“If you told me two years ago, I’d be making pizzas, I’d have said you were crazy.”
So says Michael VanLeeuwen, owner of JRs Pub in Fords NJ. Fords is a wedge of Woodbridge Township located just at the border of Edison and minutes from my personal food mecca of Metuchen. Despite owning a home only blocks away for over 20 years, I never set foot in the place till very recently. Not until Mike started making pizza and making it oh-so-well.
The bar operated without food service for nearly 40 years, with Mike and his wife Alison owning it for the last 20. After the long COVID shutdown, regulations only allowed them to reopen in June 2020 for outside service if they had dining. Enter Pie Oh My Mobile Wood Fired Pizza! They invested in not one, but three trucks and didn’t waste any time creating a welcoming space for longtime pub regulars and new patrons to enjoy. With a little creativity and a lot of manual labor they quickly reinvented their parking lot into a spacious eatery smack in the middle of Fords’ tiny downtown area.
All that was left to do was…learn how to make pizza. The Van Leeuwens leveraged family connections in the pizza business and caught on quickly. Making the pies himself at first, the delicious results and the addition of live music and ice cream from Sip N Swirl grew the dining business so much that Mike was quickly ready to add kitchen staff. Now one truck is at JRs all the time, thus the new moniker “beer and pizza garden,” while another went to the waterfront food court at the Sandbox at Seastreak in Atlantic Highlands and the third has been hopping for the last two summers at community events and private parties.
So what are they serving? Salads, Bavarian Pretzels, Wood Fired pigs in a blanket, hummus plates, ice cream and Dole Whips and of course LOTS of pizza! There are the classics and creative weekly specials and even dessert pies. Let me show you, starting with the first pie I tasted in March of this year and right up to one I had on a road trip last week to the Sandbox location (where I found the Cranston Dean Band on stage and Mike working the oven.)
If you know Mike, you understand why this new venture came together so beautifully. I’ve never seen him not in motion…whether he is stacking wood for the pizza ovens, replacing kegs, driving his “pizza kids” staff to events or anything else you can think of that makes a restaurant and bar run smoothly. I’ve also never seen him without a smile. Even being busy on site so much he takes the time to meet his customers and learn what’s important to them. He takes tremendous pride in all elements of his establishment and takes the challenges of entrepreneurship in stride. Though I didn’t meet him until after he conquered pizza making, if I had and he said he was going to tackle being a restaurateur; I would not have doubted for a moment he would master it.
JRs Beer & Pizza Garden clinched the deal as one of my most frequented spots by making a commitment to feature live music. Pre-COVID the indoor pub lacked the space for large bands on a regular basis. Now out in the garden there is a stage that hosts local cover bands, Asbury Park indie rockers, popular tribute bands and regional acts like American Beauty (Grateful Dead tribute) and Dueling Pianos three nights a week. They even take table reservation, though the lucky residents of the senior living facility across the street usually just take it all in from their own front lawn. Offering fantastic food, ample outdoor space, and quality music for almost six months of the year (they have heaters and fire pits for fall) and plans in motion to elevate the dining area with a mural by a local artist, there isn’t another place like it for many miles. I am thrilled to be able to walk there.
And you should run, not walk there! Cranston Dean returns this Sunday August 29 and there is music every weekend. The beer garden is open Wednesday-Sunday 4PM-10PM (weather permitting) and the indoor bar is open 7 days a week at 12 noon.
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