The Pivot: How Chef Lucas Manteca Is Shifting Gears During the Pandemic

Lucas Manteca photographed by Yvonne Yuen
Yvonne Yuen

More than two decades ago, lifelong surfer Lucas Manteca had no plans to trade the thundering breakers of his native Argentine coast for the mild swells of Cape May County, NJ, but he met his wife, Deanna Ebner, and the couple moved to the Cape, where the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay lock together like a dovetail joint. Both are still avid surfers but are better known as the operators of the highest quality hospitality group at this end of the shore, where they own three restaurants, including seafood tavern Quahog’s in Stone Harbor and the upscale-country Red Store in Cape May Point, and manage a fourth.

“We’ve been in business in the area for 18 years,” says Manteca. “We work our asses off, and this was the year we were going to start harvesting all the sweat [equity].”

Over last winter, when most restaurants in these seasonal beach communities go into hibernation, Manteca and Ebner planned for their biggest summer to date: hiring support staff, expanding into more management deals, nailing down investors for their own new concepts.

“It was looking really good and really strong, then the pandemic came, and we had to undo everything we had planned. We had no idea what the summer would be.”

The Pivot: Manteca and Ebner started by making tough but firm decisions. “We didn’t want to have the anxiety of the game changing as we were going, so we looked into our operations, ran the numbers, knowing unemployment and hiring would be main issues.” They chose to focus on Quahog’s, leaning into a take-out operation, while delaying the season opening of the Red Store, and turning their quick-service taco stand next to Cape May Brewery into a commissary kitchen.

“Take-out became a monster. Because we had to lower our prices and we do all eco packaging, our profit margin was super low.” Manteca is not complaining, though. The take-out revenues, augmented with a PPP loan, “meant we were able to keep our key and salary people on staff.”

During quarantine, Manteca also launched a side business, Smart Seasoning, a superfood condiment made with dulse, turmeric, and nutritional yeast. “I had a feeling e-commerce was going to be really strong, and it was. With the chance of a second wave, I wanted to have a creative project that I can do from home, so if things get bad again, I might have a source of income.”

And if cooking and running restaurants falls through, Manteca, who’s allergic to sitting still, has a back-up plan. “I was looking in online courses for HVAC.”

The Future: New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy green-lit outdoor dining in mid-June, a boon for Quahog’s, which has a large outdoor dining room that makes social distancing easy. The much smaller Red Store finally opened for the season, but only with a take-out menu emphasizing Manteca’s flaky, portable empanadas. “You order online, text us when you arrive, and we bring the order outside.” There are self-seating tables in the rear garden, places far apart among the indigo hydrangea bushes.

Things appeared to be progressing in a positive direction, as New Jersey boasted some of the best COVID numbers in the country, and the state planned on opening indoor dining for Fourth of July, one of the busiest weekends at the Jersey Shore. But as in many other states who’d flattened their curves early, some of those gains began sliding, and Murphy decided to play it safe, delaying the indoor dining opening indefinitely. “Some jerks,” Manteca says, at both the customer and owner levels, ruined things for the folks playing by the rules. “Some businesses are breaking the rules to make that extra buck. I’m not risking my people, my staff, my family, my guests. We’re not giving people that platform to be unresponsive.”

Still Manteca remains hopeful. He feels the constitution of Shore business owners, a mix of scrappiness and prudence forged during challenges endemic to the region, is an asset to lean into right now.

“We’ve been through rainy seasons, hurricanes, electric cuts where your walk-in goes down three times in a week. We live frugally to get through the winters. We build our businesses with our own hands, and we will survive.”

We build our businesses with our own hands, and we will survive.

Lucas Manteca recipe photographed by Yvonne Yuen
Yvonne Yuen

Argentinian Empanadas (Courtesy Lucas Manteca)

Makes 10 empanadas

4 tbsp unsalted butter
1½ red bell peppers, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
½ poblano pepper, diced
½ yellow onion, diced
2½ pounds ground beef
1 bunch scallions, julienned
½ cup green olives, drained, pitted and halved lengthwise
3 hard-boiled eggs, roughly chopped
½ cup raisins
1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tbsp cumin
1½ tbsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
¼ tsp black pepper
1 cup tomato puree
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
1½ tbsp oregano
2 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp Sriracha
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
10 prepared empanada dough discs
1 egg
¼ cup of water or milk

Melt the butter in your largest skillet oven medium-low heat. Add the peppers and onions, cover, and sweat until tender, about 15 minutes.

Remove the onions and peppers from the pan and reserve. Increase the heat to medium-high and add half the beef and allow it to brown while breaking it up with a spoon or spatula.

Remove and reserve the browned beef and repeat the process with the remaining beef. Return the reserved beef and reserved onions and peppers to the pan and add all the remaining ingredients except for the flour and the dough.

Reduce the heat to medium and allow the mixture to cook for 10 minutes, occasionally stirring. Evenly sprinkle the flour over top and cook for 2 minutes, then remove the filling from heat. Allow it to completely cool, then transfer it to the fridge to chill.

Preheat the oven to 450°F and line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Lay out the empanada discs on a clean surface. Beat the egg with the water or milk to make an egg wash. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the perimeter of one disc.

Place about 2 tbsp of chilled filling in the center of the disc, fold the disc over so the edges meet, and tightly press to seal the empanada. Crimp the edges with a fork. Repeat for the remaining discs, transfer to the prepared pan, and brush the top of each empanada with egg wash. Bake until golden-brown, about 15 minutes.

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