‘I like to barbecue and I like to drink. Put them together and this is what we got,” says Maurice Hallett of his 1911 Smokehouse Barbecue restaurant on Front Street in Trenton — which celebrated its first anniversary in October.
There is a lot more than smoke to Hallett. He has an MBA, and as an undergrad at Lehigh University he majored in international business with a public administration minor. He’s seen a bit of the world, too, traveling around the country and Europe.
And for a big picture kind of guy, he’s also at home kicking back on the patio behind the restaurant — an urban oasis where the hubbub of the city is all around but does not intrude.
“I wanted to work overseas and I did that,” Hallett says of his plans after college. His job at General Motors took him to Germany, where he helped produce the Opel, which enjoyed a brief heyday in the United States in the 1970s and is still produced in Germany for export to this country.
After three years, Hallett, 42, returned to New Jersey in 2010 from his stint in the corporate world and looked about to see where his vision might land next.
The answer was where he was. “I’ve been smoking meat for about six years,” Hallett says. “I’ve enjoyed barbecue most of my life, and in my travels I learned I could do it better than the places I was going to.”
With no experience running a restaurant, Hallett became a restaurateur.
“I’ve managed people pretty much all my life,” he says, “so I figured learning how to run a restaurant couldn’t be that hard. I hired good people and my brother has been in the industry for 20-some years.”
Hallett has an amiable demeanor, which is a must for anyone in the food and beverage industry. Before college, he went to the Pennington School and, though he looks like he could play tight end in football, he chose basketball at Lehigh where he played small forward.
He is well-versed in Trenton basketball lore and played briefly with the Trenton Flames and the Trenton Marauders, the semi-pro basketball team that called the CYO on Broad Street and, later, Mercer County College and the Sun Arena its home in the 1990s. He is also easily conversant about the players who have graced Cadwalader Park over the years and all the good Trenton basketball players who have come and gone.
He and his wife, Tonya, met in college, which, given that she attended Cornell University while he was at Lehigh, required a bit of fortune, since the two colleges occupy orbits that rarely intersect.
“We met when she was doing an internship in the Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) area,” he says. Tonya is the global human resources director for Cadillac in New York City. They’ve been married 16 years and live in East Windsor with their three school-age sons.
Hallet’s mother still lives in Ewing Township. She worked in quality control for Estee Lauder in Trevose, Pennsylvania. Hallett’s father, who passed away shortly before the Smokehouse opened, worked for U.S. Steel and was a local disc jockey in the Trenton area — including at Chocolate City, which became City Gardens on Calhoun Street. Hallett grew up with six brothers, one of whom, Reggie, now works as his chef after gaining experience at eateries in Ohio and New York.
The Smokehouse occupies the building that has seen various incarnations as Tony Kall’s, the longtime martini and gimlet watering hole for the State House crowd, then as the more sedate Eleven, which was a bastion of modern American cuisine in the 1990s. Hallett counts state workers as his loyal customers, but his clientele is expanding to include professionals who live in Trenton and who regularly seek nightlife options downtown.
Hallett says he looked at two or three other locations in downtown Trenton before deciding to purchase Eleven and set up his restaurant on Front Street. He was personally committed to opening a restaurant in the downtown area and the former Eleven location became available at the right time. It also required much less construction. The other locations would have taken several months to get up and running, he says. Instead, he was able to start construction in August, 2015, and the grand opening was in October. The 1911 in the full name comes from the year that his college fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, was formed.
Hallett has obtained permits from the city from time to time that have allowed Front Street to be closed off for First Friday and other block party-style events.
“It’s a good way to have a large event when you don’t have the space for a large event,” he says of the permit he receives from the city, which is called an “Extension of Premises Permit.”
The outdoor season and summer First Friday events drew to a close with “Smoketoberfest,” but festivities continue.
“Every day we have a different group we honor,” Hallett says, including teachers, employees in the service industry and, of course, the time-honored ladies night. He has also reached out to Greek fraternal organizations, which have a lot of members in the Trenton area. “A lot of the Greek organizations do their events here,” he says.
Hallet expects to be one of the stops during Art All Day, Trenton’s annual art festival. The Smokehouse has a gallery upstairs. “We were one of their stops last year,” he says. “I’m sure we’ll be on their map this year.”
‘I’ve enjoyed barbecue most of my life, and in my travels I learned I could do it better than the places I was going to.’
Besides his outreach to the community, Hallett identifies three other secrets to success so far at the Smokehouse.
“Consistent food, tender meat, and great service,” he says. He says the fried rib tips are a popular dish.
“We’re probably the only place where you can get those,” he says. The recipe is proprietary, he insists. “I can’t tell you that because I’d be telling you our secret,” he says.
“I would say we’re middle of the road,” he says of the menu prices. “The average meal is 15 to 20 bucks. It’s casual dining.
“It’s far exceeded my expectations,” Hallett says. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from the local community. I guessed we would have a good lunch crowd with the state workers. Before, downtown was pretty much a ghost town after five o’clock. Since we’ve opened, there are some more local night life options, which is nice.” Hallett mentioned South Rio, which is in the former Maxine’s on Warren Street and the bar in the Wyndham Hotel on Lafayette Street.
Of all the possible challenges confronting the owner of a new restaurant in Trenton, the ones that Hallett mentions may be among the least likely.
“Finding good talent,” he says of his pursuit of employees. That and “overcoming the stigma of Trenton,” he says. “I’d say most of the kitchen guys and wait staff are from Trenton.”
Hallett speaks fondly of his reception by city and other government officials, whose love of barbecue may only be exceeded by their love of a new business in downtown Trenton.
“When I started a year ago I was the only bar open at night,” he says. “Now there are three.”
Hallett has also carefully tailored his menu to accommodate the palates of discerning barbecue aficionados, placing the Smokehouse between North Carolina and Memphis on the taste continuum, where a North Carolina barbecue sauce is more vinegary and Memphis barbecue involves long, slow cooking with smoke generated by hickory coals.
Also, rather than serving barbecue slathered in sauce, the Smokehouse serves it dry with the sauce on the side.
His original business plan called for 11 employees. “Now we’re at 22 because the demand is so high,” he says.
That plan has expanded to the Sun Arena, where Smokehouse has an outpost serving specialties such as chicken wings, fried rib tips, pulled pork sandwiches, brisket sandwiches, and barbecued turkey legs.
“We’re going to try to expand,” he says, “enclose the patio, do a rooftop deck. When that’s all settled down we’re going to look for location number three.”
1911 Smokehouse Bar-B-Que Restaurant, 11 Front Street, Trenton, Monday to Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., Saturdays and Sundays, 1:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. 609-695-1911.