Tex-Mex Mover

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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 2, 2000. All rights

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Women in Business: Jenna Kleinman

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Tex-Mex Mover

At the age of eight, Jenna Kleinman knew she wanted

to own a restaurant. Now, at 25, she owns two — the Santa Fe

Express

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

stand-up

Tex-Mex joint in downtown Princeton or a margarita at the bar in the

rustic Rocky Hill Inn. Young, gregarious, plucky, and energetic,

Kleinman

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

wife?’"

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

think

if you love what you do it shows," she says. "This really

feels like you’re part of the town, making

a difference."

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,

Kleinman

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

restaurant,

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

grandmother

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

relationships

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

admits)

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

go

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

needed.

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

dream.

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

24-year-old

Diane Del Giorno, who had previously worked at Forsgate. "I want

to give someone an opportunity to make a name for themselves,"

says Kleinman.

"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

management

skills kick in." Otherwise, she prefers to lead by example. "I

wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do," she says.

"I

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

little

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

Santa Fe Grille at the Rocky Hill Inn, 137

Washington

Street, Box 267, Rocky Hill 08553. Jenna Kleinman, owner.

609-683-8930;

fax, 609-683-8931.

Santa Fe Express, 236 Nassau Street, Princeton

08540. Jenna Kleinman, owner. 609-683-0809; fax, 609-683-0802.


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