On March 11, 2012, the Sunday Business section of the Star-Ledger published an ad announcing a "Business Opportunity" at "Eagle Rock Reservation." It read:
"The County of Essex is seeking a fine dining restaurant operator for the Eagle Rock Restaurant, located in the Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange, NJ[.] A Request for Information (RFI) has been issued to find an operator interested in developing and operating a fine dining restaurant."
The rumor mill went swirling! The most important question proffered was: is Highlawn Pavilion, the renown fine dining and banquet establishment, closing? The Knowles Family, owners of Highlawn Pavilion, responded to the buzz on the Highlawn Pavilion website:
In 1984, Harry Knowles became the first private businessman to partner with Essex County when he signed the 30-year lease for the opportunity to fully restore and operate the "casino" at Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange.
Since then, Highlawn Pavilion has gone on to win numerous awards under the Knowles direction including "4 Stars" from The Star-Ledger, an "Excellent" from The New York Times, "Most Romantic" and "Best Restaurant" from Suburban Essex Magazine and "Best Chef" from Montclair Magazine.
Under the current lease agreement, the Knowles will operate the facility through October 2014. Catering opportunities beyond October 2014 will depend on a lease renewal since the property is owned by Essex County.
But most importantly, Highlawn Pavilion will remain open for business as usual through 2014 and we have every intention of working with the County to continue operating over the longer term.
Accolades aside, there are few properties in New Jersey, let alone Essex County, as impressive as Highlawn Pavilion, and few locations as stunning as Eagle Rock Reservation. Day or night, the views of the New York City skyline are unsurpassed. In addition to aesthetics, many have developed an emotional attachment to Highlawn. Highlawn is that special place, with flawless service and cuisine to match. In short, its reputation proceeds itself.
Following Essex County's Request For Information, independent restaurateurs and large restaurant groups alike, from NJ and beyond, submitted their information. Many names, some big, and some even bigger, were being thrown about, in addition to a rumor that another restaurant operator had already, somehow, secured the Eagle Rock Reservation contract.
I sat down with for lunch with Kurt Knowles Jr. to find out if these rumors were true. Kurt, though remarkably humble, exhibits a deep pride and respect for the work his family has poured into the historical Eagle Rock property.
Before Harry Knowles acquired a thirty-year lease to the dilapidated and heavily graffitied Casino from Essex County in 1985, Thomas Edison spent many years at Eagle Rock Reservation for work and pleasure. In 1903, the reservation was used to film part of The Great Train Robbery, and in 1914 Edison's daughter celebrated her marriage with a reception at the arched, open masonry structure atop the reservation, known as The Casino, which resides half in Montclair and half in West Orange. The name, Casino, was adopted from the old Italian word casino, meaning country villa, summerhouse, pavilion, or gathering place.
The Knowles', through dedication and investment both personal and financial, and with an unwavering eye toward preservation and adherence to county regulations, restored the Casino to its former grandeur. This was no small feat and included massive structural projects: blasting for solid foundation, reinforcing it with new steel, bringing in telephone lines, and well-water from one of the largest aquifers in New Jersey. It is this well water which still services the public restrooms on the reservation today.
Government is a business. The amount of the bid is essential criteria for Essex County to consider when evaluating the Eagle Rock contract. Kurt urges the decision makers "to consider the sustainability of the business over the term of the lease.”
Local business sustainability focuses specifically upon the local sourcing of business and goods, as well as the employment of local residents. During the Knowles’ tenure at Eagle Rock, they have been dedicated to employing local Essex County residents, and currently employ over 80 local residents. Highlawn Pavilion buys through local distributors, and engages with many northern NJ businesses.
Inevitably, concern regarding local business sustainability leads to the question of whether an out-of -state entity would retain local employees or bring in a team of already trained employees? Would they source from the same local vendors? Would they be able to reconcile the difference between NY volume and NJ volume? Would they sustain? The Knowles' have.
According to Kurt Jr., “The Knowles family has every desire to continue to run Highlawn pavilion for as long as the County permits us to, if that’s for 32 more years or 2 years, we will soon find out.”