Food Network host Aaron McCargo to open restaurant in Camden

Chef Aaron McCargo owned a restaurant in downtown Camden a decade ago. But he closed his eatery well before winning the 2008 season of “The Next Food Network Star” and hosting “Big Daddy’s House” on the same network.

So when the Camden native opens McCargo’s Bistro between the city’s downtown and waterfront districts late this fall, he will do so as the first so-called “celebrity chef” to establish a business in the nation’s most beleaguered city. But behind the hoopla, the question remains: is McCargo’s star power enough to sustain an enterprise on a relatively barren stretch of blocks that boast visible potential but few long-term success stories?

McCargo’s will initially open on weekdays between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. to serve high-quality, house-made gastro-pub fare for lunch and hand-crafted cocktails, draught beer and wine for happy hour, answers an emphatic yes.

“It will be the brand – my name,” that will lure customers from outside the city, he said. “And given the location (between Third and Market streets), I’ll be able to capitalize on all the city’s growth.”Indeed, there isn’t much downtown beyond a few pizza, sandwiches and wraps shops to feed its burgeoning number of workers and students, while a few blocks in McCargo’s other direction roam the 2.5 million annual waterfront visitors who lack where to eat – save delis and the limping Victor Pub — after visiting the Adventure Aquarium, Susquehanna Bank Center and other attractions.

McCargo, who will employ office, kitchen and dining room workers from his Play to Win non-profit group and others in the city, feels strongly that the people of Camden will be excited to try the gourmet ingredients and food-sharing ethos that Philadelphia diners have come to take for granted.”This is not your run-of-the-mill pizza palace. We’re looking to step it up. We’re going to introduce things people aren’t used to,” he said.

McCargo wants to be a catalyst

Eventually, McCargo hopes to make use of the second floor and build out the whole – mostly vacant – block with food destinations: a fresh deli, a barbeque joint, a breakfast nook … the list goes on. But first he needs to receive expected approval on a $100,000 Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ) grant from city council next week and sign on some additional funders. Then he needs to turn a profit in a property that’s seen two full-service restaurants close in the past eight years, with a much anticipated Nathan’s opening and swiftly closing its doors next door.

If McCargo’s Bistro succeeds, it can be a harbinger of better things to come. The chef says he wants it to give Camden youth a more positive attitude toward the types of opportunities the city can offer.David Foster, president of the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, an organization that works with the UEZ to bring businesses like McCargo’s to the city, hopes it will inspire other would-be entrepreneurs to consider Camden.

Currently, Cooper’s Ferry is working to lease its own 5200-square-foot restaurant space in a not-yet-constructed office building next to the aquarium. Foster says he’s had conversations with South Jersey and Philadelphia restaurateurs to bring a family-oriented lunch spot with outdoor seating to the waterfront. Because of its family focus, geographic separation, and likely lack of liquor license, Foster doesn’t think it would siphon diners away from McCargo’s. “It’s not competitive at all. If we can have a superstar like Aaron, that’s the best advertising we could possibly have,” Foster said.

Like McCargo’s, the restaurant’s operator would qualify for a city grant — $500,000 in this case – along with a state pay-back program that returns a gradually decreasing amount of money to restaurant owners every year for six years, with the amount determined by the square footage.

Wanted: Star chef for the waterfront 

But such incentives haven’t helped put a full-service restaurant into the first-floor space in the six year-old Ferry Terminal Building, which sits between the river and the future site of the Cooper’s Ferry building. Since its construction, property owners have tried to lure high-end local chefs to the space by enticing them with waterfront skyline views and ample parking for patrons of what they envision as a fine-dining room. Though many chefs and restaurant operators have toured the facility, none have gone much further.

James Reilly, a Camden real estate broker who brought most of the interested parties to the ferry building, says the space proved tough to lease because retailers and restaurateurs tend to avoid areas that lack an already existing critical mass of commercial activity.

“They don’t need to try to find where the next great spot is going to be,” he said. “They want to find the great spot now.” And that may be McCargo’s most powerful reason to brave the boarded-up blocks of his hometown. Because of his likeability and local credibility, Reilly calls him the “ideal character” to provide the turning point Camden so desperately needs.

As McCargo himself proclaims, “My dream and my goal is to build ten restaurants in Camden. I want that to be my legacy; that I was a pioneer who went out on limb and did this.”

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