PJ’s Pancake House is coming to town.
Procaccini brothers John and Tino, along with partner Zissis “Z” Pappas—owners of PJ’s, a Princeton Nassau Street mainstay—will be opening a new restaurant in the new center currently under construction in front of Papa’s Tomato Pies on Main Street in Robbinsville. They expect the location to be open in August or September.
PJ’s will be in the back right of the building, facing Main Street and directly next to Papa’s. Town Center mainstay VC Salon will also be in the new building, which was developed by Chetan Shah.
The restaurant is the latest addition to the partners’ rapidly expanding empire. In addition to the Princeton location, there’s also a PJ’s in West Windsor, and restaurants will open on April 1 in Kingston and in a few months in Ewing.
In addition to PJ’s, the Procaccinis and Pappas also own two Dolceria gelato and coffee bars in Princeton, Trattoria Procaccini and Porta Via restaurants in Princeton and Osteria Procaccini restauarants in Pennington, Kingston and Crosswicks. This spring, they are also scheduled to open another Osteria Procaccini in Orlando, Florida.
As the number of their New Jersey restaurants expands this year to 11, it will get harder for one of the three partners to visit each one daily. Realizing this, John Procaccini says, “We want to get to the point that we have competent operators who can do it for us, then we become more managerial. That’s how you scale.”
And scaling is what they have in mind, as they have moved from pizza, to pasta, to pancakes and gelato. “We’re testing which of these concepts that we feel, in my eyes as an entrepreneur, is going to be the next McDonald’s, the next big franchise,” Procaccini says.
“It’s too early to know which of these is going to be the finish line,” he says. “We see if every time we open one, they continue to be successful. Then there is a business model.” If it fails, they look at why, but, Procaccini says, “the ultimate goal is to become a franchise, to get it national.”
In August 2011, the brothers became operating partners of PJ’s Pancake House on Nassau Street with part-owner Herb Tuchman, a good friend of theirs and their landlord in Kingston. Realizing they needed someone with experience in the breakfast business to complement their own expertise in Italian and pizza restaurants, they brought in a new partner, their friend Pappas, whose family comes from a long history of Greek diners in Center City Philadelphia.
The three partners brought to PJ’s the vision the Procaccinis had developed at Osteria Procaccini in Kingston of using natural and organic, farm to table foods. Before their arrival, PJ’s had used microwave-thawed frozen fruit in its pancakes, but, Procaccini says, “We brought freshness to it,” that is, fresh fruits (and garden vegetables) only.
They also expanded PJ’s menu, adding their popular salads, paninis, new omelets, gluten-free pancakes and waffles, and other diet-friendly and healthy options. And of course fresh bacon and nitrate-free sausage.
Recognizing that PJ’s used to “die” at 2 or 3 p.m., they added their homemade pastas at night, including the more traditional versions that college students can afford—meat sauce, cheese and vodka sauce, Procaccini says.
After turning a significant profit that first year, they decided it was time to grow the brand, and in 2013 they opened PJ’s in West Windsor in the newly renovated Windsor Plaza Shopping Center on Route 571. That restaurant “surpassed all of our conservative goals,” he says.
With the opening of PJ’s in West Windsor, they realized they were a growing concern. “It’s becoming a company, as opposed to little independent restaurants operating here and there,” he says, adding that they needed to make a structural change. So they formed a holding company, Gretalia (combining their Greek and Italian backgrounds).
‘The people who washed dishes became servers and are now managers.’
PJ’s Pancake House and Tavern in Ewing, where the property already had a liquor license, will give the Procaccini’s an opportunity to fulfill people’s requests for breakfasts with Mimosas. In the evening they will add a tavern menu, with burgers, sliders, upscale bar food, steak frites and fish and chips.
PJ’s is the latest restaurant to set up shop in the Bear Tavern Road location that traces its roots back to 1918, when it was called the Ewing Riding Club. Since then it has been the site of a number of restaurants, including Cafe Mulino, the Mountain View Inn, The Silo and Maxine’s.
In August or September, PJ’s Pancake House and Tavern will open in a newly constructed building in Robbinsville, in a 150-seat space in front of Papa’s Pizza.
“Robbinsville is growing by leaps and bounds, and they are very limited with breakfast eateries,” Procaccini says. Because their space is in a new center, they decided on a larger space to reduce the weekend lines that happen at the other PJ’s.
The new PJ’s Pancake House and Bakery in Kingston will be using all three floors of the building to host a full-fledged baking facility that will provide fresh artisan breads to all their restaurants as well as a retail bakery and a PJ’s Pancake House.
Procaccini was born and raised in Princeton, attended St. Paul Roman Catholic Church, graduated from Princeton High School, and then got a bachelor’s degree in management and organizational behavior from Rider University in 1997.
Procaccini’s parents immigrated to the United States from Pettoranello, Italy, in 1972. Procaccini’s grandfather was a mason, and his father, Constantino, worked as a gardener on Princeton estates. “We come from a very hard work ethic,” he says, adding that in season, his restaurants source vegetables from his father’s 2-acre farm, Tuchman Farm, on Shaw Drive in Kingston.
In 1999, John and Tino opened their first restaurant, La Princepessa in Kingston at the site of the Amish market. In 2005 they decided not to renew the lease and took a hiatus. John did restaurant consulting for the next five years.
By 2006, the family changed its approach to food when Constantino was diagnosed with colon cancer. “As we started to learn about the disease, we started understanding how the processed foods we eat on a daily basis affect our bodies,” Procaccini says. “It was at a time when the whole organic trend was starting to change the way we eat.”
In 2010, they opened Osteria Procaccini in Kingston and fashioned a menu based on the way they used to eat in Italy. Their tomatoes, cheeses and doughs come from all-natural, nonprocessed ingredients.
In 2013, they opened another Osteria in Pennington, and in 2014 one in the village of Crosswicks. The Osteria in Orlando is set to open in April or May.
They often vacation in Florida and realized that the only pizza available was through chains. Envisioning one of their own restaurants in Florida, they learned that the water there doesn’t have the natural fluorides and minerals that make for good pizza dough and bagels, so they decided to open an Osteria in Orlando, but to ship the dough from New Jersey.
They decided to locate in the Orlando area in part because it is a golfing mecca that is drawing many retiring baby boomers from the Northeast. Furthermore, its population is not seasonal unlike many other Florida spots—it has 2 million residents, 2 million tourists because of Disney World and lots of conventions.
An important ingredient in their success has been their excellent employees, Procaccini says.
“When we run out of good people, this is going to stop; but so far, so good. Some employees have been with him since 1999, and they have had very little turnover. “The people who washed dishes became servers and are now managers,” he says. “They know our business, our customers, our food, our procedures. When a customer asks one of my managers a question, it is almost as if they are talking to me.”