Having long been employed as a union actress and career musician, Jennifer Lampert said she was qualified more in “chutzpah” than anything else for her current role.
However, it was the cultivation of her extensive network that ultimately led her to become the majority owner of Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten, a successful restaurant and bar establishment in Asbury Park.
“People often seem surprised that a woman would own a biergarten,” Lampert said. “But how you do everything is how you do anything. I simply let life take me on a journey and went along with the things that excited and inspired me.”
Today, Lampert is driven to build the biggest and most authentic Oktoberfest in the Garden State, with hopes of making Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten even more of a destination.
“This is the hardest work I have ever done in my life,” she said. “And I am so proud.”
Lampert graduated from The Boston Conservatory in 1994 before embarking upon a touring career in the performing arts.
Her gigs – plus interim work as a church music director, the owner of a music rehearsal space in Hoboken, and various back- and front-of-house positions at restaurants and bars – afforded her the ability to purchase a two-bedroom condo in Weehawken from a developer at the age of 24.
“I got very involved in the construction process of my soon-to-be first home,” Lampert said. “I went in and said, ‘I want the sink here, the stove here, this wall down, and all of it soundproof so I can sing.’”
Her tenacity impressed Carter Sackman, director of development at Sackman Enterprises, the New York-based real estate developer in charge of Lampert’s purchase.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you get your real estate license so we can give you some real estate work in between your acting jobs?’ ” Lampert said. “So I did. I got my real estate license at 25, and continued to take on what I could in between.”
Life went on like that until her 40th birthday party.
“I performed at the Pilsener Haus & Biergarten with my jazz band and also brought in several musician friends to play,” she said.
Once more, someone important took notice. This time, it was Andrej “Andy” Ivanov, co-founder of both the Pilsener Haus & Biergarten in Hoboken and Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Brooklyn.
“He asked me if I would like to start booking music for them, and then a little while later asked if I would want to open the second floor with them, too,” Lampert said.
Lampert quickly became an event manager, booking agent and bar manager for the Pilsener Haus & Biergarten.
“It was something I was going to do for a year or so before I was able to go back to music and real estate full time,” she said. “But life chose otherwise.”
When Ivanov voiced his desire to open yet another location, Lampert suggested searching for real estate in Asbury Park.
“I had been coming here for many years, and I already knew a developer,” she said.
Lampert connected Ivanov with Sackman in order to create the Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten.
“Then Andy said, ‘Since you’re the one who chose Asbury [Park,] would you like to partner with me?’ ” Lampert said. “I really believed in what Andy was doing, so I, of course, said yes.”
Ivanov, who hails from the Czech Republic, executed the concept and worked with Lampert for the first two years on the establishment’s growth.
“Andy got his start building biergartens in the United States which reflect the sort of thing he grew up with in Europe,” Lampert said. “That is why I think ours, in the United States, is one of the most authentic you can get.”
Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten particularly stands out, Lampert said, because of its execution and commitment to concept.
Everything, from the 15-foot long wooden communal tables in the Festhalle to the Hungarian beef goulash on the menu, reflects the deep Austro-Hungarian and Eastern European aesthetic of the 1920s and 1930s.
“Our tables are made from reclaimed wood, over 100 years old, from the roof of a building in Hoboken that was being torn down,” Lampert said.
She would know, having served as the project manager on the construction site.
“I was here every single day, all day long, dealing with contractors, feeling like I had to go out of my way to prove and stand up for myself,” Lampert said. “I didn’t realize that being a woman made me different until I worked in this industry.”
Lampert recalled working a particularly difficult day in which rain was pouring inside the Festhalle.
“There was something or other I disagreed with the general contractor on, and he put me down in front of all of the subcontractors,” she said. “I said, ‘Like it or not, you are answering to a woman. I am the owner and you are working for me. Why don’t you come back when you know how to speak to me?’”
“He didn’t speak to me again for a few weeks, but by the end of the project, he, too, offered me a job as a project manager if the biergarten didn’t work out.”
It worked out–and then some. Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten saw more than 500,000 people through its doors within the first year of it opening in February 2015.
“No one, not even Andy, had anticipated that,” Lampert said. “When we first opened, it was just two of us running the entire restaurant – putting in more than 90 hours on site a week at work.”
Today, while there are now a half dozen people on the management team, the establishment–which includes a 6,000 square-foot indoor bier hall and a 9,000 square-foot rooftop biergarten–is still turning over “at least six times” on a weekend in the summer and seeing “at least a couple hundred” each weeknight, Lampert said.
Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten employees, which swell to nearly 100 in the summer and remain at around 60 in the winter, pride themselves on being a part of the rituals that bring people together, including live music, good food, and plenty of beer.
“We serve more than 40 draft beers and another 60 in bottles,” Lampert said. “With beers primarily originating from German, Austria, and Belgium, about 80 percent of all of our beers are imports.
“We also do not carry macro American beers, so when people come in and say, ‘Can I get a Budweiser?’ our staff is trained to say, ‘We don’t carry that, but here is what we think that you would like.’ ”
Understanding the menu, created by executive Chef James Avery (most notably sous chef for Gordon Ramsay on Hell’s Kitchen), also may require a short conversation with one’s server.
Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten serves classic and modern interpretations of Austro-Hungarian dishes, ranging from Bavarian pretzels ($11) and smoked Polish Kielbasa ($13) to Eberkotelett (half-rack wild boar, $27) and Jaeger Schnitzel (double-smoked speck, $20).
It’s also the kind of cuisine one can expect at the establishment’s third annual Oktoberfest through October 29.
“We put up a 140-foot Munich-style tent,” Lampert said, “And we take over the Press Plaza next to the biergarten.
More than 2,000 people can comfortably fit inside the designated areas to participate in traditional Oktoberfest games, eat pig roast and listen to Polka bands.
“We’re also hosting a Bier Run on October 15, where participants run 2.1 miles and drink 3 beers,” Lampert said.
The best part is Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten does not charge a cover for these events. “We just want people there eating, drinking, and having fun,” she added.
As the establishment continues to expand upon its annual tradition, a few changes already have been made.
“Andy has since moved on to a new and exciting major real estate development project,” Lampert said. “But I was a smart girl who, in negotiating the partnership, put in that I had first of refusal to [purchase] any shares that needed to be sold.”
Additionally, Chef James Avery recently passed the torch to his sous chef, Chef Ryan Cook, in order to pursue another project.
“We therefore promoted three people who have been with us from day one,” Lampert said. “It’s always really exciting for us when someone who we’ve worked with goes on to pursue other ambitions because we know we were a part of their journey.”
But if she were to be asked right now, Lampert said, about opening another biergarten, she said it really would have to be ideal.
“I am so in love with my current business, location, and community, that my bigger interest would be to help Asbury Park develop further, whether by opening another restaurant or bar or by getting involved in other real estate projects, such as affordable housing for people like my employees,” she said. “But I think I’ll sit still until at least year four or five, when I have got this business to do everything that I believe it can.
“Then we will see what other sorts of things cross my path.”