We thought it would be interesting to sit down with Frank Cretella, the developer of the Albion Hotel and adjoining Felina restaurant planned for the Capital One Bank building at the corner of Jersey and Newark Avenues. Cretella and his wife came to Jersey City after running a publicly traded hospitality company in New York City.
JCT: What is your connection to Jersey City, and why do you think Jersey City should have another hotel?
Cretella: I got invited to a concert in Liberty State Park by a friend of mine who did all the staging for the [Andrea] Bocelli concert. I went there and I saw Liberty House, and it was kind of a rebirth. [Cretella now operates Liberty House.] We put all our eggs in Jersey City; Jersey City really embraced us. And we grew quickly in Jersey City. And it was like the second time around for us. It just treated us so well, between the neighborhoods we did business in, the politicians. We’ve got a special love for Jersey City.
JCT: What kind of projects did you build when you got to Jersey City?
Cretella: When I was in New York, I was basically an operator. We didn’t own any of the hospitality properties that we were in. I did, however, own a portfolio of real estate, non-hospitality. So, I was familiar with real estate. I’m familiar with construction. These are the things that we did in New York. When we came to Jersey we really wanted to stick to hospitality but own the real estate. So, we did Liberty House, which we don’t own, but that was our first project. We built our corporate offices in Jersey City. We purchased an old warehouse and converted it. We built a senior daycare center in Jersey City. And we did some real estate investment down in the Morris Canal.
JCT: What year did you arrive in Jersey City?
Cretella: I’m going to say 22 years ago.
JCT: Now you decide to build a hotel. Is this your first hotel, or have you operated hotels before?
Cretella: No, we have other hotels that we own. I’m right now in the Mansion Inn in New Hope, Pennsylvania. This property is being expanded to 34 rooms. Next to it is the Logan Inn [which Cretella operates], which has been an inn since 1727. That’s got a big expansion down the block. So, in New Hope we’re operating about 130 rooms. We’re not big hotel operators. Our properties tend to be on the smaller side.
We are building 120 rooms, more of a resort, on an old convent property in Philadelphia. That’s under construction. So, Jersey City is going to be the largest for us, but we’re very confident. There’s nothing harder than being in the restaurant business. There’s also nothing more rewarding. It’s all about hospitality. We’re very confident that we’re going to build a place that people are going to come back to in Jersey City because of that personal bond that we want to create.
JCT: What is your business model? What kind of prices are we going to be looking at for a room at this hotel you’re building? Is it a super-luxury type hotel, or is it something more affordable?
Cretella: We’re really developing the Albion brand. It’s about the colorful side of luxury. We’re building…I would call it a luxury hotel, although maybe the Ritz Carlton wouldn’t consider it a luxury hotel because we’re more about experiences. We do a four o’clock tea program where you can come back to the hotel and we may teach you how to roll sushi. We may have a cocktail class. We may have a concert in the penthouse on the roof. So, we are trying to create experiences. We feel that’s the real luxury in life, creating and having memories. Of course, we’re going to have the fresh linen and great pillows and great mattresses. We’re not going to have luxury case goods [furniture such as bureaus or bookcases that provides interior storage space] where every room has the same case goods in them. We select and refurbish old furniture. We have a shop. We make all our furniture. It’s more artisanal and tactile. It takes us longer to do because it’s not that we call up one vendor and say give me a 200 side chairs. But it’s more enjoyable for us. I think it’s a luxury. It’s a luxury that larger groups can’t handle because they can’t go out and pick out a hundred different chairs for their rooms.
JCT: Do you have any sense yet of what the pricing will be? I know people are always thinking about how much things cost because we’re not Williamsburg, Brooklyn, we’re not Tribeca.
Cretella: Who knows how it’s going to shake out, but Pre-COVID we wanted to run in line with the same kind of RevPAR as the other hotels that are based down on the water, which is about a RevPAR of $200.
JCT: Can you explain what RevPAR means?
Cretella: So, that’s revenue per available room. In other words, you take your sales for the year in rooms, and you divide by the number of rooms, and then you divide that by 365. That’s the average you make on that room per day, okay. It’s more of a hotel metric. Most people want to know what’s your average daily rate.
JCT: I think to answer the question though, you’d say you’re going to be in the same range as the Hyatt, which is down at Exchange Place?
Cretella: Absolutely. Yet, you’re going to get a much more tactile, visual, and personalized experience. It’s a totally different experience for the same money.
JCT: Now, talk to me about the food. I see you have a restaurant that’s going into the space. Who are you bringing in to be your chef or to design your menu, and what’s the concept for the restaurant?
Cretella: Anthony Bucco is a chef-partner in Felina restaurant that we have in Ridgewood. It’s is highly rated. He’s a great guy, he’s a friend. He’s been with us for a long time, and he’s been around me for a long time. So, I have great confidence in him. He proved it in Ridgewood.
JCT: What will the cuisine be?
Cretella: I call it “fresh, made-on-site, approachable, Italian.” Very bold flavors with wood-fired components in the menu. We design everything with open kitchens, so there’s that bond between the kitchen staff and the front of the house. Felina in Ridgewood is also in a bank building. The décor in Ridgewood is off the charts, it’s beautiful.
JCT: Can you talk a little bit about what approvals you have at this point for the building and what you need to still get?
Cretella: Our first approach was to go to zoning before we owned the property, and then we spoke to the local councilman and the mayor. We got great responses from them. And then we went to the local community. We’ve made numerous changes to our plan based on these boards that we went to. A lot of them tend to be architects, which is great because we ended up with a better product. The bank building stands out more, the historic part of the building. The design overall is much, much better. So, now we’re going for formal approvals.
JCT: What is the timeline at this point?
Cretella: We’re hoping to have all of our approvals in three months. I have six months of construction documents and value engineering. And then I have 18 months of construction, so it’s multiple years away.
JCT: So, we’re looking at some point in 2022?
Cretella: Probably closer to spring of ’23. The process for us tends to be longer because we are employing craftsmen to make stuff. We’re sourcing product that is not off the shelf, so the process takes longer. You know Soho house? Their designs feel lived in, warm and inviting. You don’t get that by just going out and buying stock anything, you know?
JCT: Is there anything that I didn’t touch on that you might want to add?
Cretella: The hospitality industry has really been great for us. We started a foundation pre-COVID, and we built a school for hospitality. Obviously, things are a challenge for that now, but we’ve used the foundation to help others in the hospitality industry during COVID.
This hotel is going to operate as a training ground for staff, and it’s also is going to be on the cutting edge of technology. For instance, we’re going to use technology to empower our housekeeping staff. Historically, housekeeping has always been just a necessity, not a full partner in hotel operations. Through technology we’re going to empower housekeeping to be their own boss and to do more.
JCT: This foundation is going to be offering training to local people who are interested in getting into the hospitality business. Is that going be free of charge?
Cretella: So far we’ve only accomplished two classes, and both those classes were free of charge. We had a hundred percent graduation, which is great, but those classes were small. I think 12 people each.
JCT: That was in which geographic area?
Cretella: The school is in Plainfield, New Jersey, but we handle transportation from Hudson County. The idea is to use it not only for job training but also for teaching personal skills like how to balance a checkbook: everything to just to bring people in and give them a good head start getting employment. And because our company is growing, we’re able to not only train you, mentor you at the location, like 201 Newark, but be there for your advancement.
We guarantee a hundred percent employment, but you just can’t get into the school. There’s a vetting process. We’ve been in this business 40 years, so we know who has a hospitality heart, so we’ll train you, but you’ve got to meet that metric.
JCT: So, it’s really a feeder for your business, a training program?
Cretella: You know we’re not doing it for that. I mean, luckily as a company, we rate high when it comes to employment. We treat our people well. So, we don’t have a problem getting employees. We’re doing this more as a give-back to hospitality.
JCT: So, they could stay or they could go on to work for somebody else after attending your school?
Cretella: Absolutely. Also, my wife is involved heavily with the local restaurant association. She’s on the board. Anthony [Bucco] now is on the board. My wife is also on the board of the National Restaurant Association. So, we have a lot of people that respect us as operators. If we say, hey, we just trained these 10 people, does anybody need any staff, the fact that we trained them means a lot to our contemporaries, which is a great position to be in.