.’ And this is our rainy day. If you’re not prepared for a rainy day after 40 years in business, you didn’t do something right. … but trust me, we struggled, and we were scared. But closing has never been a thought in my mind.”
Staff Comes Through
Juliano said many of his staff were scared to work early on in the pandemic, and rightfully so — there were so many unknowns about the disease and a lot of people were frightened they might bring the virus back home to a loved one who might be more susceptible to dangerous outcomes.
“When COVID hit we had a staff meeting, and we laid out a plan for takeout and we made a schedule up. The next morning, the phone rings and it was one girl who volunteered to be the spokesperson for the rest of the servers. She said they weren’t going to come into work because they were concerned about the COVID, and I said I understood fully. I get it,” Juliano said. “We had two girls volunteer to work and that’s why we had to massage our schedule, because I couldn’t work these two girls seven days a week.”
So early on Juliano’s operated on limited hours so as not to overwork the few staff members who were able to continue to work, and then as dining restrictions eased up and more workers were able to return, Juliano’s saw a big uptick in outdoor dining on its expanded deck.
“Our outside dining was tremendous. People loved it,” Juliano said. “What outside dining afforded us to do was to introduce a lot of new customers to our restaurant and our family. It’s another type of business that we didn’t really do before. We used to use it just for overflow on the weekends, but people love it out there and I’m hoping we can keep using it in the future.”
A Breath Of New Life
Juliano’s has been a very popular hangout for more than 30 years in Egg Harbor Township, and now with the significant upgrades, Juliano and the staff are eager to explore a whole new time in their history. They’re excited about what’s to come as — hopefully — we begin to move past the pandemic in 2021, and the completely revamped corner bar will be ready for more great times and memories.
“A lot of good came out of COVID for us. We knew we needed these renovations, and COVID afforded us the opportunity because we were closed. We could just do renovations all day, so it was a great opportunity, and if we didn’t do it then we would have been foolish,” Juliano said. “I say this all the time and it’s on the back of our menu — without the locals, we wouldn’t make it. I’m a guy who likes a customer who comes in five days a week. That’s the people we want, and our pricing predicates that happening and allows that to happen. A lot of my clientele is working-class people, hard-working people who put in a hard day at work and they want to come here for a good sandwich or meal and a cold beer, and that’s what they get here. I hope our loyal customers feel that we did all this for them. It’s something that needed to be done.”
Juliano, who is 63 years old now, said he had been thinking about retiring at some point soon, but now, with a complete overhaul that looks tremendous, he said he’s found some new energy and loves coming to the restaurant every day.
“I think we hit the mark on what we did here, and I hope it will promote more business,” he said. “We get new competition every year, but we always do well. We have a great location and we have a wonderful staff. It’s kind of like ‘Cheers’, when you walk in here, chances are you’ll know somebody. We’re excited about everything. I think it’s going to be a good year next year, I really do.”