Will Mooney had a goal in 2000: he wanted to open and own a restaurant in the town where he lived, and have that restaurant become a place where his young family could grow and become part of the fabric of a community. He remembers thinking: I’m just 15 years away from having a pretty good run.
By that standard, Mooney and his wife and business partner, artist Beth Ann Judge, had more than a pretty good run. They had a great run—more than 17 years serving Hopewell Borough as a café, bakery, deli, caterer and sit-down restaurant—all three blocks away from their home.
But all good things must come to an end, as it will for the Mooney family after dining room service is completed on Sept. 29. Mooney and Judge have sold the building to a developer, a neighbor, who Mooney says has told him he has plans to lease the space to a new restaurant in the near future.
Mooney and Judge bought the old Village Market at 7 W. Broad St. in October 2000, opening The Brothers Moon in March 2001. “We opened the doors and I was like, ‘Oh well, this better work, because I’m now in debt,’” a wry Mooney recalls.
Work it did. From day one, he says, things were rocking and rolling. At the time, the sleepy borough could lay claim to just three restaurants: the Hopewell Valley Inn, then a German restaurant; and two pizzerias, Antimo’s and Vincenzo’s.
“We were the first upscale restaurant in Hopewell,” he says. “Now we’re an upscale restaurant town.”
Son Liam was 3 months old when the couple bought the place. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great to live, work and raise a family in town?” Mooney says. “My commute is three blocks. My kids went to Hopewell Elementary School during the day, and after school they came here in the back door, said hi to dad, stole some cookies, and they were out the front door. How great is that?”
Over the years, Mooney says, many people have inquired about buying the building. Each time, Mooney rebuffed them. That is until this spring, when Liam was on the verge of graduating from Hopewell Valley Central High School. Elder sister Aria was already graduated, a student at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art.
Three separate groups inquired about the building through winter and spring. With the kids all but grown, Mooney and Judge decided the time was right to put the building on the market. They met with a listing agent who, despite the interest already shown, cautioned them that a sale would take at least a year.
The level of interest prospective buyers had shown was real, however, and a deal was struck in a matter of months. Mooney expects to close on the deal in mid-October, two weeks shy of 18 years since he bought it.
On Sept. 4, Mooney and Judge sent a message out to their mailing list that they would close at the end of the month.
“The Brothers Moon could not have been what it is without each and every one of you. We are forever grateful to our customers who have become like family and thank you for your ongoing support throughout the last 17+ years,” they wrote.
Throughout the month, many of his long loyal customers have stopped in once, or several times, to experience The Brothers Moon’s seasonal, farm-to-table cuisine and signature desserts before it’s too late.
Some people were upset, he says, shocked at the unexpected development. “They’re like, what are we going to do now?” he says. Mooney calls the response to the closing announcement “pretty overwhelming.” One customer, he says, left their table one night recently and sat in her car for an extended period, overcome with the emotion of losing a favorite haunt.
He thinks of a family that has been taking their kids to the restaurant every year after the first day of school — 12 years of tradition for that family. Or a customer who had called in to order 30 brownies to pick up and store in his freezer.
Through the years, Mooney has established relationships with many of his customers, and has been reminiscing with many of them as they’ve come through for their parting meals and to wish him well.
“It’s impacted a lot of folks, which is both happy and sad,” he says. “It’s really heartwarming to see how much we’ve become a part of people’s families, but it’s a very emotional time for us and them.”
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Will Mooney grew up in East Brunswick. His father was a great gardener, he says, and that gave him his introduction into the world of food. Around the age of 15, he got a job working at a farm market. “That was my first job in food, and I never left,” he says.
He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1989. In 1993, after a stint as a catering chef for Patina, a legendary Los Angeles restaurant, he returned to the area and settled in for two years at The Peacock Inn, rising from sous chef to executive chef.
In 1995, he became executive chef at The Stockton Inn, a job he held for two years. He followed that up with a stint at Wild Oats Market in Princeton, as chef and catering director, followed by a two-year run at Bon Appetit in Princeton as executive chef and catering director.
It was around that time that he decided it was time to branch out on his own with The Brothers Moon. When he and Judge bought the building in 2000, it needed extensive remodeling to fit their vision. There was just the one dining area with room for 50 seats — half the space the restaurant had at closing — though it did have two professional kitchens, which they kept.
The Brothers Moon opened as a farm-to-table restaurant before farm-to-table was a buzzy culinary term. Mooney established relationships with a variety of local farms to provide him with fresh produce and proteins. “I would go to the farms and say, what do you have? And what’s next? And they were like, what do you need? From early on he would change his menu almost daily.
As more and more restaurants embraced the locavore movement, Mooney rode that wave. Increased interest in fresh, local, organic products was a boon to both restaurants and farms, Mooney says. “Restaurant growth and diversity over the last two decades really helped (farm) markets,” he says. “Diversity improves restaurants because the ingredients are right there for us to make more diverse recipes. And farms had to keep up, bring in different varieties, find out how to make the seasons last longer.”
One way to understand the journey both he and farmers have been on is to look at the tomato. “When I started there was the Rutgers tomato, and that was awesome,” he says. “Now they’ve brought back all these heirloom tomatoes that are so colorful and have so much flavor. It’s really been great.”
Over the years, Mooney also enhanced his menus by foraging for ingredients like chanterelle mushrooms, which grow in the wild. “Foraging is a walk in the woods that I get paid for,” he quips.
After The Brothers Moon was an established success, Mooney and Judge were able to break through the wall and add another dining room, doubling their capacity. Curt Schulte of Schulte Restorations helped turn a storage shed into a seamless extension of the original dining space, replete with a custom wood-block art installation that Judge did on one wall that will be dismantled after the restaurant closes so she and Mooney can take it with them.
The rise in celebrity chef culture can give one an impression that chefs spend a great deal of their time out of the kitchen on various public relations schmoozers. Not so for a chef-restaurateur like Mooney, who has regularly worked 6-day, 70-hour weeks helming his own kitchen. Through the years, pastry chef Cathy Mello has been responsible for many of the restaurant’s desserts.
Mooney has maintained relationships with many of his former employees, often local teens who were working for him as part-time or summer jobs. He says one of the hardest things about closing has been telling them that the restaurant is not going to be there any more.
Among his former staff members is Jess Niederer, who has gone on to own and operate her own farm, Chickadee Creek Farm, in Hopewell. Niederer was one of the first teens to work for Mooney at The Brothers Moon, and at the end she was one of his chief suppliers of produce, along with Sansone’s Farm Market, also in Hopewell.
Today Judge has her own jewelry business, Beth Ann Designs, on Seminary Avenue. She is also a teacher of family and consumer sciences at Timberlane Middle School.
Mooney says he’s not sure what his next chapter will be, although he’s sure he’ll stay in food. “I hate to say I don’t know anything else, but I don’t know anything else,” he says. “It’s going to be very odd for quite a while. It’s been a very comfortable place to cook. I’m grateful for all these years.”