There was once a corner sandwich shop in Morristown called Fattys. It was an establishment that didn’t pretend to be something it wasn’t. There were no salads on the menu. 1000 calories per serving was the bare minimum, and if you inquired about any gluten free or keto options, you were politely asked to leave. We existed to serve people who wished to indulge. After all, our motto was “Every Day is a Cheat Day”, and we were open until 3am every single day. When disaster struck, or I simply needed a breather from the chaotic existence of my chosen life as a serial entrepreneur, I would step outside onto the corner of Morris and Spring Street. I would walk up the street toward the green about 60 feet and stand on this grassy vacant lot. I had no idea how it came to be or who it belonged to. I didn’t even know it had its own address. But I had a feeling there was some type of history. It was a great location. How could it be vacant? At this time, I was just beginning my foray into commercial real estate and it was seemingly a pipe dream to ever own or control such an asset. After all, raw land was a blank canvas, and attempting to develop it in a hot market was tremendously risky. How could it ever be mine? The barriers of entry were insurmountable. There’s no way I could ever get in.
Until I did.
I heard a random conversation about this land being available. To me, it meant there was a possibility, however remote, it could be available to me. I contacted the property owners, and it took 8 months to even get a meeting with them. When I did, it took another year for them to even take me seriously.
I wasn’t an experienced real estate investor, let alone developer. The land was in a special redevelopment zone which meant there was an additional layer of red tape and hurdles to overcome before the planning board will even consider you. Everything about this deal said…”go away”. I knew there had to be an angle. I didn’t know what I was looking for, until I found the missing piece to the puzzle. The public record states that this property is only 18 feet wide, therefore making it next to impossible to build a multi floor structure on it. I found a property card from 1957 stating that this was incorrect, and after sending my engineers out to survey the property, I discovered the true dimension was in fact, 27 feet wide. Turns out that when the property records were digitized, the dimensions were improperly recorded. And since the land has been vacant since 1962, nobody bothered to check. I had discovered a needle in a haystack, now all I had to do was convince the largest, most sophisticated property owners in Morristown to hand it over to someone with no experience or money.
We agreed on a ground lease with a future purchase option, and I sought to develop the property the old school way. My family restaurant business at the base floor (Fattys and Sugarlips Donuts) with my new family residing upstairs. A true departure from the generic, massive apartment buildings being erected everywhere by faceless corporations. It’s the style of real estate development that led to the establishment of cities all across the United States; the old way of doing things in a modern era of scrappy entrepreneurs trying to graduate into a larger world. Keep your eyes peeled on the growing Morristown Streetscape in the next year to watch this project become a reality.
Michael Dey is a former Master Automotive Technician that morphed into a restaurant entrepreneur and real estate investor/developer.