By ANDREW SCOTT
An unexpected injury and a notable visitor played an important role in Josef Kustra’s life. The injury was to his back, and years later the visitor was the mayor of Bridgeport, Joseph Ganim. It was these two unlikely forces that combined to create Ye Olde Tollgate Steakhouse, a restaurant located in the heart of Bridgeport.
“I was working for Peter Lugers Steakhouse in New York as a waiter when I had the back injury,” Kustra said.
While being unable to perform his duties with Peter Lugers for seven months, Kustra had time to think about his life and where he was going.
Kustra had already put his five kids through college and was coming face to face with the grim reality that he couldn’t wait tables anymore. Then the idea came. He was going to start his own restaurant. Kustra, along with his wife of 32 years and four business partners, proceeded to open the first Ye Olde Tollgate Steakhouse in Mamaroneck, N.Y., in 1995. He coined the name for the restaurant from an old 18th-century toll booth which existed in Mamaroneck for carriages which carried passengers commuting from New York to Boston.
The visits by Ganim to the Mamaroneck location of the steakhouse came in the following years, but it wasn’t so much the visits that were important as to what the mayor had to say. “The mayor said, ‘why don’t you open one of these [restaurants] up in Bridgeport?’” Kustra recalled. So when a bar closed on Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport, Kustra answered the mayor’s call and jumped at the opportunity on his own.
“I have an adventurous, John Wayne-like mentality where everything is a frontier. Yes, it took a little extra effort, but I like a challenge,” the Croatian-born restaurateur said.
It’s a challenge that so far has paid off. Last week, the steakhouse celebrated its first year at its Bridgeport location. “You know they say ‘If you survive the first year of business then you’re in good shape,’” Kustra said, elated.
He attributes the success of the steakhouse so far to his direct-marketing approach. The best way to grow a business is to tell your customers that if they’re happy with your service, they should tell their friends, explained Kustra. “Once you get those repeat customers, then your success is guaranteed.”
Kustra works along with his wife, Susan, who handles the steakhouse’s decorations and administrative tasks, and five other employees. The steakhouse is laid out in typical steakhouse-look brick walls, mahogany panels and oak wood floors and has two dining room areas and a bar.
Its fare includes broiled salmon, twin lobster tails, a chicken dish of the day, and a small variety of entrees as alternatives to its steak dinner – which is a move, Kustra says, to keep things simple.
“Simplicity in life is what makes for good success. Things need to be simple, but good!” said Kustra, referring to the fact that sometimes businesses like his dilute their menus by offering everything to everyone all the time. “We’re not like that. We’re offering something specific that certain people like,” said Kustra.
Steak dinners can range in price from $28 for a single dinner to more than $100 for four.
“I believe that serving the best piece of meat is the best way to go,” he said.
His clientele includes a steady stream of working-class customers during the workday, but weekends are when the stakes at the steakhouse rise.
“We typically have 80 to 100 people on a Saturday night,” Kustra said.
Meshed against the backdrop of a casual, laid-back atmosphere are typically high-end customers feverishly discussing recent events and debating topics of the day.
And with what’s going on both in Bridgeport and New York City currently, there’s plenty to talk about.
Kustra is saddened by events in the past weeks, but, despite these events and the corruption case in Bridgeport, he is optimistic that Bridgeport will thrive. “In my view there’s a bright tomorrow for the city of Bridgeport.”
If the futuristic tomorrow for Bridgeport involves healthy competition then Kustra has a “bring it on” mentality. Kustra is already thinking of using an area behind the restaurant to host cocktails and other social events. “I’m not afraid of competing businesses. I think the more restaurants we have in Bridgeport the more traffic we’ll have of different people trying different things they like,” said Kustra. “The more [restaurants] the merrier, and may the best survive.”