In 2001 when my father closed Kenneth Hardware and Supply Co.—the business my grandfather began as a glass shop in 1937—he sold the building at 27 Witherspoon street to Paul Shu, a Ph.D. chemist looking in retirement to enter the often vicious Princeton Borough business scene. With the onslaught of Home Depot and Lowes hardware stores, staying solvent in the tenuous and capricious beast of retail became tough for my father, and the hardware store’s future looked glum.
When my father closed his store, townsfolk graciously declared this juncture the end of an era—saying that the mom-and-pop shops no longer had a future in Princeton. Those who waxed dramatic that winter about the cracking of Kenneth’s—the paint of the white and teal store-front sign peeling quite symbolically—were objectively wrong. Princeton still had its Old Guard contingent of independent shops—its Hinkson’s, Hulits’s, Landau’s, Lahiere’s, and of course The Annex.?
But now facing a difficult and increasingly dynamic restaurant market—often dominated by the TerraMomo monster that owns Teresa’s and Mediterra among others—The Annex has been forced to respond actively to the market pressures. Instead of closing, the restaurant will change its gimmick to stay afloat in the competitive restaurant market.?
The former underground hub for University students and old townies—renowned for the reasonably priced beer, the warm oak wainscoting, and the simplicity of the menu—will reinvent itself as Sotto, an Italian restaurant to open March 15. The name, which as Rich Carnavale points out means “low” in Italian, coincides with the underground nature of the restaurant’s location.?
The history of the subterranean Annex dates back to the early 1930s, but the Carnavale family has owned it since 1948, with current proprietor brothers Rich and Joe at the helm since 1991. ?
“Our cousins have owned a restaurant in Kingston since 1999, and we’re bringing their Italian cuisine to our location,” Rich Carnavale said. “We want our restaurant to become a whole new establishment.”?
The Carnavales’ cousins, Tino and John Procaccini, will bring their expertise in Italian cuisine from their La Principessa in Kingston.?Tino was chef at La Principessa, Joe was a chef at the Annex, and now they will combine forces to bring flavor into the new establishment.?
Yet The Annex will not be the same restaurant of yore, of Old Boy Princetonian days. Legend even has it that there used to be The Annex Round Table (a la that of the Algonquin Hotel) where Princeton intellectuals and artists would gather for dialogue.?
Long a Princetonian hub, the Annex has shown its black and orange and old tiger décor, not as an advertising gimmick, but rather as a mark of true allegiance to the University. Long time regulars include University professors Cornel West and Sean Wilentz.?
The connections to the University run deeper than those of a place across the street where students could find shelter from the constraints of campus life. ?
Rich Carnavale said that The Annex was actually the name of an eating club on campus, before it became an independent business. But don’t expect Sotto to have the photographs of Princeton football teams form the 1940s and 50s on the walls.?
The plan now is to create a true Italian place right on Nassau Street. “Before we had a glorified diner’s menu, and now we will have a purely Italian menu,” Rich Carnavale said.?
So out with the prime rib, and the tuna salad, and the mere grilled chicken breast, and the pastrami on rye; in with the new. Forget about the grilled cheese for $4.50, the bacon that will cost you an extra 75 cents, or the minced ham omelet for $5.95.?
The veal piccata and the veal cutlet a la parmigiana, the veal saltimbocca, and the breaded veal cutlet all for $13.50 will be improved upon with this new focus on the essence of the Italian food.?“We’ll face new challenges,” Rich Carnavale said. “Facing the changes will broaden our horizons.”?
And he’s quick to point out the arduousness of his field.?“In this industry, nine out of 10 restaurants close after the first year,” Rich Carnavale said. “Physically, in health regulations, in terms of hours, it’s one of the most demanding industries.”?
But the Carnavales and Proccacinis must adjust, must accommodate to the changing tastes of their customers.?
“We have to provide what’s in demand,” Rich said. “And right now that’s genuinely good Italian food.”?
Of the underground identity of the restaurant, Rich feels that this is a detriment he would like to alchemize into an advantage.?
“It’s served in its uniqueness,” he said of basement-nature restaurant. “But because we’re underground, it’s a challenge to get people to take that step, take that plunge.”?
He hopes to accentuate the underground identity in the new design.?
“We’re going for more of a cavernous look, almost something Grotto-like,” he said. “It will behoove people to see it, to make the trip. It’s going to be something this town has never seen before.”?
The new transformation, which will feature stone walls, archways, and a brick-oven hearth, will cost approximately $250,000, according to John Procaccini.?
In terms of old-time Princeton establishments, Rich Carnavale sees the restaurant business as especially competitive, even more than some of the other industries existing in Princeton.?
“I give total kudos to Hulit’s, Landau’s, and Hinkson’s. But shoes, and lamb’s wool, and stationary aren’t nearly as transient as what we have to deal with in the restaurant business,” Rich said. “So you see a lot more places cropping up in the food industry.” ?
Rich Carnavale hopes the change to fine Italian cuisine will broaden the restaurant’s clientele—necessary to survive in the volatile Princeton market.?
Henry Landau, who with his brother took over the renowned woolens store his grandfather began in 1914, gave insight into surviving the Princeton market.?
“You have to keep evolving,” Mr. Landau said. “You can’t remain stagnant. Here [at Landau’s] we have been continually changing products that meet the needs of our customers. We’ve found niches—in Princeton logos, in imports.”?
Apropos of The Annex’s waning popularity, Mr. Landau speculates as to how the changing nature of campus life may deflect attention from outside of the gates. ?
“Ten to twenty years ago, you didn’t have the Frist Center and little eateries there on campus, so The Annex was a lot more popular,” he said. He pauses, sizes me up standing by itchy scarves and a Sherlock Holmes hat. ?
“I mean, how many times have you eaten out in the past week?” Mr. Landau asks me imposingly.?
I make his question a rhetorical one, though he’s actually interested in an answer, because I’m ashamed to tell him I had a scandalous Friday sushi lunch at Sakura followed by a fine lobster meal at Princeton’s newest hotspot, Witherspoon Grill, where I discreetly spied Joyce Carol Oates eating (or at least sitting with those who were eating). I’m afraid to tell him that I blew the money I do not have on hot vanilla milks and scones at Small World during dangerous tea dates. Twice last week, I didn’t have the patience for late meal to start, so I swiped the plastic to charge Frist pizza on my bank account. I stood the spitting effigy of spending-whoredom and capricious decision stemming from epicurean tastes, impatience, and a deep-set penchant for literary loathings best complemented by sweet milk.?
But the lack of traffic from across the street and the whimsical emotions of students are not the only problems The Annex faced.?“Rents continue to rise in Princeton, health [insurance] continues to go up. You can’t just raise prices; you have to reinvent yourself,” Mr. Landau advises.?
But reinvention may not require extremity, but rather subtlety.?“I’d venture to say that The Annex won’t be massively different from what it is now. It will change to a level a little more upscale, and have the important liquor license,” Mr. Landau said. ?
Princeton, as Mr. Landau complains, has lost its old mom-and-pops in exchange for more upscale national chains, for more modern clout. Princeton has fewer boutiques and more of the Banana Republics and J. Crews and Subways.?
When corporate chains invaded the Princeton area to castrate Kenneth Hardware and Supply Co., my family came to know the hardships of business survival in the Princeton Borough. And so it was fated in the fragility of mom-and-pop survival that Paul Shu would start his business in our building at 27 Witherspoon Street.?
Shu, a quiet, unimposing, solicitous man, opened Holesome Teas and Herbs in the building where I had all too often miscalculated change to tenured professors in Princeton’s math department.?
Out of all the streets in the world stretching from Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg to Lombard Street in San Francisco, I have spent the most time traversing Witherspoon and Nassau here in my hometown of Princeton, watching the dynamic of businesses, the ebb and flow of success and decline. I’ve watched two or three internet cafés—Totally Wired, for instance—flop big time where Panera now stands inexplicably intrepid. The businesses lay pray to the whims of students and townie trends in good old-fashioned supply and demand.?My father brags about how Einstein had a charge account in the hardware store, and how the physicist would either send his little granddaughter to pick up supplies, or venture the trip from Mercer to Witherspoon himself. Brooke Shields lay subject to my father’s dry humor during her Princeton days, he recalls. And it this old-time joking, this sincere concern that doesn’t exist in the large franchises. ?Mr. Landau laments the lack of personal service in the big chains that are invading historic Princeton.?
“A family environment is hard to find anymore…I mean those [chain] stores don’t even have people who can converse with customers intelligently,” he said.?
Complaining of the general apathy found in chain store workers, Mr. Landau criticizes the changing mentality of town businesses.?“What bothers we most is that [Princeton] is so enthralled with having chain stores. Chains are killing us. They can put up the money for the exorbitantly high rents…On New Year’s Day, you know what two stores were open here?—Footlocker and Children’s Place. We are getting a mall mentality here in Princeton. When it snows, these stores don’t have people shovel the sidewalk. When there are papers, they don’t clean. ma’s-and-pa’s are doing it here, because our landlord doesn’t want to see a chain.”?
“Drinking Liberally,” a local organization promoting the democratic party, has had to cancel its weekly meetings at The Annex’s bar in exchange for gatherings in the Yankee Doodle Tap Room of the Nassau Inn. Its left-wing members have begrudgingly made the switch to Palmer Square from that orange and black bastion on Nassau Street. University students too have changed, piling into the more expensive Triumph or the seedy Ivy Inn for a cool brew at The Annex’s absence. ?
But of the future of The Annex in a new identity, Mr. Landau has faith.?
“The Annex will maintain a family environment, and instead of having a meal for $6, maybe you’ll come away paying $30. Instead of plain veal parmigiana, maybe you’ll get veal picatta with something al little more special. You have to have what people want.”?
I walk out of Landau’s, my nostrils filled with the scent and trace fibers of wool as I pass by Lindi, the unfazed Landau sheep mascot. At the corner, I look east toward The Annex’s black and orange awning and then down Witherspoon Street toward Shu’s Holsome Teas & Herbs now offering therapeutic medicinal spices and salutary yoga sessions—as if remedial enough for a loss of the teal and white sign calling out my last name throughout my youth. ?
I close my eyes and take in the February air trying to think of what it takes to make it in downtown Princeton’s business scene. There is no calculation in this realm, no algorithm neatly played out for the success of a retailer or restaurateur. The mom-and-pops of Princeton remain like glass shops that could imminently shatter—needing the agility to move with the vicissitudes required by tastes changed by time, morphing from wood-paneled Annex to Grotto-like Sotto.