This article was originally published in the April 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
State House Row in Trenton, aka West State Street, is home to most of the lobbying firms that hope to make a living in New Jersey, and home also to headquarters of statewide nonprofit organizations, in addition to the governor and those who help him.
But until recently there were few if any decent places to go for lunch or a real cup of coffee.
Sure, there’s the State House cafeteria, convenient for those working under that golden dome. But what if you wanted to get out once in a while? You could hike toward the center of town, which promises varied delights of varied quality. A few other places have opened recently, expanding the choices for those usually seen with ID badges around their necks.
In 2016, however, 128 West State Cafe opened across the street from the State House amid other familiar landmarks. The New Jersey Business and Industry Association, Thomas Edison State University, and New Jersey’s World War II memorial are neighbors. From the outside, 128 West State resembles any number of cozy street-level urban oases. There is a small sign on the sidewalk that directs customers down a set of two or three steps. Inside the door, there are comforting aromas, mostly of coffee. A low-level hubbub hovers above the tables. Eavesdrop for a moment or two and various buzzwords emerge: “independent voter,” “health care,” “Cory Booker,” “economic recovery.”
Inside everything is mostly white tile with a somewhat retro vibe. 128 West State is owned by Princeton Public Affairs Group, perennially at the top of the pyramid on West State Street as the top-earning contract lobbying firm in Trenton. PPAG has been in business for 30 years. The cafe is owned by a group of individuals under the PPAG umbrella. Among them is PPAG partner Dale Florio, 61. Florio is the former chair of the Somerset County Republican Party. He and his wife, Leslie, have three children. His mother worked as a nurse and his father worked for RCA in Bridgewater.
“There are a bunch of people at PPAG, but there are also a lot of outside investors,” Florio says of the restaurant’s ownership. The site housed a copy center business at one time before PPAG bought it.
“We’ve had other people rent the building from us over the years. It was a retail space that didn’t really lend itself to other offices. So it was vacant for 12 years. From the beginning we thought it would be perfect for a coffee shop because there really is no other place to go. So finally we said, ‘We’re not getting any younger.’”
128 West State, like so much in Trenton, caters to the State House and its schedule.
“There’s not much happening in Trenton on weekends, so we are there for the business crowd,” Florio says. “We’ve set our sights low. Our goal is to serve the West State Street crowd. If we can do it with good service, good healthy food, have it be a meeting place, and not lose money, I think it will be successful.”
‘We have learned that politicians and state workers are like any other consumer — they like good food and convenience.’
The idea for the cafe became an investment opportunity for PPAG staff. Buy-in ranged from $10,000 to $25,000, Florio says.
“Everybody at the firm talks about it and encourages clients to use it. I think even the people who aren’t financially involved see it as something they want to succeed. Everyone approached it as a fun thing to do. It’s something folks just wanted to have some fun with,” Florio says. “I think as we quickly learned, we were starting with a shell of a space down there. New pipes, new equipment, insurance, security, it isn’t cheap. It’s amazing how it all adds up.
“In many respects, part of public affairs work is hospitality. We put on events at the office. Everyone who is involved understands the importance of hospitality. It’s not too far afield. From a presentation standpoint, I wouldn’t say we’re a fish out of water.
“We’ve had members of the legislature, the lieutenant governor has stopped by several times, the mayor came to our opening,” Florio says. “We’re not on a highway somewhere where you have a lot of people that you’ll never see again.”
Chef duties at 128 West State are handled by Charlie Yeh, who owns Sumo Sushi in Pennington with his wife, Sharon.
“They obviously were the restaurateurs who really shaped this thing,” Florio says. “We talked to him about our concept, what we wanted to do. I give Charlie and Sharon a lot of credit of taking our ideas. He brought it to life.”
The menu covers breakfast and lunch. Florio says he is partial to the steel-cut oatmeal and to the cafe’s soups. There are coffee and tea drinks for every taste. The coffee comes from Small World Coffee, the long-time Princeton shop on Witherspoon Street. Catering is the lucrative part for ambitious eateries these days and 128 West offers breakfast and lunch trays to fuel all the power meetings along State House Row.
Charlie Yeh brings his sushi artistry to 128 West State and to Trenton Social on South Broad Street. He says that he and Trenton Social owner T.C. Nelson are planning to open a sushi restaurant around the corner from 128 West State on Willow Street. Nelson serves the highest praise on Yeh’s sushi and says Yeh once created a teriyaki pork roll delicacy for one of Nelson’s fabled annual pork roll festivals.
“He does more with sushi than any two guys can do,” Nelson says. Thursdays are sushi days at the cafe, which employs all the usual social media and posts information on special events.
The cafe is attracting attention beyond West State Street. Politifax, the Hoboken-based observer of all that is legislative and executive in Trenton going back to the time when fax machines were still widely used, recently awarded 128 West State a “Best New Restaurant in Trenton” award.
So far, Florio says, “We have learned that politicians and state workers are like any other consumer — they like good food and convenience. Like any business, it takes time to ramp up. Our focus is on providing good food at a reasonable price. Plus our catering business is growing. Everything is pointing in the right direction.”
128 West State Street Cafe is open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. (609) 392-2233 or cafe128.com.
The cafe is also a one-day stop in the annual Trenton Restaurant Taste Trenton Restaurant Crawl, running Friday, April 21, through Sunday, April 23. See sidebar for more information.