By Frank Comstock
Gus Hamdan has worn a lot of hats. He found his niche, though, in food.
Hamdan currently owns Chez Alice in Bordentown, which opened in September 2016. His route to Bordentown has been circuitous. Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents with a Jordanian background, Hamdan, now 51, came to the United States as a student in 1985. When the first Gulf War broke out, he was not allowed to return to Kuwait. At the same time, his mother was visiting him, and she was not allowed to return for almost two years. With part of his family here, he left school and began working to support them, first as a handyman, then in construction and car sales.
Hamdan, who managed Chez Alice in Princeton, has opened a new and different Chez Alice in Bordentown. The eatery opened at 353 Farnsworth Ave. last year after the former owners of the Corner Deli had to leave the business due to family health issues.
The new iteration combines a traditional New Jersey deli with upscale touches and dishes Hamdan brought with him from his time in Princeton.
Highlighted with a colorful blue and white awning adjacent to shade trees on the street, Chez Alice (pronounced “shay aleese”), provides a place on the town’s burgeoning main street to pick up sandwiches, paninis, vegetarian dishes, pastas, deli meat and salad by the pound, as well as specialty salads, lottery tickets and soft serve ice cream.
Hamdan acknowledged that some people initially thought the Bordentown location was going to be a gourmet restaurant due to the name. Chez Alice is a deli, he said, but his approach “was to bring in more than just deli customers.”
Hamdan explains that the Chez Alice concept began in Princeton when he worked there as a handyman around the mid-90s. His sister-in-law took over the business from the original Alice and asked Hamdan to manage the location in Palmer Square.
Hamdan stayed there for three years before deciding he was “done with food.” He went back to handyman and construction jobs.
“In 2007, a friend of mine was looking for a business, and I suggested he talk to my sister-in-law to get some insights,” he said. His friend ended up buying the Princeton location, and Hamdan returned to the food industry to run Chez Alice in Princeton, which he did until he opened the deli in Bordentown.
He and his wife, Lizette, who works at the Mercer County Surrogate’s Office, started a family and moved to Bordentown in 1991. They raised their three children in the town who all attended Bordentown schools. Zaina, now 23, is a graduate of Rutgers with a degree in environmental planning and design. Dawud, now 20 and a rising senior at Rutgers is majoring in Public Health, and Rayna, now 13, is a student at Bordentown Middle School.
Dawud lives with transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord which leaves him unable to walk. Hamdan started a fundraising effort in 2014, hoping to raise a couple thousand dollars to help purchase a power standing wheelchair for Dawud. Three weeks later, though, the fund stood at $25,000. Hamdan received calls from local businesses, friends, family, and the Bordentown schools, all wanting to help, with many setting up fundraising events.
When he came home for Thanksgiving that year, Dawud was surprised with the chair. Today, he still lives on campus at Rutgers. Thanks to the wheelchair, he can get himself around campus and to and from his classes. He still has some assistance from caregivers in the morning and evening.
“Dawud is doing great,” Hamdan said. “Health-wise, his spasms are less frequent, thanks to the standing wheelchair. This summer, he is going to work on qualifying to get his license to drive—it’s a long process. He wants to get more independent and be ready to enter the workforce.”
Hamdan is the sole manager of the Bordentown location and owns the business in partnership with the owner of Chez Alice in Princeton. He still experiments with new dishes, not necessarily common to a deli, like gourmet salads and paninis.
Hamdan said all of his employees can do “everything” in the deli and says he prides himself on his employees working together as a team. Bill Kolpack has been with the deli under previous owners and stayed on to work with Hamdan, who brought in a number of employees. Currently short one employee due to illness, Hamdan himself is often “in the back” preparing hot food and making sandwiches.
Chez Alice is open for the breakfast, lunch and dinner crowd and all day for deli items, snacks and lottery. Breakfast and lunch are the busiest for the deli, according to Hamdan.
“The most popular item at breakfast is a pork roll, egg and cheese sandwich, usually on a hard roll, sometimes on a bagel,” Hamdan said. A bacon, egg and cheese sandwich comes in a close second and an Italian hoagie is the most popular sandwich for the lunch crowd.
“The hotter sandwiches, especially the cheesesteaks,” are a hit at dinner Hamdan says, adding that both lunch and dinner crowds call for lots of deli meat and salads by the pound to take home.
Having inherited a small hot bar set-up with the inventory in the store when he took over, Hamdan is trying different things with a hot buffet on some days, especially for the dinner crowd. “We’re still experimenting with the buffet. Once in a while we do specials like a pork loin, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and vegetarian dishes. It’s still a work in progress.”
Catering is another part of the business Hamdan is growing. He’s catered a few events for the city, experimenting with sandwiches and salads, as well as hot dishes.
The historic downtown area has many fine restaurants but only one deli that some passersby might take for another café based on the outside appearance. Gus Hamdan and his team will serve customers with upscale salads, standard Jersey deli fare, soft-serve, and maybe a platter at dinner that you can eat at the cozy tables just inside the door.
Chez Alice, 353 Farnsworth Ave., Bordentown. Hours: Monday-Friday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. to 6 p.m. Phone: (609) 298-6688.