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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 2, 2000. All rights
Women in Business: Jenna Kleinman
At the age of eight, Jenna Kleinman knew she wanted
to own a restaurant. Now, at 25, she owns two — the Santa Fe
at 236 Nassau Street, and the Santa Fe Grille at the Rocky Hill Inn
at 137 Washington Street.
This would be a considerable accomplishment for any young woman, but
it’s not even Kleinman’s first calling. She spent the first few years
out of college working in public relations for AT&T and Lucent —
a far stretch from cleaning out grease traps at a tiny Tex-Mex joint
on Nassau Street.
Now Kleinman might be the person who serves your burrito at the
Tex-Mex joint in downtown Princeton or a margarita at the bar in the
rustic Rocky Hill Inn. Young, gregarious, plucky, and energetic,
is hard to miss, and PR is still her forte. "I love the people
who come in," she says. "I like the communication aspects
— saying `Hi Marty, how are you doing today, how is your
Although she inherited business sense from her family, (her dad works
for Lucent, her grandmother was a scientist at Rutgers), the social
aspect of business drew Kleinman to the restaurant business. "I
if you love what you do it shows," she says. "This really
feels like you’re part of the town, making
Even before Kleinman took over, the little Mexican restaurant on
Nassau Street had cornered the
market on Mexican in the food-to-go businesses along Nassau Street.
When the original owners of Santa Fe defaulted
on their rent, Kleinman decided it was her turn. Rather than make
a clean break and distance herself from the previous restaurant,
decided not to waste a valuable resource — clientele. "They
had a good reputation for good food, but not for good service,"
she says, "but I believe that, from a marketing perspective, there
are people who had gone there and liked it, and they knew the name,
and I thought it was easier to bring people back and keep them coming
with new things." She resurrected the business as a Tex-Mex
altering the name and menu almost imperceptibly.
That same logic propelled Kleinman in her purchase of the Rocky
Hill Inn. Some might say that venture was even
riskier: three restaurants had cratered at the same
location. Again Kleinman puts faith in the returning customer. To me
the traffic and the space is wonderful," she says. "I wanted a
building with history
— I love it when people tell me that their grandmother or
used to come here. If you start something from scratch, it’s hard to
communicate your great
new restaurant idea to someone," she says.
"Also, people drive
by these locations all the time and for Express, as well as the new
place, people know the name, the building, and they’ve had a birthday
party or wedding there, or it was their favorite college restaurant.
I actually decided to take a place that had a negative connotation
and build on that. I thought it would be a greater challenge to do
a take off on that and try to get people back in."
A deference to the past and a desire to build off of existing
in the community sets Kleinman apart from the typical trailblazing,
cocky young entrepreneur. Kleinman is humble ("For every 50 ideas
I have, either none work, or maybe a half of one works," she
and frugal — she doesn’t waste resources. One of her most valued
resources is her own family, to whom she pays a visit each day in
South Brunswick, in spite of working 18 hours a day. Her mother, Susan
Kleinman, teaches computers at a middle school, and
her sister, Michele, also teaches. Her father, Jonathan
Kleinman, works for Lucent, and has been instrumental in helping
Kleinman run her business. "My father’s an amazing
businessman," says Kleinman. "We don’t dive into something, we
figure out how to make it work."
Kleinman’s parents even offered to help her start a restaurant
instead of going to college — even though everyone in her family
had gone to college. "I thought that was the silliest thing I
ever heard," she recalls, "and that showed me that they were
really amazing people."
As it happened, Kleinman opted to put the restaurant idea on hold and
to West Virginia University, where she earned a BA in communications,
Class of 1996. Afterwards, she put on a suit and went to work in the
public relations division of AT&T Capital, where she was a community
liaison for big events like the United Way carnival. While she was
able to travel and
do public speaking, the corporate jobs didn’t give her the sense of
community — the sense of accomplishment — that she felt she
At the time, Kleinman’s parents still owned a piece of property on
Nassau Street. One of the tenants was Santa Fe, which had just closed.
It was a perfect opportunity for Kleinman to return to her original
Drawing on the business acumen of her father, Kleinman launched Santa
Fe Express — moving from Mexican to Tex-Mex and slipping in a
few items for Princeton’s more health-conscious clientele. Then, in
October, after shopping around for an old building with charm in which
to start a sit-down grill, Kleinman honed in on the Rocky Hill Inn
and launched the Santa Fe Grille. She chose as executive chef
Diane Del Giorno, who had previously worked at Forsgate. "I want
to give someone an opportunity to make a name for themselves,"
"I don’t perceive myself as the management," she says. "I
feel I’m a worker. I think if something is affecting the business
or the people around them, I address it — that’s where the
skills kick in." Otherwise, she prefers to lead by example. "I
wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do," she says.
scrub the floors and clean out the grease traps. I don’t say or wear
anything inappropriate. People know I mean business, but I’m friendly.
I tell them that when you’re coming to work everyday you may feel
kind of drab, but it’s a good stepping stone, and at the very least
they can learn about communicating to people," she says.
Meanwhile, Kleinman will open the Grille for lunch in February, and
renovate the upstairs of the old Inn to turn it into an apartment.
She enjoys seeing the many aspects of her business come together
by little. "I like the gratification that you get in restaurant
business," she says. "You can put something into place and
two minutes later see how it works or doesn’t work. That’s kind of
rare. In a lot of businesses you need to work on a lot of things for
a long time before you see the results."
— Melinda Sherwood
Street, Box 267, Rocky Hill 08553. Jenna Kleinman, owner.
08540. Jenna Kleinman, owner. 609-683-0809; fax, 609-683-0802.
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