Here’s a pick-two combo to fit your tastes: Grab a sandwich and coffee and a serving of some real estate, too. A New Jersey brokerage has merged its real estate company with a full-service cafe and coffee house. Just a month after opening, the unlikely real estate–food duo has already resulted in several transactions for the brokerage.
Broker-owner Nelson Chen was looking for the perfect site for the first branch office for his real estate brokerage. He and his team of 28 associates and staff had grown their main office, The Chen Agency in Fort Lee, N.J., for the past 20 years. The brokerage did $50 million in sales last year.
Chen envisioned creating a new hangout spot in Weehawken, N.J., which has become a rapidly developing waterfront town on the Hudson River and commuter spot to Manhattan. Chen wanted the brokerage to not only be a place to cater to real estate needs but also create a connection with the community.
“I didn’t want to just build another real estate office that people rarely visit,” Chen says. “So, the question became: How can we draw in the neighborhood and get people to come in?”
A cafe was the answer.
On any given day, Steven’s Cafe—which is operated from The Chen Agency Port Imperial Real Estate Studio—is a magnet for commuters, apartment and condo residents, and pet walkers passing by. They come in to grab a cup of coffee and sandwich, and many also pass into the brokerage to talk real estate too.
Finding the Perfect Spot
At a time when many brokerages are shrinking their physical footprints, Chen saw an opportunity to grow it.
“We’re getting people walking in our door,” Chen says. “It’s a very old school form of marketing—where we are trying to find a way to get people to visit a physical office again.”
To get the real estate and cafe combo to work, Chen carefully chose the location spot. The Chen Agency’s Port Imperial Real Estate Studio and Steven’s Cafe are next to a transportation hub for commuters, a spot to access buses and light rail, and ferry service to New York City. It also has a growing pipeline of newly built apartments.
Chen also realized the real estate office could fulfill a need, serving as one of the growing neighborhood’s first local cafes—a place for salads, sandwiches, coffee, or a quick treat.
A Focus On Design
For the last two years, Chen worked with designer Vanessa Deleon of Vanessa Deleon Associates in Manhattan to design and remodel a formerly empty street-level corner commercial condo into the cafe–real estate boutique. The industrial design complements the connected real estate and cafe spaces as does the design of the condo building above.
"We wanted the space to reflect the cool urban vibe of Port Imperial [the transit hub] and make a definitive design statement," Chen says.
There are separate entrances for the cafe and the real estate office, yet the spaces are still very connected—a 12-foot window links the office and cafe, as does a doorway to encourage mingling. A covered patio with outdoor seating also connects both spaces.
“It’s very invigorating to work in the new office where you’re somewhat on public display,” Chen says. “Everyone is walking by and you have these huge windows so you’re being seen. There’s people constantly going in and out of the cafe.”
The real estate agency is then a two-level, co-working space that offers flexible workspace for its sales associates to meet with prospects and clients. There are no assigned offices or desks and no lines of cubicles, like you’d find in a traditional office. Chen says the design was to foster a more open office concept, reflecting a trend in office design today.
Customers Come to You
Food is being used as the common denominator to create new customer relationships and get them in the door, Chen says.
“The inside and the patio are filled on the weekends,” Chen says. “We’re creating buzz. From the real estate side, people are starting to walk in and ask about properties.” He says they’ve completed several rental transactions and are also getting listings that have all come to them via cafe traffic. The typical price point for a one-bedroom home in the area is $750,000, $1 million for a two-bedroom.
The cafe has become a draw across generations too, Chen says. He says it’s a millennial commuter hot spot that also attracts the empty nesters who are drawn to the area. There’s also a stream of dog walkers who look for a place to take a break and enjoy one of the cafe’s signature sandwiches, fittingly named after area features (such as The Weehawken, Palisades, Hudson, and Light Rail).
“The cafe side draws the neighborhood in,” he says. “Even if residents aren’t doing real estate for the next two years or so, it draws them into our real estate family, and it allows us to start establishing a long-term relationship with them.”