Nestled at the foot of the Sourland Mountains, Hopewell is a town at once peaceful and vibrant, quaint and avant-garde. Originally settled in the 1700s and officially incorporated in 1891, it’s often referred to as a kind of “Mayberry”—due to the highly walkable, tree-lined main street dotted with independently owned shops, restaurants
for all tastes, and beautiful Victorian homes; the town’s surrounding preserved lands wide enough to wander for miles; and its community of highly devoted residents. It’s the sort of authenticity that cannot be replicated (although some have tried) and so it should come as no surprise that, over the past several years, the area has experienced a renaissance. Freshly invigorated by a group of small-business owners—boutique retailers, restaurateurs, gallerists, food purveyors, designers—Hopewell is growing into not only an ideal place to build a thriving livelihood but also a good, solid spot to plant roots (literal and metaphoric) and watch them grow into something spectacular. We gathered some of Hopewell’s most dynamic entrepreneurs who, with their magnificent blend of small, creative businesses, are redefining the concept of “local.”
BRICKS & MORTAR: So, I know some of you are dyed-in-the-wool Hopewellians …
Mary Ann Browning (Tomato Factory Antiques & Design Center): My family moved from Princeton to Hopewell in the 1930s. I went to the Hopewell School and then Princeton High School. I attended Parson’s School of Design, in New York City, and then my husband and I returned to Hopewell, in 1961, when the Hopewell Valley Canning Company became available.
Robin McConaughy (Double Brook Farm, Brick Farm Market, Brick Farm Tavern): My husband, Jon, is originally from Ringoes, and I’m from Kingston. We moved back to the area from Philly via Manhattan in 2001, as we were starting a family. In 2002, we bought what is now the main property for Double Brook Farm, from John and Kathy Winant, who own Coventry Farm. They liked that we wanted to start a farm—they also liked that we weren’t going to develop the 63 acres.
Bobbie Fishman (The Bear and the Books): I grew up in Hightstown, in the 1960s, and when we learned to drive, we’d head for the hills, and for New Hope. Hopewell was the beginning of where New Jersey could seem attractive to me, compared with the 4,000-person, flat, dairy-farming town that was my home. [Many] years later, a dear friend and teacher of mine who lived just outside of Hopewell died, and my husband and I moved to live with her husband on their land.
B&M: And how did the rest of you find Hopewell?
Ellen Abernathy (Boro Bean): We moved from Buffalo, New York, in the 1980s to work for my brother in Princeton. He was one of the two “Toms” (Tom Grim and Tommy Block) of the famous Thomas Sweet. We worked there for more than 25 years. The “Toms” decided it was time to move on—and we did too. The coffee shop became available about the same time, so my husband, Johnny, and I, along with Tom Grim, decided to take it over. That was 10 years ago.
Amy Karyn Lichstein (Amy Karyn Home): We’ve been in here for more than 10 years. [We left] Princeton after the collapse of the economy, in 2008. We’d established a business and customer base in Princeton and chose Hopewell for its proximity to the area and ease of access.
Rory Philipson (The Blue Bottle Café): Having grown up in Montgomery, I was familiar with the area and always admired Hopewell’s downtown, Main Street feeling. My husband, Aaron, and I had been looking for a turnkey restaurant location in the area. Back in 2006, it was only The Brothers Moon and Soup du Jour; upscale B.Y.O.B.’s were far less common, and it seemed evident that the local community could support another great dining option. We opened Blue Bottle in 2006.
Ruth Morpeth (Morpeth Contemporary Gallery): The gallery moved to Hopewell in 1999, from Pennington, where it had been established in 1996. I was actively looking in Lambertville when I drove by the 43 West Broad Street building. I peered in the large windows and saw the potential of the space even though it was quite dilapidated: beautiful, natural light and a wide, open interior. At the time, there was little to recommend Hopewell, in a commercial sense, but Route 518 was a heavily traveled road and the windows provided good visibility.
B&M: In the past few years, there’s been a renaissance of the economy and culture here. How have you felt it?
E.A.: When we came, Hopewell was a little sleepy. Many storefronts were empty, and we joked that the sidewalks were rolled up at 2 p.m. But there were great antiques, the little gem of a library, the amazing elementary school, and charm. We figured if we made great things, people would come. And they did!
R.P.: People here like local, they like [patronizing] smaller businesses. It’s the reason
we’ve preserved the quaintness of the area, despite the obvious growth.
R.M.C.: People in Hopewell do like to buy local. The borough and the township have been great partners in establishing how we achieve our needs versus the needs of the community. Many of the [committee] members are our neighbors and care greatly about making the town better and bringing in a diversity of businesses. The borough puts on events such as Cruise Night and Food Truck Friday that energize people to come in, with families, and enjoy the town.
M.B.: I’ve seen the change [reflected in] our business. We draw clients from Princeton, West Windsor, North Jersey, and Penn-Hunterdon county, and they are much younger and more interested in a mix of modern art and antiques. So, in the last few years, we’ve become more diversified, adding more contemporary and Art Deco merchandise, and Rocky Hill potter John Shedd and Umbrella home decor who’ve taken space [in the building].
B&M: Do you feel this “blooming” has changed the tenor of the town?
E.A.: Yes, there is a new energy, a real pulse, but the warmth and charm are still present. With new families coming in, we see the involvement with the elementary school, support for the traditions that the town has come to know, and support for the local businesses. We see people coming in from other towns to our shop, but we get major support from our local folks, and we are grateful.
M.B.: Hopewell has added more businesses and restaurants, but it still has that feeling of a small town.
A.K.L.: It has to do with the demographic pull, too, as more and more restaurants open, the traffic [increases], as does the town’s ability to draw new customers into its stores.
R.P.: The biggest changes, of course, are those that have been brought about by Robin and Jon: the recent remodeling of the Hopewell Theater, the conversion of the old Chevrolet dealer into the incredibly impressive Brick Farm Market, along with Troon brewery, the distillery, Brick Farm Tavern, the transformation of what used to be a Sunoco station into a multi-business space (Step in Stone, Amy Karyn, ThinkForm Architects). The McConaughys have done so much for this beautiful little town.
R.M.: Twenty years ago, Hopewell was primarily known for its antiques shops. The restaurant scene has certainly put Hopewell on the map in recent years.
R.M.C.: When I was a kid in the ’70s, I used to breeze through Hopewell [on my way] to New Hope to see my great-grandparents. There was hardly anything here; I’m not sure there was even a stoplight at the time. Since we’ve been here, several buildings have been given a face-lift and extended the downtown part of Broad Street: in addition to our buildings, the Soup de Jour building was re-imagined into Nomad Pizza, the building behind that was Twine for a bit (which has moved near the Tomato Factory, improving yet another unused building), and Blue Bottle brought a funky, graffiti style to its entrance. Yoga and wellness has come to town with Hope Wellbeing and Sault Haus, among others. And there’s always something happening: Peasant Grill is renovating and moving into a bigger space; the restaurant space behind Boro Bean is under new ownership and, in general, more and more people are moving to Hopewell for the excellent elementary school, the huge swath of preserved land at St. Michaels, and a variety of food and entertainment options within walking distance for borough residents.
B&M: The collaborative spirit within the local-business community is strong here.
R.M.C.: The Hopewell Restaurant Association is the best example I have of the collaborative spirit in Hopewell. We share closings, openings (especially important when a bomb cyclone of snow is blanketing the region), menus, and pricing for the special Eat-In-Hopewell week … Food Truck Friday and Cruise Night offer us an opportunity to talk to other restaurants and plan what we’ll do for the evening. And even though [Jon and I] own the Hopewell Theater, we have other vendors there selling commissary items, such as the Peasant Grill.
E.A.: We belong to the Hopewell Restaurant Association too, and have helped plan and promote Restaurant Week Hopewell the past few years. It’s a supportive effort, with the idea being the more people that come to visit this beautiful town, the more they will come back, bring a friend, tell others. We all try to help each other out and be supportive. It’s a great group.
A.K.L.: The collaboration exists because of the desire of all the shops to succeed. We cross-advertise, we recommend each other to customers, we mention places to eat and shop locally. We’re all in tune with our community and try very hard to watch each other’s backs. That’s what is so special about the Hopewell community: So many talented creative people are doing great things for the sake of Hopewell.
R.P.: Hopewell supports Hopewell. The goal is keeping people close to home—regardless which of our delicious venues they choose to indulge in.
B&M: What has been the secret to your success as your businesses have grown and evolved?
R.P.: Life balance. Blue Bottle closes two weeks a year, the first week of January and the week of July 4th. Two months after we opened, my mentor wrote me a letter (that still hangs in my office) urging us to slow down in order to avoid burnout. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Success for us has meant recognizing our limits and not trying to do too much.
R.M.C.: The key has been extremely strong community support for what we are doing. People want healthy food, they want to know where their food comes from, and they want a place that is welcoming to buy and enjoy the food. Once the farm started growing, we looked to expand as locally as possible to keep all elements of our business close.
B.F.: I suspect the crucial element in any business is to be doing something you love and know a good deal about. I don’t sell books because I think selling them is a money-making proposition; I sell books because I think children will love them, and I think most of the books that get a lot of the marketing money in the world are often not the wonderful books. I believe in the books I sell. And I judge success in terms of happiness: my own happiness made possible by the satisfaction of my customers.
A.K.L.: Attention to detail and going above and beyond for clients. We take what we do seriously and always try to do our very best.
E.A.: We know so many of our customers well, and we try to instill the idea that we want people to [feel] welcome and invited to stay. We love to say, “Is that for here?” or “Are you staying with us today?” We also decided early on that we would only serve food we would serve our family. That is a guiding principle.
R.M.: Fortitude and luck (not particularly in that order), as well as a passion tempered by pragmatism. Last but not least, generous landlords … all combined have helped keep the doors open these past 20-plus years.
B&M: So, would you say there seems to be something in the air in hopewell?
B.F.: It’s very much a town of its own character: quirky, homey, affordable, simpler, a more centered place than [other towns]. Hopewell is my town. I am very happy here. I like that the town is walkable: I walk to work, and I like that many of our children can walk to school. It makes us feel like we are somehow related and part of our own small world.
R.M.: There’s a strong sense of community here. Almost everyone I know is passionate about living in Hopewell and that at the core holds us closer, despite differing points of view, than we otherwise would be.
E.A.: The walkability, the schools, the businesses, the people. We love the ride into town, especially in the spring and the fall, with all the foliage, the beautiful Victorians. Hopewell is close to everything yet feels like its own special place.
R.M.C.: Hopewell is very much agrarian at its core. People like working the land, being on the land, and enjoying the fruits of the land. People care greatly about preservation issues, be it historical or environmental. The pace of life is a little slower and a little gentler. And when you need the sophistication of the city, N.Y.C. and Philly are just an hour away. Now, choosing which team to root for is another matter entirely …
—Jennifer P. Henderson (photographs by Jess Blackwell and Rae Padulo)