Boro Bean may be for sale, but Ellen and Johnny Abernathy are in no great hurry to conclude a transaction.
Though the business is available, the couple is content to wait until the right buyer comes along—someone whom they feel would be a good fit for their neighborhood coffee shop in Hopewell Borough.
And even then, Ellen says, they would be happy to stick around to help during any transition period. “I’m not packing my bags and going,” she says.
The Abernathys have been together at the helm for nearly 12 years. For 27 years before that, they managed Thomas Sweet in Princeton, which Ellen’s brother, Tom Grim, co-owned with his business partner Tom Block. Grim is co-owner of Nomad Pizza, also in Hopewell Borough.
Grim and Block sold Thomas Sweet in 2008. Shortly thereafter, Grim went in with the Abernathys on Boro Bean. They bought it from Lewis and Doreen Kassel, who themselves had bought it only a year earlier. Before that it was owned by Jean and Chris Crowell, and known as Failte’ Coffeehouse.
The Abernathys have served up breakfast and lunch to hungry Hopewellians ever since. But now feels like the right time to sell, Ellen Abernathy says.
“Johnny and I have come to the conclusion that maybe it’s time to do something else with ourselves. I’m 59 this year, Johnny will be 59 next year. We’ll be here 12 years in February. Maybe 11 years of getting up every day at 5 a.m. is enough.”
Abernathy says she and her husband decided they weren’t going to be secretive about the decision to sell. “We know it will take a minute to find the right fit,” she says. “We think it’s a great location here. We’re not running away. We’re willing to stay for a period. But for someone, this will really be a great adventure, and we’ve had a lot of fun ourselves. It’s a happy place.”
Or if it’s not a happy place, it’s a community hub, where people go for a sense of community. “It’s a touchstone for people,” Abernathy says. “When we had Superstorm Sandy, we were a place where people could come and charge up, find out what was going on. Fortunately our power was only out for a little bit, not like theirs. Especially when it’s stormy, or something has happened that upsets people, it’s a place where people come to feel connected.”
Abernathy doesn’t remember having a day off in the first six months that she and her husband operated the restaurant. “We were figuring out the menu, coming up with our muffin recipes,” she says. “Luckily, people were very curious when we got here, and there was a lot of attention.”
She remembers a heartening day when a boy came up to her and told her that Boro Bean’s oatmeal was “the greatest oatmeal ever.”
“It was then that we thought we had a chance,” she says.
The time came when Boro Bean had regulars, many of whom visited on a daily or nearly daily basis. Abernathy says the idea of giving up that connection with customers makes the decision to sell bittersweet. “But like Johnny says, if I was looking for somewhere to go for breakfast, this is the kind of place I’d want to come to myself,” she says.
Where many coffee shops are content to serve food that is made elsewhere and brought in, Boro Bean has long taken pride in its scratch-made breakfast and lunch dishes, including those famous muffins. Abernathy describes Boro Bean as “comfort food headquarters.”
“We serve things we feed to our family,” the Plainsboro resident says. “We do things here the way we would do them at home. I don’t use shortening in the muffins, I use butter. Our tomato soup, all it is is roasted tomato, roasted garlic, sugar, half and half. That’s it.”
Abernathy hopes new owners will carry on that kind of tradition. If it is within her power, she will make sure that they do. She also adds that she envisions her current employees continuing with new owners. If that is not the case, she says, she and Johnny will actively help place them elsewhere if they choose.
“I don’t know if someone’s going to be interested. I’m not packing my bags and going,” she says. “We have no plan for the next thing. We really are looking for a new good energy to come in.”