Ches. Inn owner buys land­mark Ne­wark restau­rant

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - By JA­COB OWENS

jowens@ce­cil­whig.com

— Gian­marco Mar­tus­celli is a busy guy whose phone is rarely silent, but this week has been some­thing he’s never ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore.

The owner of the Ch­e­sa­peake Inn Restau­rant & Ma­rina has been in­un­dated with well wishes from friends, em­ploy­ees and cus­tomers con­grat­u­lat­ing him on the pur­chase of Klondike Kate’s, a land­mark Ne­wark bar and restau­rant, this week.

“I’ve never seen this kind of out­pour­ing be­fore,” he said Wed­nes­day. “Work­ing in the restau­rant busi­ness is hard and some­times you won­der, ‘Is this worth it?’ But hear­ing what I’ve heard this week re­as­sures us of our de­ci­sion.”

The five-month ne­go­ti­a­tion and sale of the 260-seat restau­rant at 158 E. Main St. was fi­nal­ized on Mon­day, but Mar­tus­celli said he had some dif­fi­culty keep­ing the news un­der wraps un­til then. Word quickly spread through the restau­rant in­dus­try when Delaware’s Of­fice of the Delaware Al­co­holic Bev­er­age Con­trol Com­mis­sioner sent out a no­tice a few weeks ago that Kate’s liquor li­cense was be­ing trans­ferred to Mar­tus­celli Restau­rant Group, his fam­ily’s busi­ness which also in­cludes La Casa Pasta off Route 896 near Ne­wark.

Mar­tus­celli and his wife, Gilda, bought Kate’s for an undis­closed sum from busi­ness­man Alan Burkhard, who’s also a Ch­e­sa­peake City res­i­dent. Burkhard, who bought Kate’s in 2005, was look­ing to di­vest his in­ter­ests as he fully en­ters re­tire­ment, Mar­tus­celli said. The Whig was un­able to reach Burkhard on Thurs­day.

“In talk­ing with Alan, he was very help­ful and hon­est,” he said. “They were open with their num­bers, and we felt we could help them im­prove by re­duc­ing costs.”

Mar­tus­celli said the econ­omy of scale by in­cor­po­rat­ing three

NE­WARK, DEL.

busi­nesses into his or­ders with ven­dors will help keep his prices lower.

“The costs of do­ing busi­ness to­day are al­ways in­creas­ing and you have to do what you can to keep prices sta­ble,” he said.

Mar­tus­celli said that he’s been ap­proached nu­mer­ous times over the years to ex­pand to new lo­ca­tions and was close to agree­ing to deals be­fore, but the land­mark sta­tus of Kate’s and its fa­vor­able grand­fa­thered po­si­tion in re­la­tion to the city of Ne­wark’s liquor laws made this deal the best pos­si­ble in­vest­ment yet.

“I still think about some of those op­por­tu­ni­ties, but there’s a lot of risks to­day and a lot of good com­pe­ti­tion,” he said. “You don’t know what the mar­ket wants some­times. So when the Kate’s op­por­tu­nity pre­sented it­self, we said, ‘OK, can we im­prove it or this go­ing to be the best it can be?’”

“We went back and forth about it, but in the end we re­ally felt it was a great fit with our group of restau­rants,” he said.

An en­thu­si­as­tic Mar­tus­celli said he saw Kate’s as the “yin” to the Ch­e­sa­peake Inn’s “yang,” not­ing that their sea­sonal pa­tron­age plays di­rectly into each other.

“That was re­ally the key for us, I think,” he said.

Staffing is of­ten dra­mat­i­cally af­fected when servers, bar­tenders and hostesses, who work the busy sum­mer months at the Inn, face a slow­down in the win­ter. Vice versa, how­ever, Kate’s sees a slow­down in the sum­mer­time af­ter Univer­sity of Delaware stu­dents leave be­tween semesters. Now Mar­tus­celli will be able to move staff be­tween his three restau­rants to keep skilled and tenured staff busy all year. He will also be able to bet­ter staff the restau­rants af­ter lo­cal col­lege stu­dents re­turn back to cam­puses start­ing in Au­gust or Septem­ber.

Mar­tus­celli said Kate’s and the Inn also share their tar­get pa­tron­age as well, which will help them suc­ceed.

“They kind of mimic each other, be­cause they both have a ca­sual fare with out­door seat­ing dur­ing the day and at night they of­fer a lot of en­ter­tain­ment with their food,” he said.

Mar­tus­celli said he an­nounced the news to his staff on Tues­day night to dis­pel any fears of staff con­sol­i­da­tion, and was only met with ex­cite­ment.

Mar­tus­celli said he doesn’t plan to make changes to the Ne­wark eatery’s ever-pop­u­lar na­chos or burger night spe­cial, as­suag­ing fears from long­time pa­trons, but he may make changes to the specials’ pol­icy.

“I want the specials to be more of a dine-in than take­out deal,” he said, not­ing a del­uge of take­out or­ders on Mon­day’s burger night or Tues­day’s na­chos night backs up the restau­rant’s kitchen and puts stress on the staff. “That’s one thing that we’re go­ing to take a look at … be­cause we want the kitchen to be ef­fi­cient.”

Mar­tus­celli said he will prob­a­bly scale back Kate’s large menu and in­tro­duce a few fa­vorite dishes from the fam­ily’s other restau­rants, likely in­clud­ing La Casa Pasta’s home­made chicken parmi­giana and Ch­e­sa­peake Inn’s crab cakes. He is also is ex­cited to add Kate’s to his fam­ily’s fre­quent diner pro­gram, which al­lows din­ers to ac­crue points by spend­ing money at their restau­rants which can be re­deemed at any of the three.

One of the few things re­lated to the pur­chase that Mar­tus­celli hasn’t de­cided yet is cos­metic: whether to keep Kate’s iconic ta­bles, which pa­trons have carved their names into over the decades.

“I’ve asked a lot of peo­ple I know and it’s kind of been 5050 on whether to re­place the ta­bles,” he said with a laugh. “If I re­place them, I’ll prob­a­bly drill them into the walls so peo­ple can see them and rem­i­nisce.”

Kate’s dates back to 1880, when the cur­rent three-story build­ing was built as a pub­lic meet­ing space and post of­fice with the city’s jail in the base­ment — the cells still re­main in the cel­lar. Through the years, it has hosted a pool hall, court­room, bar­ber­shop, a skat­ing rink and movie the­ater, be­fore be­com­ing the restau­rant and bar it is to­day.

Its name de­rives from “Klondike” Kate Rock­well, a vi­va­cious dancer who moved to the Yukon dur­ing the gold rush and earned the nick­name “Klondike Kate, Queen of the Yukon.” She later opened a bar and was well­known for her gen­eros­ity.

The busi­ness’ more than two cen­tury his­tory made him a lit­tle ner­vous, but Mar­tus­celli said he’s pre­pared to see it live on much longer.

“Kate’s is iconic,” he said. “When you think of Ne­wark, there’s two or three places you think of that have with­stood the test of time, and Kate’s is one of them.”

“I just want to clean up Kate’s a lit­tle bit,” he said. “It needs some ten­der lov­ing care.”

CE­CIL WHIG PHOTO BY JOSH SHAN­NON

Mar­tus­celli Restau­rant Group re­cently pur­chased the iconic Klondike Kate’s restau­rant, lo­cated on Ne­wark’s Main Street.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF MAR­TUS­CELLI RESTAU­RANT GROUP

Gian­marco Mar­tus­celli, owner of the Ch­e­sa­peake Inn restau­rant, an­nounced his fam­ily’s pur­chase of Klondike Kate’s restau­rant, in Ne­wark, Del., this week.

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