If you ever feel burnt out on your career as a restaurant owner, consider how attractive your life looks to outsiders. How else can you explain the latest move by multi-billionaire industrialist Richard Branson, who’s scheduled to open Ninety Acres restaurant at his new Natirar “culinary resort” in Somerset County New Jersey this week. Branson’s Virgin empire already encompasses 360 companies; how come it took him so long to get into restaurants?
We don’t have enough space to detail all of Branson’s personal and business accomplishments, so we’ll give you the highlights: net worth of $2.5 billion; holder of several world records for daring travel adventures by balloon and boat; a British knighthood; sole owner of 74-acre Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands; and, lately, founder of Virgin Galactic, a venture that means to shoot tourists into outer space at $200,000 a pop. Throw in a slew of forward-looking humanitarian ventures of equal size and daring and you’d think Branson would be the last guy who’d want to worry about, say, whether the couple out on table 24 liked their entrees tonight.
But no, he’s going head first into the restaurant business. Ninety Acres is just one feature of Branson’s 15-acre site in Peapack-Gladstone, the part of Somerset County where assorted industry titans and mega-moguls still have sprawling estates that recall an earlier time. Working in concert with the restaurant will be a cooking school, a wine school and a farm that will produce ingredients for Ninety Acres’ hyper-local menu.
The Natirar property encompasses 492 acres and had recently served as the summer home for the king of Morocco. He sold it to Somerset County in 2003, which designated it as parkland. So how did Branson get dibs on part of it? He owns a resort in Morocco, and the royal family was able to intercede with Somerset officials on Branson’s behalf. He now holds a 99-year lease on 90 acres, with the other 402 acres remaining as parkland. Somerset officials hope lease revenues offset the cost of maintaining the park.
Branson recruited David Felter from the highly ranked Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster, NJ, to be executive chef at Ninety Acres. Felter tells the Newark Star-Ledger that guests won’t have to break the bank to eat at Branson’s restaurant. “To me, one of the biggest things has always been to make sure the restaurant is accessible to the community. We want to show people that eating local and eating sustainable doesn’t mean spending hundreds of dollars on dinner. Our focus will be good food made simply,” he says. Felter promises that entrees will be $35 or less.
The “culinary resort” is just one phase of Branson’s master plan for Natirar. Next year will see the debut of a 76-bed luxury resort and spa.
Branson will definitely be having an opening week unlike any other restaurateur. Just yesterday, he presided over the rollout of SpaceShip Two, the vehicle that will provide suborbital space travel to the 300 people who have already signed up with Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The company plans to one day have a fleet that encompasses five commercial spaceships and launch vehicles. Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant for Spaceport America, which is already under construction in the desert near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Branson has brought plenty of style, pizzazz and creative thinking to the many businesses he’s already involved in. We can’t wait to see what his take on restaurant operations will be.