March 8, 2017

Food and Family Are the Key Notes in the Life of Raoul Momo

In reflecting on how he arrived at his current position as co-owner, with his brothers Carlo and Anthony of the Terra Momo Group of local restaurants, Raoul Momo thought about a subject much in the news recently: immigration.

“My parents were immigrants,” he said. “They came to America in 1960. I was born in 1961. It’s a melting pot culture. We have the rich food cultures here thanks to immigrants. The fact that my parents were immigrants is part of the history of this country. Immigrants have brought with them the great food cultures, and the melting pot has so much potential for the future.”

Including Teresa’s Caffe and Mediterra on Palmer Square, Eno Terra wine bar and restaurant in Kingston, and The Terra Momo Bread Company on Witherspoon Street, the Momo’s restaurant group “all started with Teresa Azario Momo, our mother, who was born in Bergamo, Italy, and our father, Raul Momo Marmonti, who was born in Chile.” 

“My mom was always cooking. Cooking was a big part of the family culture,” Mr. Momo recalled. “We always knew we’d be in the food business, not necessarily restaurants, but I was always interested in food. I was born in the Bronx, and I remember going to the butcher on Arthur Avenue as a kid.”

The family moved to Nanuet in Rockland County, New York, where “Mom opened a deli when I was in high school, and we all worked there.” In 1982, when Raoul was at Rutgers earning a degree in agricultural economics, which he completed the following year, the family opened Teresa II in New Brunswick, the first restaurant in the Terra Momo Group.

In 1987 Teresa’s expanded to Princeton on Nassau Street as a pizzeria, then in 1990 moved to its current location on Palmer Square. Mediterra followed in 1996, then the Witherspoon Bread Company in 1998.

“With Eno Terra in 2008 we opened our most ambitious project just when the recession hit,” Mr. Momo described, but not only has the Terra Momo Group survived and thrived, Mr. Momo reported that they are looking forward to expanding again, with a new restaurant, “a small Mediterra with Spanish tapas” opening in Shrewsbury, New Jersey this summer.

Passionate About Food

Mr. Momo emphasized the essence of his business. “We’re passionate about the food. That’s our strength. We are always trying to improve the food. And we’ve always loved the land, terra. We go visit the farmers. We make our own bread. We don’t believe you can make good food in huge quantities.”

He criticized large restaurant chains with their mass production techniques. “You keep seeing more and more chains, like the restaurants opening on Route One. There’s no way you can serve a quality product in huge quantities. It’s stuff that’s processed. They assemble it.”

Though he loves the constant human interactions, Mr. Momo noted that the greatest challenge in his job is working with people. “We employ 220 people,” he explained. “The hardest part for me is working with so many different individuals — the training, the managing. We have 25-30 managers. You have to be there for them. That’s what consumes most of my time.”

He pointed out that younger brother Anthony manages Mediterra, older brother Carlo is largely in charge of purchasing and coaching the staff and that he, Raoul, runs the office. “My role is more the business side of it, not to get involved too much in the daily operation.” But whether he actually follows that guideline is questionable.

A Day’s Work

“My daily routine includes as many visits to each of the localities as possible,” Mr. Momo said. “I stop in at the bakery, see the baker, then I go to Mediterra and see how my brother is doing. I talk to managers a lot. There are always facilities issues.”

He continued, “As part of the routine, we also dine frequently in our restaurants. The staff gets nervous. I say, ‘Just treat us like customers. We don’t want to be treated differently.’ ‘But you’re the owner,’ they say.”

In his own and other restaurants, “there’s a lot of eating,” Mr. Momo explained, but he did not hesitate when asked about his favorite food.

“I sure miss Mom’s cooking — Mom’s risotto, osso bucco, home-made pasta. That’s where the artisan idea of what we do in our restaurants comes from.” Ms. Momo now lives in Chile.

In addition to the multiplicity of daily demands and the number of employees, Mr. Momo noted that changing technology makes his job more difficult. “The way people are buying food is really changing because of technology. Technology is making the biggest impact on our industry. Next we’ll have robots serving food.”

Future and Past 

Mr. Momo has three sons and lives in Princeton with his wife, an administrative law judge with the federal government. He has traveled frequently in Europe and South America, but looks forward to a future trip to Asia. “I’ve read that China is going to have more wine than Chile in the next ten years. I look forward to visiting there.”

In looking back on more than 30 years in the food business, Mr. Momo reflected, “It’s been a fulfilling career. Things keep changing. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new comes along.”

But for Raoul Momo and the Terra Momo Group, some things never change. “With big agriculture today, I think we’ve lost something,” he concluded. “We have to get away from so much emphasis on big corporations and back to smaller carefully prepared meals. When you make food in large quantities it’s not the same as that homemade meal. If you want to eat healthy, you’ve got to make it from scratch. I thank Mom and Dad. They brought that culture with them to America.”