Thirty years after she left Cranbury where she grew up, Karen Finigan returned as an entrepreneur. She and her husband, Bob, are co-owners of , located in a historic Victorian home on Main Street.
Since opening in 2008, the restaurant has become a favorite of diners and critics alike, landing glowing reviews in the media, including the New York Times.
The Finigans both experienced success in the Fortune 500 world, but in 2000, they decided it was time for a grand adventure. They moved to Ireland and ended up living there for seven years. Bob continued working in the computer world, but an inner voice urged him to try something different. And that’s when he enrolled in culinary school. After about a year, he realized that bread baking most interested him, so he spent another year and half in school perfecting that craft. He also worked in two top restaurants and a large production bakery in Dublin.
Upon their return to the United States, the couple determined that the corporate world was not for them; they wanted to open a restaurant.
“We were looking at a lot of options, including Ireland, but everything was screamingly expensive,” said Karen Finigan. “So that’s when we thought maybe it would be good to go to a place where we have a natural base instead of just blowing in, which is how we had spent a lot of our years. And then I said, ‘what would you think about Cranbury?'"
She explained that she had fond memories of Cranbury as an interesting small town.
“I attended Cranbury School and lived on Main Street at a time when everyone walked to school,” she said. “I returned to find that nothing had changed and at the same time, many things had changed. For example, Cranbury School is still a great school, but as a non-parent, I find it interesting that this town has become a destination place to live because of the school.”
She recalls growing up skating on the pond in town. “Kids still do that though not as often because of global warning,” she said. “Back then everything was so close and right there. I knew a girl in my classes and her grandfather was the chief of the fire department volunteers and it was his job to figure out if the ice was safe enough to skate.”
After determining that Cranbury was the right town for their new enterprise, their next challenge was finding the right building.
“Something that would suit us was more difficult to find than we could have imagined,” said Finigan. “It was Bob in doing the research who found the home we ended up purchasing. It was a residence, but since it was in the village commercial district, we discovered we wouldn’t have to re-zone and get strange permissions; we could do what we wanted. As soon as we walked through, it felt like the right vibe. But you had to have a lot of imagination. Every room was green wall-to-wall everything and yet there was something in the bones of the structure that spoke to us.”
It took months of hard work and diligence to turn the building from a home to a working restaurant with a bakery on the premises.
“We wanted to maintain the integrity of the building. We didn’t change the make up of the rooms, so we put an addition on the back of the house. The house was built in 1850. The first owner was a woman which was unusual for that time,” she said.
The Finigans have thoroughly embraced the Cranbury lifestyle; with their business on Main Street, they also now live on Main Street, a source of joy to their three dogs, English cocker spaniels, who get to see both of their human parents much more often.
The couple operates on different time schedules which provides a boost to their 20-year marriage. “Bob is in very early in the morning and done by two. I am there for opening, and for lunch and for dinner. We work together but we are not in each other’s face so that makes a difference,” Karen Finigan said.
She also credits her husband as being “the absolute head guy” in the operation, and said that his degree from Cornell University in physics and engineering comes in handy when it comes to baking bread.
“There’s a thing about baking bread,” she said. “It’s an art and yet there is a huge amount of science. It involves measuring and accounting for the humidity and dryness in the air. Every day Bob will look at the baguettes and if they look a little different, he will try to figure out why.”
She says one of the other great joys of living and working in a small town is getting to know people.
“We have lovely clientele and we’ve seen them when they are just married, and then they have a baby and then we watch that baby grow up. It’s also nice to have people come to us regularly.”
Last summer, the Finigans faced a challenge that threatened to force them to close their business. Hurricane Irene shut down their restaurant for seven weeks because of flooding and damage. Karen Finigan praises other small businesses in the community for rallying behind them
“Hopewell Valley Community Bank was instrumental in helping us find a way to reopen,” she said. “So were SG Heating and Air Conditioning in Hightstown and Jim Lentini, an electrician in Cranbury. Every one of them did the work as quickly as they could with the most reduced rates to help us. I never felt more like there was a community around the small business and we are so grateful.”
The Finigans do their part to share the wealth with other local businesses, especially the farmers.
“We get local spinach. We buy broccoli nearby. It becomes a very community thing in a small town vein, neighbor helping neighbor and that’s amazing to me. It’s been a great adventure,” she said.