Cory Wingerter (second from left) with staff from the Tiger’s Tale restaurant in Montgomery: hostess Amanda Ramirez, manager Lindsay Reed, bartender Deborah Kline, manager Henry Minutillo and cook Jeronimo Lopez.
Cory Wingerter (second from left) with staff from the Tiger’s Tale restaurant in Montgomery: hostess Amanda Ramirez, manager Lindsay Reed, bartender Deborah Kline, manager Henry Minutillo and cook Jeronimo Lopez.

In 1985, Cory Wingerter and his friend, Adrian Stevens, bought the Foolish Fox, a casual bar and eatery at the intersection of U.S. 206 and County Route 518 in Montgomery. The young business partners renamed it Tiger’s Tale.

Three decades later — an eternity in the restaurant business — their establishment continues to thrive, having survived several economic recessions as well as the ban on smoking that sounded the death knell for similar burger-beer-TV establishments after it became law in 2006.

Wingerter and Stevens went on to establish four other restaurants, which they have since sold. Wingerter attributes the partnership’s success — and in particular the Tiger Tale’s longevity — to several factors.

“We’re so small — only about 140 seats and 4,200 square feet,” he begins. “But we know who we are and what we do. We don’t pretend to be who we’re not.” Burgers are the top sellers, but they sell a lot of salads too. All soups are homemade, and almost everything is fresh. The main exceptions are frozen french fries, shrimp and mozzarella sticks. “This helps keep prices down,” he explains. In recent times, the beer selection has been expanded to include up to 22 craft selections at a time.

Wingerter, a Monmouth County native, says most of the repeat clientele are Montgomery residents. “We hear many stories saying, ‘I had my first date with my now-wife here and then we came here when we decided to get married,’” he says. “Or ‘We bought many cars while sitting here!’ You know, there are the dealerships just down the road and people test drive, say, three and then come here for a burger and beer and decide among them.”

Another longtime business survivor, the nearby Montgomery Cinema, accounts for more customers. Wingerter recently learned of yet another cohort from a fellow restaurateur. “He told me that, whether I realized it or not, there are executives who fly into Princeton Airport by helicopter and sit at my bar: CEOs, Wall Street executives, a VP of Bloomberg, the head of the Wall Street Journal,” he says. “They can go anywhere they want, but they like the bartender or come here to relax or to watch a game.”

Wingerter and the Tiger’s Tale are also known throughout the community for raising funds for nonprofit organizations. The most visible effort is the regular car washes that are held in the parking lot, which benefit Montgomery High School. He says the car washes once raised $3,800 in one morning alone.

Their largest philanthropic work, though, is in helping organizations that tackle drug and alcohol abuse. “We have always tried to sit on board of the municipal drug alliance in the towns we operate in. One, because drug and alcohol abuse is an issue in this country and in most of the communities where we’re located, and two, I find they like to have a restaurateur onboard — especially one with a liquor license,” he says.

Wingerter says his experience running a bar-restaurant allows him to add a certain perspective. Two years ago, Tiger’s Tale joined with the local Elks Club. “They have a great program down in Long Branch where they send high school kids for three days of training every year to a peer leadership program that also deals with other issues, such as bullying,” he says.

The most unusual contribution the folks behind the Tiger’s Tale make is an auction item for charity galas around the state that benefit everything from land and wildlife preservation to cancer research. On average, they donate two large coolers a month full of steaks, lobsters, and beer, each worth between $500 and $600.

“I think the most we ever raised for a cooler — we found that selling raffle tickets brings in the most — was for the Breast Cancer Resource Center here in Princeton,” he says. “We also do a tie-in with the Sam Adams beer stein-hoisting contest, where we raised $1,000 in two hours.”

Wingerter doesn’t play golf (“It takes up too much time”) so he supports the local PBA with a fundraiser that involves skeet shooting. Two years ago they raised more than $10,000, and they’re planning to do it again for the PBA this spring. The Tiger’s Tale also regularly donates food and other assistance to local PBA outings.

As for the purely business side of running a restaurant, Wingerter credits Stevens for much of their success. “He is an excellent business person. This really is a numbers game. He’s the back of the house guy; he does all the banking, the insurance,” Wingerter says.

When they started down this road, Wingerter was 23 and fresh out of Cornell University’s hotel school, and Stevens was 28. The two had become friends while managing two local restaurants, the Pour House in Tinton Falls and Main Street USA in Ocean.

“The Foolish Fox was our first purchase, but we knew we wanted to open up more restaurants and we knew we wanted them to have a college theme,” Wingerter explains. “College themes are easy to decorate and they’re family oriented.” Three of the subsequent restaurants they bought in the ensuing years — and which are still going strong — followed that pattern: Ivy League and Chapter House in Howell and Varsity Club in Fair Haven. Only in Waretown, in southern Ocean County, did they depart from the theme with the Thirsty Mallard, which looked like a hunting and fishing lodge.

The divestiture of the restaurants was planned from the start, Wingerter says. After 20 years, the team sold all but two of the restaurants and Stevens moved to Florida. They remained partners in the Tiger’s Tale (as they still are), and Wingerter kept the Chapter House in Howell, until he sold it “right before Sandy hit.” Stevens comes up from Florida once a month, and spends summers here.

Both men grew up in Monmouth County; Wingerter grew up in Fair Haven. These days he lives in Millstone Township, where he was mayor for the last six years. “But I don’t believe it should be a career job so I gave it up,” he says.

He enjoyed performing marriage ceremonies, and recently learned that former mayors can still perform weddings. He’ll be presiding at a friend’s daughter’s wedding in the fall. He is also about to end a one-year appointment as chairman of the New Jersey Restaurant Association.

Wingerter started in the restaurant business when he was only 13, working at the pancake house in Chadwick Beach. He maintains close ties with his hometown. “There are 16 of us from kindergarten who still get together every other year,” he boasts.

Last year he became a grandfather when his son, also Cory, and his daughter-in-law had a baby girl. But the family business won’t be taken over by the younger Wingerter, who graduated from Johns Hopkins with a degree in chemical engineering and now works for American Express.

Wingerter is optimistic about the future of Tiger’s Tale, and believes that local real estate developers could be key to the next stage of the restaurant’s success.

“Montgomery Township is working with Sharbell, who’s behind Tapestry at Montgomery just up the road,” he says. “They’re in the process of developing a holistic plan to make this whole corner around Tiger’s Tale work.”

Food writer and restaurant critic Pat Tanner has covered the Princeton dining scene for more than 20 years. She blogs at dinewithpat.com.