An Authentic Cafe

Every remodeler, at some point, runs into a project and a client they really enjoy. For Michael Kaiser, GMB, CGR, of Kaiser Building Co., Cranberry Township, N.J., the client is a well-connected and successful businessman, Jerry Reilly, and the project was to build a retail location to sell ice cream pastries and coffee.

Reilly, says Kaiser, is one of those rare guys with a unique vision whose track record encourages others to follow in directions they otherwise might question. Before commissioning Kaiser and his team to build his third retail establishment, each focused around the theme of dairy, coffee and pastries, Reilly had built a mini farm, complete with silo in the heart of Trenton, N.J. This became Halo Farm and is where Reilly began bottling locally raised milk as well as drinks and ice cream. The silo element of the building is, in fact, a storage tank for milk.

The second project was to build, a high-end, soft-serve ice cream parlor in the style of an English pub. Naturally it was called Halo Pub. The English pub is the real deal, but instead of serving heavy English ales and beer on tap, the fare is “ice cream on draught.” Patrons of Halo Pub sidle up to a new bar that was aged to look as if it had been there for 150 years. The authentic look, in part, was accomplished by painstakingly covering it in layer after layer of varnish and paint. A fair measure of ingenuity was involved as well. The front of the bar was constructed in large part of a several old, five-panel doors that had be salvaged, stripped and mounted on their sides before being trimmed out with detailed trim work. The doors, mounted on their sides, look so much like paneling that a double-take is required to verify that what you are seeing is a door.

Kaiser had worked with Reilly on each of these projects and had found Reilly’s drive for authenticity in each of the themes that he picked a real positive.

“Reilly is an interesting businessman,” says Kaiser. “He is into small volume but high quality. It is amazing that for someone doing small volume and high quality, the price is really low. That is one of the remarkable things. You could go in and get a cup of coffee for a buck. In Princeton, Starbucks is $3. He brags about his stuff too. He’ll say, ‘I use real beans. I know what Starbucks does to theirs. Mine is better.’ ”

Not too long after Halo Pub had established itself as a fixture in the heart of Princeton, did the space next door become available. It had been a Cingular Wireless store and Reilly quickly secured a lease with plans to build Halo Fete, an authentic French café for ice cream pastries.

Design and Project Challenges

Like virtually all the retail and light commercial spaces that remodelers encounter, the 770-sq.- ft. space for Halo Fete had been gutted. All traces of the Cingular phone store had been stripped out. For all intents and purposes, very little demo was required by Kaiser. The place was an empty shell, with a high ceiling for running wires, lighting and other mechanicals.

The lead designer on the project was not Kaiser, who has an architecture degree from Penn State. Instead it was Jerry Reilly’s daughter, Kathleen Arnold, who had done the initial sketches and floor plan. There were egg-and-dart themed drawings for the cabinets that would house the freezers disguised as pastry cases. The countertops, back bars and sideboards were specified with polished Italian Carrera marble. And, importantly, a truckload of tiny, white Carrera tiles were shipped in as the primary flooring material. These were to be arrayed in a fanlike pattern that is very typical in Europe, but seldom seen in the United States.

Jerry Reilly chipped in with ideas of his own. For one, he had sourced a number of rough-hewn beams from a demolished barn in Lancaster, Pa. He wanted these very heavy timbers to be used in a dropped ceiling, above which lights and mechanicals would run. Kaiser agrees that adding the beams was absolutely the right touch to evoke an authentic café theme, but that did not make the job of hanging those beams any easier.

“I think the biggest challenge was that he wanted to have these hand-hewn beams on the ceiling and the space was a big concrete shell,” says Kaiser. “It was fire rated with sprinkler heads in it.

“So here we have concrete ceilings and concrete walls. We have to get all of our duct work in, wire and stuff like that. And it all needed to be accessible. We needed to come up with a way to build that whole ceiling out and make it look like the ceiling of a French café and not a typical commercial space with dropped ceiling tile,” adds Kaiser. “The dropped ceiling tiles would have been perfect for the purpose, but the look would have been horrible. The biggest problem was probably how to get all of the mechanical items disguised and concealed. That was tough.”

After consulting a structural engineer, the solution was to anchor a series of threaded rods from the concrete ceiling and drill holes through the beams and bolt them on the other end. Plugs made of remnant pieces of the beams were glued into place to cover the bolts.

Key Trade Contractors

A novice could walk into Halo Fete and know that the tile guy and the cabinetmaker were key to making the project work so successfully from a design standpoint. Kaiser said his tile contractor is a Greek national who has lived in the United States for many years. He was trained in Europe and therefore knew exactly the look that Kaiser and Kathleen Arnold were trying to achieve for the floor.

“One guy did all of it,” says Kaiser of the tile floor. “He works for us pretty exclusively. He is a subcontractor, but he has been doing a lot of our work. I know a number of tile people, but when you look at this job from every angle, it is done to perfection. When you enter this space, you notice the tile. It looks like feathers on a duck. It is perfectly laid out.”

Taking a cue from Halo Pub next door, the cabinetmaker built cases for the freezers that had panels on it similar to the five-panel doors laid on their side. Because the spacing was tighter, doors could not be used. So, instead the cabinetmaker built them from scratch. He also executed the egg-and-dart theme, specified by Arnold, very successfully.

A novice, however, would not notice the work of another key subcontractor on the job, a faux finisher. According to Kaiser, golden glazes and other touches really enhanced the overall authenticity of the project.

“Reilly brought in a faux finisher to put glazing on a lot of the cabinetry, the dentals, column caps and items like that,” Kaiser explains. “They used a gold glaze. And for the walls, they did this Venetian plaster work that really looks pretty sharp as well.”

There was only one slight hiccup in the project. The HVAC trade did not factor in the enormous amount of heat that the freezer cases threw off. When they were switched on originally, the room heated up very quickly. It was a situation that needed to be rectified before the store could open, not only for the comfort of patrons, but because the pastries would melt soon after they were served.

In the end, the $139,000 project was a great one from the perspective of Kaiser. Rather than put up tough obstacles, the client was in there with real solutions that worked with his vision. And he was a great person to work with says Kaiser.
“Not only is Reilly an interesting guy, our crew really enjoys working for him.”