Two years ago, Monica Cleary’s goal was to create a European-style cafe in the center of Verona. Locally owned, with an emphasis on great coffee and inviting food, and space to linger over both. The kind of place that Cleary had come to appreciate when she worked on the Old Continent.
Cleary and her husband, Will Battersby, found an ideal spot on Bloomfield Avenue just west of Grove Avenue in what had been a hand laundry for decades. There was a deep inside space for customers and a backyard hidden out of view from either street. And so began Blue Hippo. (The place is named for a nearly 4,000 year old Egyptian statuette in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that had been dubbed “William” by an admirer.)
That was, Cleary joked in an email to customers this month, “5,600 avocado toasts, two ovens, three mixers, 9 cooks, 10 fridges (!), and a gazillion hot mini doughnuts” ago. She might have also included a life-threatening pandemic. Together, the experiences of the past two years have reshaped Blue Hippo, while strengthening Cleary’s resolve that it belongs on the Verona food scene for the long haul.
When COVID-19 broke over New Jersey in mid-March, Blue Hippo and other Verona restaurants were forced to close for in-person service. Cleary stepped up takeout and then looked for ways to pivot the business, branching out into delivery, online kids baking camps, and even a general store stocked with basic provisions.
“As the world changes, you have to restructure and remodel your business,” Cleary says. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t still be open.”
It hasn’t always been easy. With her staff cut from 30 full- and part-time workers to just three, Cleary struggled to keep up with demand on Mother’s Day. “We were so overwhelmed,” she recalls. “People had to wait 45 minutes for something that used to take 10.”
Blue Hippo’s customers have been willing to wait, and to try the new things that Cleary has brought their way, like donut towers. Blue Hippo had gained a devoted following in its first two years for its freshly made mini-donuts. Cleary transformed them into cake-like structures, decorated and wrapped so that they could be left on a doorstep for a graduation or birthday celebration. Even that has had its difficulties, since rainbow sprinkles have been in short supply during the pandemic.
With summer, Cleary introduced a virtual kids baking camp. Each day of the camp, Cleary would fill boxes with ingredients and instructions, which campers had to pick up and take home by 9 a.m. At 10, she would open a Zoom call with the campers and talk with them about what they would be creating. She left the Zoom chat window open as the kids worked through their baking and, at the end of the day, everyone would post pictures of what they had created. “It was fabulous,” Cleary says. She’s created boxes that grownups pair with Zoom too, from high tea boxes to picnic baskets and wine and cheese tastings.
Cleary is also working on an evolution of Blue Hippo’s general store from basic provisions to things grown and made by organic family farms. It’s an idea that takes Cleary back to her childhood summers in Ireland, her parents’ birthplace, where she would find stores and markets celebrating local farms. The Blue Hippo general store now has organic vegetables (Cleary’s a vegetarian) and organic eggs, and Cleary is working on sourcing more. “We’re not there now,” she says, “but it’s where we are going.”
Some elements of the old Blue Hippo have come back, too. When the state allowed restaurants to open for outdoor dining in mid-June, Blue Hippo put its backyard picnic tables to good use.
Cleary is thankful for the help that Verona officials have given small businesses during the pandemic, and for all the customers who have stayed with Blue Hippo through its journey. “I hope,” she says, “that Verona people still embrace small business when we get beyond this.”