Planet Princeton

Princeton University Seeking New Operator for Eateries at Old Dinky Station

The old dinky station is slated to become a restaurant and cafe, but who will run the eateries now that the deal is off with the Terra Momo Group?
The old dinky station is slated to become a restaurant and cafe, but who will run the eateries now that the deal is off with the Terra Momo Group?

Princeton University and the Terra Momo Group have agreed to discontinue discussions regarding a lease to operate the restaurant and café that will be developed at the historic  former Dinky Station as part of the school’s $320 million arts and transit neighborhood.

“The renovation and expansion of the existing former train station buildings will continue and the University has begun a process to identify another operator for the restaurant and café,” Princeton University Spokesman Martin Mbugua said. “The University also has entered into a contract to purchase a liquor license that is intended to be used at the café and restaurant.”

The university is in negotiations to purchase a liquor license from restauranteur Jack Morrison, sources have confirmed. Morrison has a license that is not currently in use. He paid about $1 million for the license after the Princeton Sports Bar (formerly The Annex) closed a few years ago.

The Terra Momo Group was selected  to run the cafe and restaurant at the former Dinky station in 2013. It is not clear why the Momo Group and the University have parted ways on the project.

In June of last year, Planet Princeton won a lawsuit against the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control regarding public records related to a potential liquor license for the eateries. Planet Princeton received the records as a result of the lawsuit, as well as attorney fees.

Each town in the state is allotted a set number of liquor licenses based on the municipality’s population. In Princeton, all of the regular liquor licenses are taken. The Terra Momo Group, which operates Teresa Caffe, Mediterra, Eno Terra and the Terra Momo Bread Company, was hoping alcohol could be served at the new eateries by obtaining a special concessionaire’s permit that costs $2,000 a year and is usually limited to concession stands on state property. The state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control would need to approve such a permit. Another possibility that was also suggested was that the project receive a smart growth project designation to obtain a special liquor license.

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, whose husband is a professor at Princeton University, wrote a letter to the commissioner of Alcoholic Beverage Control in September of 2013 in support of awarding the special permit to the Terra Momo Restaurant Group. Planet Princeton received a copy of the letter through the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Lempert told The Daily Princetonian that she did not see any reason not to intervene, because the University did not ask her to write a letter on behalf of the business, and therefore there was no conflict of interest.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • If there is enough space, I’d love to see something French, along the lines of Sophie’s Bistro in Somerset. Not too fancy, but definitely needs a liquor license down there. A girl can dream…

  • HonestGovernment

    If the Mayor states that she would support all such requests, that is one thing. But to date, she hasn’t made that promise. In this case, she made a special request on behalf of an application that would benefit her husband’s employer.

    If nothing else, this has the appearance of a conflict of interest, and the mayor should have recused herself to ensure people’s faith in government.

  • Student on a budget

    Be great to have a restaurant that students and regular people can afford!

  • Cindy Steinberg Carlin

    Actually, while I enjoy the Momo restaurants, in a small town such as Princeton with a limited (though finally expanding) restaurant scene, I would rather someone new was given a chance. We need more diversity! And, by the way, have really been enjoying Planet Princeton, Krystal.

  • SFB

    Any other Princeton restaurant that wanted to apply for a concessionaires license would also expect and get the support of this Mayor, or any other Mayor. It’s a Mayor’s job to help petition for local businesses with state bureaucracy. As conspiracies go, this is a particularly trivial one, even by Princeton standards.

  • Special Interests

    The mayor was not “standing up for Princeton restauranteurs and diners” generally. Her letter advocated no action or change to the laws for the benefit of any or all Princeton businesses. The mayor did not take action to change the liquor laws as they apply to everyone. I don’t recall that she’s ever taken any steps to change those laws. The mayor in this case sent a specific endorsement for one individual University-selected business supporting its petition for a special “loop hole” circumvention of the law, which would effectively give that University-selected business a special advantage in the face of those laws.. The mayors letter of endorsement was not announced or published until the open records action forced it to light. The case before the state was an individual petition for a status that would apply specifically and only to Momos. I love the Momo’s restaurants but using the office of the mayor to endorse one specific business’ s petition to the state is not equal to looking out for local interests generally. She certainly was not “looking out” for the interests of other Princeton long time business who have played by the rules and she wasn’t generally looking out to change the “outdated” rules for other businesses.

  • SFB

    If I choose to buy a glass of wine, or a beer, with my dinner, then I don’t want to have to be contributing to an absurd $1 million fee for a license which is kept in arbitrarily short supply by a government agency for no reasonable purpose. It’s embarrassing that people are so keen to bad-mouth the Mayor for standing up for Princeton restaurateurs and diners. It’s her job to look out for local interests in these cases, in the face of arbitrary state legislation which is a holdover from the days of Prohibition.

  • Miss the Annex

    I personally am fine with the liquor licensing laws in Princeton, we’ve had some healthy growth in the dining options here over the past decade and there are plenty of places to have a meal and drink and even more places to bring your own bev, which I think contributes to a nice culture in our town.

    However, if you happen to dislike the liquor laws or think they are unfair or outdated in some way, the solution (in a democratic society) is NOT to have the mayor of the town, acting and writing as mayor, personally endorse the University-selected vendor in a special legal action requesting a special exception to the laws, giving unfair advantage to Momo & Co above all other (including long time) Princeton businesses who paid a lot for their licenses. Further, in making the statement of support and endorsement for the Momos’ petition, the mayor seems to have acted without any investigation or consideration of the position of her constituents generally in doing so, and it took an open records action to bring this to the light of day. Kudos to PP for bringing us the real story. Whatever you think of the liquor laws, there should be a level playing field, and in fairness to the Princeton businesses that have played by the rules, the U-selected vendor should not be entitled to a special endorsement by our mayor in a state proceeding to circumvent the laws. .

  • SFB

    That’s a shame. I was looking forward to eating at another great Momo restaurant in the historic buildings. I wouldn’t be so sure that the liquor license had anything to do with it. There are a lot of good new and new-ish restaurants in Princeton now. In addition to the Momos, you’ve got North End Bistro, Blue Point, Despana and Mistral/new Elements. When Nomad opens at the Shopping Center, that is likely to be the go-to spot for pizza. The new restaurants probably didn’t pencil. The absurd, arbitrary and outdated liquor licensing laws don’t help of course.

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