TC Nelson sat at the bar of Trenton Social, his under-renovation restaurant at 449 South Broad Street and answered, not for the first time, the question of whether he can build a successful business in the same space that housed four ventures in the past decade.
“Trenton is a cruel mistress,” he mused. “But I’ll keep coming back. I’m a little older and a little wiser now.”
Nelson, a Ewing resident, knows a thing or two about starting businesses in Trenton, and intends to take to heart the lessons of the past. His South Broad Street breakfast shop, Trenton Bagel, was at the forefront of a downtown mini-revival in the mid-1990s. He owned Trenton Bagel for eight years before selling the business and becoming a commercial banker, managing a retail portfolio for Bank of America. He also owns a rent-a-bartender company called Pro-Pour.
Nelson became a proprietary trader in 2008 when the financial market crashed, but that job only takes about three hours a day, and Nelson worried he was becoming complacent.
The latest chapter for Nelson and 449 South Broad Street began last year, when Nelson’s old friend Roland Pott, who owns the building, held an event at the vacant storefront, catered by Pro-Pour. Most recently, the place was called “Planet Havana.” Before that, it was the 449 Room, before that it was Congress Rotisserie and before that the Urban Word Cafe, opened in 1999.
Nelson began to tell Pott that a few improvements in the room’s layout would really increase the profitability of a restaurant there — it needed more seats at the bar, as well as some new decor. Instead of taking Nelson’s advice, Pott issued a challenge: Why don’t you start a restaurant here?
Nelson sees big potential in the South Broad Street location. He sees signs of revival everywhere he looks in the old industrial district, which was once home to Roebling Steel and the heart of the city’s manufacturing economy.
Now it is the heart of Trenton’s planed entertainment district, and adjacent to the resurgent Mill Hill neighborhood. Developers HHG have built upscale condos at the Cracker Factory on nearby Center Street and plan to spend $25 million turning an old Roebling Steel building into more luxury housing. Trenton Social is located across the street from the Sun Bank Arena, the city’s largest entertainment venue. With all this in place, Nelson believes Mill Hill’s influence is destined to expand southward.
“I’ve always loved the potential of this place,” Nelson said. “It’s next to a $50 million investment that Trenton has.”
The site is also near Artworks, which hosts the city’s largest annual event: Art All Night, which draws 15,000 visitors to the city every summer.
Nelson plans to capitalize on that good location by turning Trenton Social into just that — a place for Trentonians and visitors to the city to socialize.
Nelson has brought in Milton Lee to do the cooking. Lee, who lives above Freddie’s Tavern in Ewing, is a retired production manager for Homasote.
Lee and Nelson are planning a menu that has French, Asian, and Spanish influences as befits Lee’s Chinese-El Salvadoran heritage.
The menu will have a few things that cannot be found in other Trenton restaurants, Nelson said, such as seared tuna and filet mignon. The food will be priced somewhere inbetween fast-food joints like Taco Bell and upscale eateries like Settimo Cielo.
A key to Nelson’s plan is the bar, which has seven taps and, crucially, 50 seats, whereas previous venues at the same address only had 10 or so. Nelson plans to have two domestic beers and four or five craft beers on tap, and make the bar into a “social” neighborhood gathering place when it opens in March.
“We hope to be a huge part of the community,” Nelson said.
Trenton Social is online at facebook.com/trentonsocial.