EatDrinkJax with John Allen Harrett of The Fringe Cafe

Talking about The Fringe Eatery with John Allen Harrett, the brainchild behind Murray Hill's steampunk fusion cafe.

Published September 8, 2013 in Dining & Nightlife -

1. Tell us about The Fringe Eatery.

It is a restaurant-coffeehouse. I've emphasized the coffee because I personally love coffee and espresso and Murray Hill doesn't have a really great coffee place yet, so I was trying to fill that void.  

On the food side it's an interesting place because the cafe used to just be a concession area for the Murray Hill Theatre. I renovated the cafe in August (2012) and we're now open daily 6 days a week. We have lunch from 11am - 2pm Tuesday through Friday and dinner from 6pm to midnight from Tuesday through Sunday. Technically speaking, we're the latest serving coffeehouse in town.

I've also expanded the menu considerably. As a concession we were more oriented to things like hot pockets. I had to do some drastic overhauls in terms of what we offered and how we offered it. I've started with a focus on staples like soup, salads and wraps. Every day we have 3 soups and a variety of salads, along with 3 or 4 types of wraps. Those are our staples but I also expanded into sandwiches and burgers. I cut out all fried foods and have everything made to order from fresh ingredients. I also have daily specials that are crafted based on market availability. Last week was maple-seared, bacon-wrapped salmon with rice and vegetables as a side. I also offered a bacon and gouda stuffed chicken breast with cheddar cheese melted on top and a mushroom, apricot and fennel reduction.

2. Can you tell us about those last dishes? They seem far away from a wrap on a menu.

The secret to The Fringe is to ask me what I want to make. The specials tend to be somewhat schizophrenic because I refuse to get nailed down to laying out exactly what we're going to do at all times. People like to experiment and have great things made for them, so I go over the top on the specials. They are just completely ridiculous. But I also try to make them affordable. People are often blown away by the portioning - they think things should cost a lot more than what we're charging - they're actually concerned for me, that we're not making a profit. But I want things to be special on multiple levels and the way I work is that in my mind and the way I learned to build a business, if I can win people over and they love the food and they enjoy what I'm doing for them, I believe that's some of the best marketing you can ever have, because they will tell their friends and they'll also become customers. I take care on every order to find out what people like. I'll also come out and talk to people, I don't just hang back in the kitchen. I like to find out what people like, what they're interested in, what they have a hankering for that night. Based on my ingredients on hand I will create something for particular tastes. That does bring it's own set of nightmares for me as a chef! I don't know why I put myself through that torture. But I'll tell people that it doesn't matter how I initially envisioned something - if there's some aspect of it they don't particularly care for I can take that out, because ultimately they're the one who has to eat it.

3. How would you describe your food style?

I draw on my experience with fusion cuisine from Boomtown. I like to take something from one cuisine and combine it with another - something for example, from a French cuisine, combined with something from a  traditionally Latin American dish. I want to do something that tastes great so I don't limit myself, or the menu items, to a particular style. So, I would say that our menu is fusion. I didn't go to school for it, but I'm a very artistic person and it comes out in my food as well as the environment I create. Before I do anything I think about what I want it to taste like. Sometimes there's a hit and sometimes a miss. The misses are few and far between though because I don't send anything out that I don't personally feel is OK. It's not that I'm cutting into someone's steak, but if I'm making a delicate sauce or we're serving a side of something I'm going to check it. We have several jars of plastic tasting spoons for the cooks or whoever's working in the kitchen with me. If it's not right, it doesn't go out. It's everything from sight to smell to taste that we consider. The last thing I want is for someone to be unhappy with what we're giving them.

4. Are you creating the specials on a weekly cycle?

I'll be honest with you; at this point there is no cycle. In fact, twice last week I had no idea what my specials were going to be until the first table showed up. As I was standing out there talking to them I just created it in my mind. I put together a dish in theory and then I went and created it in the kitchen - and they loved it! I'm not going to say that every night is like that - in fact that's a really good recipe for chaining myself to the stove. I've been lucky to get some really good people to work with me in the kitchen - people who understand complicated sauces, and who come from a variety of backgrounds. One woman who just started is from Tucson and she likes cayenne - she has this Texarcana feel for a lot of her dishes. She teases me because I like soy as my sodium for everything.

5. Are specials mostly at dinner?

I do offer specials at lunch, but they're more scaled down because people want to get in and get out for lunch. A special would be something that is a little less complicated so we can prepare it faster and can do more at once.

6. Is your goal to grow a bigger, stable menu, or keep your staples with the specials rotating in and out?

I don't know yet. I need to see how things go for a few months. I'm currently seeing a nice, steady flow of customers, with growth each week. Also, because we still have an open door to the Theatre, on any random night of the week there may be a show, with a band playing with 300 people. When they come into the cafe looking for service I need to be able to move quickly to get people in and out. That's the balance - having a sophisticated sit down menu with the need to occasionally have something faster and more practical. I'm still working through that balance. For show nights I'll need to have a smaller menu.

7. Do you have an official affiliation with the Theatre?

I actually work for Murray Hill Theatre. I was hired in February of 2012 as the Facilities and Special Events Co-ordinator. My background is in theatre and venues, so it was a good mix. I wanted to work on opening up a business that would have wide appeal - that served great coffee and great food in a great environment.

8. What's the mix between people coming to have coffee and people coming for a sit down meal?

It's a good mix - about half and half at this point. We do have some people who drop in for just a coffee to go. I haven't started doing morning hours yet, simply because we're open so late, and aren't staffed up enough just yet to run a breakfast shift.

9. Can you tell us about your coffee?

We serve several blends of Bold Bean coffee. Our staff has undergone training so we can keep up the standards set by Bold Bean for putting forth their product.

10. Did you bring the pour over and Chemex approaches from Bold Bean, as well as using their beans?

The only pour over we're doing at this time is for decaf coffee. Our house coffee is Bold Bean's Dark & Stormy blend, which we serve as a drip. For espresso drinks we use Bold Bean's Sweet Spot and can do everything on the espresso, cappuccino, latte side of things. We also have a nice selection of teas. We haven't gotten into the Chemex and some of the pour over styles because we haven't seen the demand for them just yet. If we get more demand we'll look again.

11. If someone is coming to The Fringe for the first time, what would you recommend they try to get a sense of what your food is all about?

The teriyaki chicken salad is really fantastic. It's probably one of the most popular dishes too. It's the salad I got from my experience at Boomtown. It's Spring mixed greens with balsamic vinegar, Japanese soy, sesame oil, peanut oil, minced garlic and diced apricot. It's a very flavorful salad with a salty, sweet kick from the diced apricot, the balsamic vinegar and the soy. The sesame kind of mellows it out as well. I serve it with Roma tomatoes and fruit on the side. Then I do a teriyaki glaze on a boneless, skinless chicken breast cut in strips and I lay that on the side.

I also do a salmon salad, which is a Cajun blackened salmon on that same salad as the teriyaki chicken, with a lime, cilantro finish.

Those are very healthy and tasty and can give you a very good sense of one of our full flavor menu items.

On the more hearty side I've taken the classic quesadilla and done what I call the country quesadilla, which is chicken breast chunked with cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce and grilled onions in a quesadilla. I serve it with a green pesto and sour cream dipping sauce, and it is remarkable. It's our most popular item - people really love it. Because everything is made to order, I'll often pop my head around the corner and ask people if they want to try this or that on their quesadilla. Last night I did a sun dried tomato with the green pesto and then a mozzarella cheese with chicken and black olives - I guess you could call that the Mediterranean quesadilla. I think people actually like the quesadillas better than the wraps.

I have a couple of vegetarians that come in because they know I'll create something that is unique and vegetarian, or vegan - and tasty. I also have tofu so that people can substitute that for their chicken.

12. Are there things you've tried that have proven much more popular than you imagined they would?

Everyone who tries the sundered tomato alfredo flipped out over that. Our biggest selling soup is the beer cheese soup. I go through 2 pots of that everyday.

…what is beer cheese soup?

It's exactly what it says. You start with a full bodied, domestic beer and you reduce it down with stock and garlic and you add some seasoning, some cheese and bring it to a simmer. It's basically a bowl of cheese with a tinge of hops. It has a nice kick to it.

13. What's your favorite item?

I love doing the alfredos. I have a classic garlic alfredo, a coconut curry alfredo, a coffee alfredo, a sun dried tomato alfredo and a pesto alfredo.

…what's the coffee alfredo?

It's literally a classic garlic alfredo with some Cajun seasoning and a shot of espresso. It has a beefy, stroganoff flavor to it. It's really good.

14. Do you oversee everything in the kitchen?


15. What's your culinary background?

I've never gone to culinary school. Boomtown is the most that I've had hands-on in the kitchen. That was 5 years of running a dinner theatre. And at that time I spent the majority of my time at the front of the house, not in the kitchen. But understanding the food and being able to step in for prep or to help in a pinch gave me a lot of experience. And growing up I worked at restaurants as a waiter. I was also a co-GM for Schlotzsky's Deli in Tallahassee. I started baking bread for them and worked my way up to manager. I didn't go to school for much of what I do. I have a mind that can see a process with the different elements involved and then re-create it. There's no new thing under the sun. I'm not one of those people who will claim proprietary creation of a menu item. For most things I pick up recipes from people or from what I hear, then I add my own tweak or nuance to it.

16. Did you ever think of hiring a chef and focusing on running the rest of the operation? What got you interested in doing the cooking?

Necessity. From the outset there was no budget to do what I wanted to do. I'm employed as the Facilities and Special Events Co-ordinator. That has nothing to do with what I'm doing now. I'm putting in 80 hours a week as a labor of love because I believe that Murray Hill, as a neighborhood, has a lot of potential and it just needs a few staples. There are already a few here but it requires more to become a district. One of those things needed is a cool little coffee shop that things can grow around. The neighborhood itself is doing alright from a residential perspective, but commercially we need some new people here. I'm laying the ground work to let people know that it's okay here and you can come and open your record shop or whatever. The overhead is a lot less than other districts and it's close to a lot of other things.

17. The Theatre has live events, but so does the coffee shop. Can you tell us about them?

We do an open mic every Wednesday. It's been really growing due a strong presence from poets and literary followers at JU. Michael Palmer is a published author, a really great poet, and one of the teachers at JU. He has been helping me to grow that night. I also have a good amount of singer-songwriters, and actors who want to do monologues. I've put no parameters on open mic. I've even gotten up and told people they can come up and rant for a while if they want to. I don't even like calling it open mic; I prefer to call it a mic with a penchant for openness.

Tuesday nights I have book studies and different groups that meet in the space. Some groups are playing board games. There are couches in the lobby of the theatre so people can relax and just have their evening, and their discussions.

Thursday nights from 8:30 - 11:30pm I've just started up a karaoke night. We don't serve alcohol and in a non-alcohol environment karaoke takes on a whole new perspective. I'm calling it family karaoke - which means there are some kids in the early part of the evening, which I really like because there are a lot of parents who want their kids to do karaoke but there aren't many places for them.

On Friday and Saturday nights when there's nothing going on in the main room I'll have an acoustic artist or a poet in The Fringe. So there's always something going on.

18. Are most of your customers coming from the local neighborhood?

I'd say about a quarter of the people coming in are from the local neighborhood, which is really promising. To the best of my knowledge they go away happy and I've seen a lot of people coming back. Sometimes they just come by to use our free wi-fi, take in the sights, and watch what's going on.

19. You describe The Fringe as a "Steampunk gallery." What's that?

Steampunk is a literary term. One description is of the Victorian era with technology. And the technology of that era was driven by steam. The movie Wild, Wild West with Will Smith was a steampunk movie. The new Sherlock Holmes movies are steampunk - they're set in the old times, but with technology. Jules Verne is the father of steampunk with 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. So you have this very eclectic environment with all these quirky things. I guess that would describe the mind of the creator of this environment - that being me.

20. You have pretty long hours. Do you find that people come all through the night?

It depends on the day. I'd say things are generally steady. There's a pop for dinner then people trickle in through the course of the evening.

I'm very OCD about the hours - when I say 6 to midnight, I mean 6 to midnight. My parents showed up with their friends at 11:50 one night and I was like "seriously? seriously?" Of course they wanted coffee and desserts. They sat there and had a great evening. But that means I'm not out until 1 or 1:30 and when I need to be up the next morning to go to the Farmer's Market it can be somewhat taxing. So, I do try to maintain my hours. People only show up a few times and if you're not open when you say you will be they aren't going to come back. People have options. When they go out of their way to come here I need to give them an enjoyable experience with consistent service and a quality product every time they come.

21. Where do you see The Fringe going over the next year or two?

I want to create a safe, comfortable restaurant coffee shop for the neighborhood. We're a bit off the beaten path and regular routine for a lot of people, so for me to pull people in to be a part of what's going on here I have to have entertainment and do something outside of the norm. I see that growing to the point that for any night of the week if you come to The Fringe there will be something going on.

I have tried not to limit the possibilities. It's not beyond the scope of possibility that the kitchen grows to take over more of The Fringe and the Murray Hill Theatre is used as a sit down supper club with multiple stages and different seating areas and couch groupings.

We also have a really cool alley down the back. I'd love to do a raised patio with 2 stories of dining and an outdoor kitchen. There's some cool possibilities for growth in the future.

22. Do you serve food on the patio now?

I do but on a limited basis. It's not fully ready though. I call it the graffiti garden and there are people who love it. It's got a collection of some crazy looking steel work. There's some big engine parts and pipes and things sitting around, so you feel this industrial vibe going on. It's not for everybody. Some people find it too cluttered. I went to Israel with the Department of Tourism in the summer and we visited some of the finer restaurants in the country. It was cool and reassuring to see that many of these restaurants had very unique settings. Some of it would be described as hodgepodge bric-a-brac. Americans often like clean lines and smooth surfaces. But there are some people who like that touch of rawness. I don't just throw stuff out there - it has an arrangement to it that some people find artistic.

23. Can you tell us a little about the art in The Fringe?

People love the fact that there's so much to look at when they come in. I have a large collection of local art. There are 2 artists that live within a 5 block radius of the cafe and are showing now. One does steel work using a plasma torch to do really intricate cutouts of all sorts of designs. They're all very reasonably priced and are just cool metal sculpture work. Another artist is a lady who does sculptured mobiles out of old teapots, silver spoons, beads and things. There are a couple of those hanging around. MactruQue is a local artist who worked on the mural on the side of Burrito Gallery downtown. He's a really fantastic artist who does mostly oil on canvas. His paintings and art are what we have on the walls. He's sold the most of any artist we have.

24. Do you design the space to highlight the art?

Yes. I take pen lights and aim them at artworks. There's a lot to look at but there's also a spotlight on the art that's for sale. It's really cool.  

I've created an atmosphere that's constantly evolving and changing. As long as I'm there it will probably never be the same art displays. If you don't like this particular installation, wait a week and it will probably be different. Even with the tables I'm constantly moving things around. The food, the coffee, the menu, and our service - I want all those things to be consistent. I've scaled the restaurant for the size of our current business. So today there's seating for about 20. But as we grow I can easily move things around to accommodate more seating. I made the kitchen walls on wheels to allow me to evolve the space. The people who've already found us love that there's always something new and they're seeing it grow right before their eyes.

25. Anything else?

When you come in we're going to spoil you. We're going to serve higher end food, but without the pretense. And if you like what we do, please Like us on Facebook!

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