The phone calls really started coming in to Acacia Restaurant around the second week of March. Not calls for dinner reservations, or people hoping to schedule birthday luncheons. Cancellations. A lot of them.
Lauren Voigtsberger was the person taking the calls. She and her husband, Chef Chris Voigtsberger, have owned and operated Acacia for 5 years now. She manages operations, and he runs the kitchen. So they know the rhythm of the seasons. Spring is when they normally count on reservations, especially for larger events — celebrations, milestones — to help keep the Lawrenceville restaurant in the black.
The future at that moment was very uncertain. This was after WHO had declared Covid-19 a pandemic, but before Gov. Phil Murphy ordered New Jersey residents to stay at home as much as possible to contain the threat of the coronavirus.
“It was very unsettling, nervewracking feeling,” Voigtsberger says now. “This time of year, the bulk of of our business is things like graduations, wedding showers, weddings. So that was an ‘Oh my God’ moment, where all these events were getting canceled and getting postponed. Our immediate reaction was being scared, to be honest with you.”
When Murphy formally shut down all restaurant dining rooms the following week, restaurateurs were forced to make a choice: stay open and provide take-out and delivery service — even if that was something they had done little of before — or close, and wait to see when things might return to normal.
The Voigtsbergers chose to stay open. “We took a deep breath and sat down and said, ‘OK, how do we do this? How do we evolve?” Voigtsberger says.
Over the course of the last 10 weeks, Acacia has evolved. Right off the bat, they started offering delivery as well as curbside pickup service. They settled on a new schedule — Wednesdays through Sundays for dinner only — and a menu that changes weekly and skews a little more toward comfort food than it did in the past.
Like many restaurants, Acacia has also added family-style servings to the menu. And for holidays, Chris works up special menus to suit the occasion. For instance, Acacia’s Memorial Day menu includes trays of meat and salads, sides by the quart, and even a four-pack of premade, uncooked burgers with fixings.
They have adjusted as formerly plentiful food items, like chicken breasts, have become scarce or prohibitively expensive. And Lauren has also been active on social media, sharing menus, photos, even videos on Facebook to keep Acacia in people’s minds.
“Chris and I did a good job of getting our name out there and changing our menu to really fit what people are looking for,” she says. “They’re able to get a nice entree at home if they want, but also comfort food like a sandwich, like mac and cheese. Things that we wouldn’t normally have on our menu, but that have allowed us to evolve.”
Lauren says the shift to all take-out and delivery has affected the menu as well. For a chef like Chris, who has also worked in high-end restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in New York and the Blue Bottle Cafe in Hopewell, presentation is an important part of the job.
“I can tell you he is definitely putting some things on the menu because he knows they will travel better,” she says. “And there are certain things we haven’t put on the menu because, in his eyes, the presentation of that order is not going to be the best by the time it gets to your home”
Voigtsberger says if there is a bright side to the whole experience, it’s that she feels it has given her a clearer picture of what Acacia’s customers are looking for.
“People want good food, but they also want that comfort food. When Acacia’s dining room is open again, I think we’re going to have more of that balance in our dishes than we had before,” she says. “These new dishes we have that people are really liking, like our Acacia smash burger, or our Griggstown fried chicken, I think they will be on the menu.”
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As an independent neighborhood restaurant, Acacia had a relatively small staff even before the pandemic. Even so they have had to let many people go, especially dining room staff.
Voigtsberger says over time they have been able to hire some people back, though in different roles from what they did before. Instead of busing tables or serving customers, they are taking orders, packing them up or even delivering them.
She looks forward to the day when business conditions are such that more can return. She says she and Chris talk every day about the restaurant’s future, both in the short and long term.
“As happy and excited as we are to open up our dining room, hopefully soon, we expect that we will be keeping this model of takeout and delivery for quite a while,” she says. “I think it will be part of our new normal. Even though we will be taking every (safety) precaution, we know people will be more comfortable eating at home for a while.”
She knows that would mean that Acacia won’t be able to count on groups and family celebrations to fill up the books any time soon. “It’s definitely scary looking into the future, but we will just have to keep up and do what we can,” she says.
Both Lauren (Steinert High School Class of 2003) and Chris (Notre Dame ’03) grew up in Hamilton. They live their now with their one-year-old son, Dylan.
They both attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in North Jersey, although they didn’t meet until after graduation. He followed a culinary route in college, while she got a degree in hospitality, business management and tourism.
The blending of their skills made it possible for them to operate a restaurant together. But it also means they both depend on the restaurant as their source of income. Until the restaurant can support a full staff, they will have to deal with the challenge of balancing work and home life. Voigtsberger says at times like these, she is grateful for the support of their families.
She is also grateful to the Lawrence community for the support it has shown Acacia during the crisis.
“The support has been overwhelming. We’ve got so many new customers who I think will be with us for a long time,” she says. “We’ve been seeing a lot of good in people, and that makes it easier for us to say we’re going to keep going and fight. There have been some positives out of this awful situation.”
Acacia Restaurant, 2637 Main St., Lawrence NJ 08648. Phone: (609) 895-9885.