After Superstorm Sandy struck the Jersey Shore in 2012, chef Mike Jurusz was just in the midst of buying the restaurant he ran for years. Chef Mike’s ABG, overflowing with diners all summer long and hosting plenty of locals after Labor Day, hasn’t just found success with premium meats, fish and ingredients in the years since, but a bond with the Shore community that is as rare as it is generous.
“The thing in my life now, at 48 years old, is the good karma,” Jurusz said, thinking back on his decades in the restaurant industry, most of which has been spent working 100 hour-long weeks, running restaurants for others before buying his own, on the oceanfront in South Seaside Park. “I spent all these years building my brand, building my name, and now I’m at the point in my life where I can use that brand to help others.”
Jurusz is dependable. When a local charitable organization needs a gift certificate for a gift auction, they benefit from one of the $38,000 worth of cards he’s donated so far this year. The staff even call the fall “benefit season,” when Jurusz brings the restaurant and its award-winning dishes on the road to charitable events across Ocean and Monmouth counties on a weekly basis, sometimes multiple times in a given week. During the summer, he takes special needs children out on his racing boat in Barnegat Bay for a day of fun before returning to the restaurant to work at night.
“Hopefully people see what we do to help others, and it all comes around,” he said, referring again to that “karma” thing.
The restaurant business took Jurusz around the country. When he first returned to New Jersey and was looking to make a dish that included chipotle peppers, he couldn’t even find it here, and had to order the ingredients from the west coast. He worked tirelessly to bring local scallops – often exported by local fishermen to Asia for higher prices – to the table, where they are properly garnished on hand-picked plates, just to heighten the experience. To build such a reputation took a lot of sacrifice – family weddings and events missed, and such – but the success since opening his own restaurant five years ago gave Jurusz a renewed sense of purpose.
Looking back, and giving thanks for his success, he focuses many of his charitable efforts on supporting law enforcement the military, as well as children’s cancer funding and hunger.
This year, Jurusz helped organize a gigantic benefit with Bum Rogers, across the street from his own restaurant, to help hurricane victims in the Florida keys, one of his favorite vacation spots. He almost canceled his own trip there planned for December, but the benefit (and his own experience post-Sandy) made him keep the reservations.
“I stay at the southernmost resort in Islamorada, and when it first happened it was like, ‘oh, man, I don’t want to go down there and go on vacation while they’re looking at destruction,'” he said. “But then I remembered Sandy here. I needed it when I opened up, and were begging people to come in here. It’s time to show some love and spend some money. They’re 100 percent based on tourism there.”
Back at home, like many business owners, Jurusz hopes locals will keep his restaurant afloat during the winter. The “million dollar view” of the Atlantic Ocean, as he calls it, never goes away, and the restaurant buys the same premium cuts of meat and fish, plus other ingredients all year long, something other restaurants cut back on when the summer rush is over.
“We have a great summer trade, a great following, and we don’t need that extra push then,” he said. “We don’t even do any advertising then. But the winter is when we need the support the most – not just us but everybody on the island. We need to locals to come and keep us floating.”
The cost of running a restaurant at the Shore is big. The cost of scallops has spiked from $8 per pound to $24 per pound in recent years, for example.
“More restaurants than you’d think” have started to skimp on quality to save money, but Jurusz is using the same ingredients he always has.
“It’s because my reputation is quality, good presentation, portion,” he said. “When it comes to food and drink, people are a lot smarter than they were 10 or 15 years ago. People are educated about what quality is.”
Jurusz, a longtime Brick resident who now lives in Toms River, said Chef Mike’s ABG recently moved its Date Night promotion – two dinners and a bottle of wine for $50 – to Thursday night, offers 20 percent off all restaurant bills on Friday night and has half-price special on Sunday.
Jurusz, himself, has cut his hours back to 40 per week – a small amount by comparison to his old schedule – and is now enjoying the fruits of his labor by overseeing what has become one of the Shore’s most successful restaurants. And he’s not going anywhere, any time soon.
“Every day, someone wants to put a condo here,” he said. “They’re knocking down the door. For a lot of restaurants, it’s attractive to take that deal, because you’ll probably make a lot more money than you will owning a restaurant.”
But when you have a reputation to uphold, and loyal customers to serve, it’s hard to walk away – even when new restaurants get headlines and big crowds for the grand openings.
“We have to fight every single day, with new places always opening up that they want to try,” Jurusz said. “But success is longevity, how you’re doing in the business, how long you’ve been serving the community. Anyone can be a one-trick pony.”
That focus on the community has become the focus of the restaurant as a whole.
“Someone told me, ‘we can count on you,'” Jurusz said, of the organizer of a local charitable benefit. “You have no idea what that meant, man. Because then I can go home at night and I know somewhere, somehow, someone benefited from what I did.”
Chef Mike’s ABG