A taste of the Big Easy

Mélange Café creates a stir on the dining scene

The name of Joe Brown’s restaurant, Mélange Café, captures not only the nature of its cuisine, but Brown’s reason for starting the business. The intimate and elegant Cherry Hill, New Jersey, café offers a mixture of Louisiana cooking and new American cuisine with an Italian influence. When Brown, 38, started Mélange Café in 1995, he was one of just a handful of African American restaurateurs in the area and he didn’t want his restaurant to be stereotyped as another soul food place. Rather, he wanted it to be seen as an eatery that would attract a diverse clientele.

Today, the restaurant has revenues of $600,000 and a staff of 12. Despite his success, Brown has encountered his share of challenges.

“Maintaining a steady employee base is a big challenge because I am trying to maintain consistency in quality,” says Brown. “It’s difficult to improve the level of quality with high turnover.”

Additionally, as chef-owner, Brown typically endures 12- to 16-hour days and must oversee many aspects of the business on a daily basis.

“I’m a hands-on chef-owner,” says Brown. “I’ve been doing more marketing and public relations to promote the restaurant, such as performing cooking demonstrations, teaching classes, writing a cookbook and appearing on TV, which take away from the hands-on aspect of owning the restaurant and cooking. The hours are long, but it’s still gratifying. Anyone who comes into this business expecting glitz and glamour is fooling themselves.”

Indeed, cooking is Brown’s passion. He first learned to cook while growing up in Willingboro, New Jersey, where he got to watch his mother. After graduating from high school, he got a summer job as a dishwasher, which was his first introduction to the restaurant business. Eventually, he became the first African American chef at that restaurant, and went on to receive formal training at the Restaurant School of Philadelphia. Upon graduation and the completion of several apprenticeships, Brown made plans to start his own restaurant after, he says, he “hit the glass ceiling” at other restaurants. With $50,000 in savings and loans, Brown realized his goal.

In addition to his current public relations efforts, Brown wants to increase his name recognition and the restaurant’s visibility on a national level. When he completes work on his cookbook, he will go on a national tour next year.

“Because I’ve been in this business over 20 years, I’ve seen a lot happen,” says Brown. “I know my business inside and out, and I depend on myself first to survive and get through the toughest times. This is important in building a business. My determination and focus have made me successful.”

Mélange Café, 1601 Chapel Ave., Cherry Hill, NJ 08002; 856-663-7339.

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