Big Al's Brighton Cafe
By Michael L. Diamond
Asbury Park Press Staff Writer
When Alan Barrett arrived at the historic Long Branch Amusement pier on June 8, 1987, the fire was about 100 feet from his restaurant, Big Al's, and the prospects were grim. The winds picked up from the west, some 200 firefighters couldn't keep pace, and his business and the pier were in ruins in just a few hours.
"Helpless," Barrett said, describing how he felt as he watched from a distance.
Twenty-three years later, Barrett is trying again. He and his wife, Mary, have opened Big Al's Brighton Cafe on Brighton Avenue in Long Branch. And he thinks this time it will end on a brighter note.
The one-time boardwalk grill has become a luncheonette, serving breakfast and lunch every day except Tuesday. And the restaurant's story serves as a reminder. Treat your customers and vendors well, because you never know if you'll need them again.
The Barretts live in West Long Branch. They have two grown daughters, Nicole and Jessie. Alan Barrett, 64, grew up in New York City and moved to New Jersey to work as a vocational education teacher in North Brunswick. He later left the Garden State to live near his brother in Tucson, Ariz., but he was lured back in 1977 with an offer to operate a restaurant that would be part of Haunted Mansion amusement being built at the pier.
He observed the boardwalk grills in Seaside Heights and learned the secret of how to build a profitable restaurant. (One way to keep your labor costs down? The cooks do all of the serving.)
Big Al's opened in June 1978 in a 2,000-square-foot building. It served everything from hot dogs to clams on the half shell. It employed about 25 people at a time. And, each year except for rainy 1984, business was brisk.
One early summer day in 1987, Barrett, working at his other job at a car dealership, got a call, urging him to come to the pier; Sand Tropez, a restaurant near Big Al's, was on fire. Barrett arrived at the scene, rushed inside three times to grab money and keepsakes, ran back out and then could only watch.
"How would you feel? What would you do?," Barrett said. "I was pretty well in shock the whole summer. It took a while to gather myself." Terri Coyne, a Long Branch resident and customer at Big Al's, remembered watching the fire and coming to terms with the fact that the pier — an attraction that drove the city's economy — was suddenly gone.
"It really (hit home) that we were not going to have anything down there," Coyne said. "It was just destroyed."
The fire was determined to have been caused by an electrical spark. It destroyed 17 businesses. And it marked the end of an era for Long Branch. The city has tried to remake itself from a seasonal town to one that attracts visitors year-round.
Barrett said his insurance covered only a portion of his losses. He considered returning to teaching or buying another restaurant, before deciding to buy an outdoor advertising company called Promotion Rental Service. He sold balloons, flags and banners. He provided food and entertainment for special events.
He sold the business in February 2009 and traveled the world with Mary to the Great Pyramids in Egypt, to the ancient ruins in Turkey and to the countryside in Italy before returning to their winter home in Florida.
Then, boredom set in.
"We both were a little antsy to get back to work," Mary Barrett said. "It was time."
Scrolling Craigslist.com one early morning, Alan Barrett saw Cindy's Luncheonette was for sale. He remembered eating there when it was called Harry's Luncheonette. After a visit, the Barretts were convinced they could make the restaurant thrive; all it needed was some sprucing up. They made an offer.
Some customers remember Big Al's. Others don't. But his new business is a reminder to treat people with respect and to never burn a bridge. "People who do that are fools," he said.
Twenty-three years later, Alan Barrett is back behind the counter.