Meet the New Chairman: Craig Kunisch

What is the main responsibility of the NJRHA Chairman of the Board?

As I see it, the Chairman is responsible for carrying the Association forward. Constant forward progress. The Association’s focus is on legislative advocacy and industry awareness for owners. Legislatively, outgoing Chairwoman Jeanne Cretella has really brought us to a new level—both in recognition and impact. I hope to continue down this path. We want to work with legislatures to educate them on our operations and any impact that impeding legislation might have. We want to be a part of the conversation, the solution, and how that solution fits. As far as industry awareness, I am tremendously concerned about the unaware operator. So much is required of the owners and operators, and the level of compliance is growing. The fines and repercussions can be detrimental. I want the Association to continue to educate operators on what they need to be doing. The NJRHA is the operator’s greatest asset in so many regards. I take that responsibility to heart and want to reach as many people as possible with all that we offer.

As the 2018-2019 Chairman, what will be your main initiative?

We need to grow the Association, which will allow more operators the opportunity to take advantage of all that we offer. We are their one-stop shop for what they need to know as owners and operators regarding both compliance and impactful legislation. We are a resource in so many regards, and more restaurants should be taking advantage of what we offer. I also want to continue to be a part of the legislative process. We must be at the table when it comes to impactful labor policy. We can do a lot to benefit our employees without changing our current business model. Our model is extremely labor-intensive, and we do not want that to change.

If you could wave a magic wand and fix one major issue looming over the hospitality industry, which would that be?

Ha! That’s a pretty powerful thought. There are so many changes to the landscape coming. Our industry, like so many others, is changing faster than it ever has. If one wave of a wand could help legislators to understand what it is like to run a successful restaurant, then I think that would be a pretty magical wave. Everyone knows what it is like to be in a restaurant, but not many know what it means to survive as an operator. It is a “watch-your-pennies-and-the-dollars-will-take-care-of-themselves” type of business. Every hit on the penny will definitely affect your ability to cash flow a dollar. Most people, including legislators, see a restaurant on a Saturday night and automatically think we are carting the money out in wheelbarrows. Nothing could be further from the truth. And all it would take is one morning watching us writing out payroll, supplier, insurance, and credit card fee checks to realize that.

How many years have you been in the hospitality industry?

When you hear someone say, “I’ve been doing that my whole life”—nothing could be truer for me. I have been in the restaurant business my entire life. My great-grandmother started the Allendale Bar & Grill in 1935. My brother, sister, and I are fourth-generation owners and operators. I have seen it all. When we were 10 years old, my grandfather used to bring us in to help clean the floors on Sunday mornings. (The cleaning crew worked six days a week; we worked the seventh.) He would toss quarters under the radiators and tables to make sure we were doing a thorough job. We opened the Mahwah Bar & Grill 25 years ago. My parents were still a major part of the business, but in a lot of ways that was them “pushing us out of the nest.” Let’s just say that we hit the ground hard more than a few times, but the lessons learned are still guiding us today. The generations before us are gone, but they still have such an impact on our day-to-day. My siblings and I are carrying the torch, changing with times but not moving an inch away from what all four generations before us practiced every day—it’s all about the guest, and our guests are our family.

How has the hospitality industry affected your life?

This could be a book, my autobiography. Because, simply put, this is who I am. The hospitality industry is engrained in me; I am it, it is me. Not to get too existential, but it’s true. In all aspects of my life—I am not truly happy unless those around me are happy. A good day for me is smiles on all the faces around me. I’d rather watch someone truly enjoy a great steak than eat a great steak myself. It is more fulfilling for me to see enjoyment than to enjoy. That might sound crazy to some, but I bet it sounds absolutely normal to so many in our business.

You visited the NJRHA offices recently and spent one-on-one time with each employee: Why?

I am moving into a leadership position in this organization. The staff are the backbone of the organization, the “doers.” I see myself as their liaison to the Board, their advocate, and their assistant. Simply put, I could not be effective in this role without a firm grasp of their day-to-day job tasks and duties. The staff is amazing, so spending time with them was easy. I was fortunate they found the time to spend with me.

Besides Allendale Bar & Grill and Mahwah Bar & Grill, where do you like to eat?

I love local. I think independent operators do such a great job of expression, so I usually try to seek out the local independents. That’s where you find the unique menus, the one-of-a-kind meals—and usually the best personalities are bringing them to you.

What’s your favorite movie and why?

Good Will Hunting. Every person, every single one, has hidden talents along with hidden baggage. The talents can be brought out and the baggage managed if you allow others in to help out. I see it all the time with our young staff. And it is why I am such a big fan of what Leslie, our Educational Foundation Director, is doing with the NJREF and ProStart.

Do you have a favorite book?

It’s been a long time since I read a book from cover to cover. My kids are just getting to the point of reading on their own, so I won’t embarrass myself by telling you about my favorite bedtime story (although Good Night Moon is awesome!).

If you could have a dinner party and invite only two people, living or deceased, who would they be?

The answer to this probably changes from day to day. But I know I would love to spend time with my great-grandmother, Mom Connolly, the one who started the business. She had five daughters and lost her husband when they were all young. So, she built a bar room off her house and brought their tavern business to her home. She was a great business person with a heart of gold. She never accumulated any money because every time she had some she would give it to someone who had less and needed it more. She would be an interesting one to talk to. The other would be someone from history to clear up a mystery… Jesus? John Wilkes Booth? Lee Harvey Oswald? Hoffa? I wonder who could fit me in?

Where do you see the NJRHA in 20 years?

Hopefully still around after I am done! Hahaha. In all sincerity, I hope our industry is thriving and I hope the NJRHA is still the biggest resource in the state to the operators. I think we will be viewed as an influential voice of reason, still seeking the middle ground in regard to legislation. Hopefully we will have a full secondary education curriculum for those seeking hospitality careers. And hopefully we will count on a vast majority of the state’s operators to be members and to be taking advantage of all that we offer.

What’s something about you most people don’t know?

Well, I happen to be the most blessed person you could ever meet. On so many levels. We lost our home and all our possessions to a gas explosion. My wife was home and blown out of the house, yet she got up and walked away. My kids were minutes away on the school bus, and were not present for the explosion. The fact that no one got hurt, let alone worse, is proof that I am both the luckiest and the most blessed person you could ever know. We lost every single one of our possessions but walked away as the most fortunate family in the world. I was able to see the true kindness and care in my community with the most amazing outpouring of support. And I was able to walk away with a greater understanding—to a depth I didn’t think was possible, yet I have known all along—that every single day is a true gift. I am blessed with my family, the people in my life, the people I have gotten to know through the business (and the NJRHA), and the multiple communities I have become a part of through home and business. There is no one more blessed than me!