Prior to the pandemic, Marcello De Feo and his family used to head to Zinburger at Garden State Park in Cherry Hill whenever the burger and wine bar hosted local school fundraisers.
He’d glance around at all the Haddonfield families he knew enjoying specialty burgers and fries – parents often sipping wine or a beer while the kids enjoyed their milkshakes.
Wouldn’t it be nice, he thought, if they could stay home in Haddonfield and do that?
While nearby places such as P.J. Whelihan’s and The Taproom offer burgers and libations, there was nothing providing that same experience in his hometown.
Now, De Feo, owner of the fine dining restaurant Valente’s Cucina in Kings Court, hopes to bring that experience – with a twist – to his hometown with the launch of The Fare Porter, a specialty burger and sandwich business focusing on takeout, with limited counter and outdoor seating.
The Fare Porter gets its name from De Feo’s years growing up in South Philly, when he lived on the intersection of 21st and Porter streets. The “fare’’ part refers to the food or drink a porter might bring you, he said, and he likes how the “porter’’ part also might put you in mind of a porterhouse steak – or perhaps a beer.
Even if no one gets a specific reference, he wants to honor his past, just as he did by lending his mother’s maiden name to his fine dining restaurant.
The burger restaurant is expected to make its debut in December in the space that formerly housed Bleu Bear bakery on Kings Highway. De Feo has a partner for his new business – Johnnie Reynolds, executive chef of Valente’s (and formerly of Parc on Rittenhouse Square).
At the same time, De Feo is expanding the footprint of Valente’s, an Italian restaurant that began as a small specialty food market in 2018. De Feo revamped and rebranded it into a warm but sophisticated dining experience last year, and now plans to expand across King’s Court into what had been a borough information center.
“We rented the information center out and our intention is to make it a private events space, and also a second dining room for when we lose the outdoor seating,’’ he explained.
Regular customers of the former Valente’s Italian Specialties market knew they could go in and order a sandwich piled high with imported meats and cheeses. De Feo also partnered with chef David Murray (formerly of Denim BYOB) and Walt Gouldsbury (owner of The Custard Cart) for a time on Founder & Signer, a pop-up burger concept that generated a buzz at the local farmers market, but De Feo said they could never find the right brick and mortar for the venture at the time.
Murray and Gouldsbury have since opened Crumb, a specialty sandwich shop, of which is De Feo is an early fan.
“They were always destined to do something together,’’ he said of Murray and Gouldsbury. “We were on these three-way group text messages, and it was clear they both existed on the same exact plane and fed off of each other so well … I’m super thrilled to see [Crumb] come to fruition. They’ve been insanely busy already, which is amazing. And things work out the way they are supposed to.’’
Likewise, De Feo feels he’s found the perfect partner in Reynolds, who lives in Sicklerville. His resume also includes The Palm Restaurant, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Sampan.
“It is a great fit, the two of us,’’ said De Feo. “We work really well together. We counterbalance each other and don’t step on each other’s toes.’’
While The Fare Porter will start out as a small, quick-service establishment, “the intention is to really get to a point where we are a full-service restaurant with an ample dining room. Our plan is to outgrow the space.’’
While high-quality, gourmet burgers and handcut fries will be the focus, De Feo intends to have a little fun with his new venture by serving some over-the-top milkshakes.
“I’m not usually into trends, but there is something about the whole trendy milkshake thing. It’s … absurdly enjoyable! It is just comical when you get a milkshake and there is like a piece of cake jabbed through the straw. I just feel like that is something really fun to do.’’
While the burger menu is still in the research and development phase, De Feo was able to drop some temping milkshake flavors his guests might expect to find on the menu: Banana Crème Brûlée, Tres Leches, Funfetti Cake Bomb, Nutella S’mores, and Peanut Butter and Salted Caramel.
“The actual over-the-top aspect and how it all plays off each other is still a work in progress,’’ he said.
“We’ve been making our own ice cream at Valente’s. It might be too hard to do that at the scale to make milkshakes going out of the gate to make our own, but Johnnie comes up with some great concepts for the restaurant, such as jackfruit and coconut.’’
The partners are working with area bakers to find the right provisions including buns for their new concept which, in addition to burgers, will include wings as well as the cheesesteaks he used to offer at the market.
Handcut fries will be made fresh by Reynolds daily.
“Johnnie spent time at Parc, and they went through an insane amount of fries on a daily basis. He certainly has the process down to a science making fries,’’ De Feo said. “Our base-level French fry is going to be holding a very high standard.’’
Look forward to a few options such as poutine, or green chili and cheese fries, “very much inspired by this little Mexican restaurant near where [De Feo and his wife Carrie] used to live in Colorado.’’
“The focus will be on quality ingredients and on the execution of it. There’s not going to be much that’s going to be very campy or far out. It will just be the hope of making something unique that you can’t get anywhere else in town.
“We want to keep the menu short and tight, like Valente’s,’’ De Feo continued. “We want to focus on the things that we do best. We’ll rotate in some soups, some salads, and some special grilled cheeses, but beyond that, it’s the milkshakes, over-the-top milkshakes.’’
Kings Road Brewing Co. is right down the street, and The Fare Porter will deliver there, De Feo promised.
“If there is one thing that is a perfect match for beer, it’s burgers, right?’’ he said. “We will also carry wine from Auburn Road Vineyards. We’ll have that option for takeout and delivery.’’
The Bleu Bear space proved a nearly turnkey situation for the partners, who plan to stick to a “pretty classic vibe’’ inside, perhaps in the style of a place like Village Whiskey in Philadelphia, De Feo said.
Once The Fare Porter is running smoothly, De Feo and Reynolds envision hosting private dinners a few times a year, with a prix fixe menu, “steak frites or next-level burgers, something like that.’’
Wine tasting events with Scott Donnini of Auburn Road also may be on the horizon.
But for now, De Feo is just happy to see his vision take shape in the middle of a town that has been enjoying a slow and steady culinary renaissance, a new place his own kids can come with their friends to slurp milkshakes and appreciate their Instagram-worthy presentations.
“I want there to be another place in Haddonfield that makes Haddonfield residents stay here on a Friday or Saturday night, rather than look for dining options elsewhere,’’ he said. “I hope that has the bigger effect — you come and grab a burger from us, and you hit the town shopping.’’
Go: The Fare Porter, 109 Kings Highway, Haddonfield. Website is under construction and coming soon to thefareporter.com/
Tammy Paolino is Features Editor for the Atlantic South region of the USA Today Network. She’s an award-winning reporter and editor who loves to cover trends, diversity, the arts, food and drink. Reach her at [email protected] or 856-486-2477 or on Twitter @CP_TammyPaolino. Help support local journalism with a digital subscription.