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Turning the Tables: Developer Becomes Restaurauteur

Chatham resident and former real estate developer Bill Oliver takes a leap of faith in opening Morristown cafe.

Following decades in the real estate development business, long-time Chatham resident Bill Oliver cooked up a new career for himself when he opened the Morristown-based Zebu Forno, a European-style bakery and restaurant.

Though Oliver had no prior culinary or retail experience, he knew what he liked. While working in Red Bank, he became a fan of the flagship restaurant, known in the area for its thin-crust pizza and locally-roasted five-bean proprietary blend of coffee.

Oliver became friendly with the owner and franchise president, Andrew Gennusa, and through him he learned that the Morristown location was available for lease.

Against the advice of everyone he knew, Oliver said, he decided to give it a shot.

The intrepid entrepreneur likened opening the restaurant to jumping into a lake. "How deep is the water? I don't know, but I'm about to find out," he said, with a laugh.

What has surprised Oliver most about the business is the amount of hard work necessary to keep the restaurant running smoothly. An admirer of friend and neighbor Karen Hayes, the owner of , Oliver said he has acquired a new appreciation for both the courage and the energy required.

Oliver's dedication is evident. The spacious eatery is perfect for families, the father of four said. Moms can easily stop in for lunch with the kids or an afternoon cup of coffee and cupcake. The BYOB establishment also offers paninis and pastas, though it is best known for its fragrant, hand-tossed, made-to-order pizzas.

"There's plenty of room and they [children] can't break anything," Oliver said.

Despite its ample dining area, the restaurant maintains a welcoming, neighborhood feel, thanks in part to the warm and inviting aroma of freshly-baked muffins and breads.

Deep, leather chairs are clustered about the room, offering a comfortable respite for those looking to relax. Muted flat screen televisions can't compete with the eye-catching murals painted by Toms River artist Gregg Hinlicky, whose work was commissioned specifically for the space and celebrates famous artists as well as historical figures.

Zebu celebrates its first anniversary this month with Oliver at the oven. While he said there have been some highlights, the past year hasn't all been as sweet as one of Zebu's fancy cupcakes. The struggling economy and a spate of other eateries opening in close proximity have forced the business owner to hang up his apron and put on his thinking cap.

In addition to delicious food, Oliver serves up a different kind of local flavor at the eatery. By showcasing the work of homegrown painters and musicians, the restaurateur is setting his place apart from the competition.

The back of the store is home to rotating art exhibits where local painters can showcase their talents. Oliver said of the artists who've displayed their wares, three out of four have sold paintings. Each is welcome to have an opening reception for friends and admirers.

Beginning Aug. 15, the work of Chatham's own will be on display for diners to enjoy.

On weekends, Zebu offers a wide array of musical entertainment. Not wanting to exclude any genres, Oliver has featured the likes of DJ Josh Thomas as well as high school bands and acoustic performers. Looking ahead, the open-minded owner is even considering a variety show featuring music and comedy supplied by another Chatham-based showman.

Continuing his commitment to the community, Oliver has partnered with local schools and sports teams by offering to contribute 20 percent of sales on certain evenings to their fundraising efforts.

Oliver said he recently reached out to Glassworks, a popular destination for children's birthday parties, and worked out an arrangement where Zebu will supply pizzas for the event.

One of the highlights, in addition to the thrill of the shop's opening, has been seeing some of his hard work come to fruition. In the case of Glassworks, Oliver said he was pleasantly surprised to receive orders after laying the ground work.

Some changes could be on the horizon for the restaurant, including its quirky name — Zebu is French for a pack animal used to carry coffee beans and Forno is Italian for oven. Oliver is also considering upgrading his already high-quality breads. He hopes to spread the word about catering and delivery.

Oliver said tackling this new venture wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for the constant support of his wife, Laura. The two met at Lehigh University, where they both attended, and married in 1986.

"I lucked out," Oliver said "She's a great wife, very supportive. She's worked full-time ever since we've been married. But what I really admire is that she makes every moment that she's home count. It's always quality time. She's a wonderful role model for our daughters as well as our sons."

Oliver, who grew up on Long Island, said Chatham has been a great place to raise his children, who range from ; daughter Kate, a sophomore at his and his wife's alma mater; son Brian, who attends Chatham High School; and daughter Sarah, a Chatham Middle School student.

It isn't just the schools that make the town a great place, Oliver said, but the people that make the community special.

"That's the great thing about Chatham, everyone volunteers their time," he noted.

In his free time, or what's left of it, he joked, Oliver tries to attend as many of his son's basketball games as possible and spend time with his family.

For more information, visit http://www.zebuforno.com/

Peggy Nelson August 18, 2011 at 03:27 PM
How about an address! I'm in Morristown a lot and would like to try Oliver's restaurant. phn811
Liz Alterman August 18, 2011 at 05:24 PM
Hi Peggy, It's located at 9 South St. There is a map on the right side of the page. Also, if you click on the restaurant's name within the first paragraph, it will take you to Zebu's website.
Jersey Joe October 09, 2011 at 03:10 AM
Went there to see some awesome live (free) music. The atmosphere was great. Seemed like everyone had a smile on their face that entered. Was very family friendly too. There was even a 10 month old baby in the audience bouncing to the music. Felt like I was sitting in my living room enjoying the band. The owner was very friendly and attentive. Great to have a place in Morristown that supports N.J. artists and live music.

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