Joie de Vivre Green Pear Style
A magical taste of Old-World Europe in Hoboken and Jersey City
Isabella Molnar, owner of the Green Pear Café, in Downtown Hoboken, once had a very different kind of job: she was a professional opera singer in Europe. In fact, her fans there were shocked when the native Hungarian quit her career to settle with her family in the United States.
“My career taught me a great lesson of losing a job every time the curtain went down,” she says. “Being an independent contractor, after three months of hard work, I always had to focus on the next audition, the next hurdle and how to better myself. There was never a chance to catch a cold, to stay in bed, for a snow day or no-show day.”
Deciding to launch a small business also involved risk and commitment--“I had no experience in retail, hospitality, culinary arts or business in general,” Molnar says—but at least she was living on her own terms. She could finally venture outside without a silk scarf or enjoy an ice-cold drink.
Because Molnar couldn’t get a bank loan, she borrowed from her parents and her husband, who cashed in his 401K so she could open a coffee shop, Green Pear Café, in a tree-shaded storefront at Grand and First Street. Molnar was there to unlock the doors every morning, seven days a week, for the first two years. Her hard work paid off.
“Hoboken embraced us from the day we opened the doors in 2015,” she says. “My husband predicted I’d have two years of losses. He was in awe how off his predictions were.”
Perhaps they were off because what Molnar created was not a traditional café. There was the eclectic menu: health-conscious, reimagined versions of old-world comfort foods, made from scratch. There was the décor: upcycled chic with circus touches.
And there was the mission. Molnar says she envisioned Green Pear as a haven, a place for people—especially women—to gather. She hosted workshops and other educational events; creative entertainment (drag bingo!); and opportunities to explore spirituality, like tarot readings. The café quickly proved a friend of local artists too, including dancers, fine artists, musicians, jewelers and artisans.
“The neighborhood was on board, embracing my creativity both in the menu and décor,” she says. “They participated in community programs, took classes, marveled at the entertainment, and together we created an amazing downtown story. We molded this hidden spot under a pear tree into an international space where there was a little bit of everything: young and old, healthy and comforting, slow and go, cultural and businesslike, spiritual and educative.”
The café’s popularity got a lot of help from social media and Yelp, the modern day “word of mouth,” Molnar says. “People began taking Ubers from surrounding towns just to come to Green Pear Café. That would be impossible without the explosion of phone apps.”
Business exploded too. Molnar hired more staff, always with a goal of empowering women. She began catering for Jet.com in Hoboken, which led her to the office catering scene in New York City. Soon she was supplying Manhattan offices three times a week, feeding 100 to180 people at a time.
“Opening a commercial kitchen in Jersey City Heights, I quickly learned economics, logistics, supply and manufacturing, but I was missing my tribe and culture,” she says. “I wanted to stir this big ship home again and dive into the sensory, emotional and creative waters, so I applied for an entertainment license.”
Taking Hungarian to New Heights
Molnar opened Green Pear Heights Restaurant—combining an event space, live entertainment, culture and food—two years ago, in Jersey City Heights. In designing a menu, she went against her family’s advice and focused on what she knew best: authentic Hungarian cuisine. Creating this traditional food was a labor of love, but again her diligence was richly rewarded.
“I cater to cultures where there is no meal without a hearty soup followed by a one-bowl meal filled with protein, carbohydrates and vegetables,” she says. “My meals require a very long time, knowledge and patience. I will always have customers, because people don’t have the time to spend close to 20 hours making beef marrow bone soup filled with collagen, or stews, or root salads. They know it and they appreciate it.”
Molnar says she was surprised by how many of her American customers told her they remembered their own immigrant ancestors cooking similar dishes.
“My chicken soup was named ‘Jewish penicillin,’ and my stuffed cabbage brought tears to the eyes of one of my customers, who said it reminded her of her late grandmother,” she says. “An Asian customer asked to meet me because my pig’s feet stew was the only one that matched his mom’s recipe. I had Polish people come in because they’d heard about our pierogi prepared with Italian Parmigiano cheese.”
She says the secret ingredients in her recipes are her three passions: homeopathy, herbology and Ayurveda. “These ancient studies go well beyond today’s borders—they relate to all of us as one. These herbs make us feel better, healthier and lighter, and our local stores have them all.”
The combination of food and entertainment turned out to be a perfect recipe. People traveled to Green Pear Heights Restaurant not just from Bergen County and Staten Island, but from Israel and the Ukraine. Locals would come on Sundays for an early dinner of goulash accompanied by Strauss waltzes. Even when live performers weren’t lined up, diners came to enjoy the unique atmosphere, which reflected Molnar’s love for the circus arts and all things magic.
Then COVID hit.
“We had to shut down the music and magic, and we started connecting our audience with people in blue,” Molnar says. “My fundraiser was focused on young people wearing the uniform and our sponsors that agreed to cheer them up during their late-night shifts in Jersey City.”
She started a GoFundMe. The donations poured in.
“I will never ever forget this amazing experience—how people wanted to do something positive, feel alive and connected,” Molnar says. “I avoided organizations that were suddenly popping up and distributing donations however they wanted. Instead, we directly connected every officer with a named donor. For the first time in history, millennials from Hoboken were buying dinners for millennial cops on late-night shifts in Jersey City Heights.”
With the community’s help, Green Pear delivered 600 healthy dinners, snacks and drinks to the Jersey City North District Police Department. Molnar and her husband matched those donations and delivered 600 coffees and snacks to the staff of Christ Hospital in Jersey City.
“My children helped us through this, both physically and emotionally, and thus received an unforgettable experience as well,” she says.
Green Pear Group has managed to stay open throughout the pandemic—“pivoting, twisting and twirling”—even though they had to furlough their staff for liability and health reasons.
And while technology has enabled small businesses to expand their reach, “the importance and validity of the brick and mortar is here to stay,” Molnar says. “A few days ago, I heard an e-commerce employee say that mom and pop shops like mine don’t exist anymore. I just smiled and answered that they do exist—you just need to look under the magic pear tree.”
For more information about Green Pear Café and Green Pear Heights Restaurant, visit GreenPearGroup.com.