'Dine Out Day' seeks to boost Camden merchants

Waitress Angelica Flores delivers food to Rutgers-Camden students (from left) Tom Dahan, Madison Rogers, and Keith Hurley at the San Lucas Mexican Restaurant during the first Friday Dine Out Day.
Waitress Angelica Flores delivers food to Rutgers-Camden students (from left) Tom Dahan, Madison Rogers, and Keith Hurley at the San Lucas Mexican Restaurant during the first Friday Dine Out Day. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 17, 2013

CAMDEN The dining hall food was getting tired, Brian Gregg, a sophomore at Rutgers-Camden, said before digging into a plate of tortilla chips garnished with refried beans and queso fresco.

Gregg, 19, left campus Friday to chow down at San Lucas Mexican Restaurant in East Camden as part of the first Friday Dine Out Day - an initiative launched by the Latin American Economic Development Association (LAEDA) to promote local businesses, a week after a city curfew for late-night eateries took effect.

"A lot of students will drive in, park, and then drive home. They're afraid to leave campus," said Gregg, an urban studies major who runs an after-school program at Pyne Point Middle School. "Rutgers is really good at bringing in new businesses, but I don't think they do a great job promoting the ones that already exist."

On Friday, a Rutgers shuttle brought students to the small corner restaurant at 26th and Federal Streets for chips, quesadillas, burritos, and conversation.

Raymond Lamboy, president of LAEDA, organized the event, which brought in a dozen people, mostly Rutgers students, for the $11 prix fixe lunch.

Lamboy said he wants to do the meals on a monthly basis - a Puerto Rican holiday feast will come in December - to bring local employees and students into town to spend money and enjoy the local fare.

"Small business owners are the drivers of our city. We're hoping people looking for that urban adventure, people in college who have that spirit, and employees will check out a new restaurant once a month."

He said the ultimate goal is to connect waterfront attractions with commercial corridors so people "stop for authentic Mexican food at San Lucas before a ball game or head to Old San Juan after a concert."

Rutgers graduate student Sayla Hart, 29, said fellow students usually stick to the dining hall or Victor's Pub on the waterfront. Victor's restaurant is largely considered the main meeting spot for working professionals.

Hart, who grew up in East Camden, encourages friends to explore her more expansive list of options.

"I tell them over and over, the food is great and the people are great. I've got my favorite little Vietnamese place down the road, usually I'll stop in at the bodegas, [which have] really, really good rice and chicken."

Adela Medina, owner of San Lucas, which has been at its current location for 10 years and spent 12 years down the block, said the day was an "opportunity to promote American Mexican food and bring in more people."

Lamboy said the planning for the event unfolded as an appeals court upheld a city curfew for late-night eateries. Lamboy has said the decision unfairly targets small business owners.

The curfew, which affects mostly take-out businesses - not San Lucas, which closes at 10 - went into effect last week.

City spokesman Robert Corrales said code enforcement officials were doing a final assessment to see which businesses were exempt from the curfew. Those within 200 feet of a residential zone must close at midnight Fridays and Saturdays and 11 p.m. the rest of the week. Bars and restaurants with liquor licenses are exempt because they follow state regulations.

"There are just a few that are waiting to see if they fall under the ordinance or not," Corrales said. "We want to make sure we're not closing down any businesses unfairly."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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