Since opening in 1990, the converted Levelor Blinds Factory on the city's formerly industrial west side has maintained an eclectic mixture of businesses that now include ad agencies, interior designers, cake bakers, architects, toy makers, dance instructors, and yoga studios.
Over the years, the Monroe Center has gained the reputation for attracting some of the city's funkiest and most innovative small businesses and entrepreneurs.
'Cakediva' in the house
Charmaine "Cakediva" Jones, who is known for her highly elaborate cake designs, has been there from the beginning, even before the former factory was renovated to include walls to create separate lofts.
In the early 1990s, Jones was balancing two careers, one as a model/music composer and the other as a budding cake baker.
"I was modeling at the time, so to stay in shape I would turn up the house music and rollerskate all over the building while I made sugar flowers," said the energetic and slightly eccentric Jones.
Then when her cake business took off, Jones decided to forgo modeling to become the "Cakediva" full-time. Jones, who is an avid soap opera fan, has had her cakes featured in episodes of All My Children, One Life to Live, and The City.
Her other clients have included musician Erykah Badu; Queen Latifah's mom; Michael Jordan; Jay Leno, and Susan Sarandon.
It's a career for which she had a certain genetic aptitude, considering that her mother was a French pastry baker and her father was an artist and architect. Jones herself has a master's degree in fine arts from Loyola University. While her specialty is African-inspired cake designs, she has the skill to bake just about any cake design imaginable. Some of her all-time favorites include a four-tiered cake incorporating a tank full of live goldfish for the opening of the Atlantis Hotel in Paradise Island, Bahamas.
Her creations have also appeared in Essence, Wedding Dresses magazine, Bride magazine, and Time Out New York, among others.
Currently, she is setting up a cake display at the Newark Museum's Here Come the Brides: Fairy Tales, Folklore & Wedding Traditions exhibit.
"I feel really proud that I've have been able to change the course of cake-making history," said Jones, who said she is beginning to write a book to teach others her techniques. "Hopefully one day 'Cakediva' will become as common a word as General Mills."
Snowboarding in Hoboken?
The Cakediva is just one of the interesting businesses in the Monroe Center. Bo Dziman runs Turbine Boardwear, a company that designs and distributes snow board jackets and pants.
While mountain-less Hoboken might seem like an odd place for such a business, Dziman has been able to use New Jersey's reputation to his advantage. He has marketed his clothes as "Boardwear from the Toxic State," a tongue-in-cheek tagline that Dziman says plays well with young snowboarders looking for an urban look. Currently Turbine's clothes are stocked in over 2,000 stores around the county, and according to Dziman, his company is currently in the top 10 nationally in terms of snow board apparel sales, with over 200,000 pants and jackets sold annually.
All of the clothes are designed in Hoboken, and stored and distributed from warehouse in California. Dziman, who has been at the Monroe Center for about five years, said Tuesday the unique makeup of the building's tenants has helped their creative process.
"Nearly every day, in the hallways, you have the most interesting conversations with artists and other business owners," said Dziman "It's a very stimulating and thought-provoking place."
He added what makes the environment even better is that most of the companies, including his, are largely staffed by local residents.
"There's all of this wonderful talent to tap into here in Hoboken," said Dziman, who is himself a happy Hobokenite. He moved into his Hudson Street home about 10 years ago, and he can be seen riding his green Vespa Scooter around the city. "I live here, work here and shop here," Dziman said.
And now, even as his business grows, he has no intentions of moving Turbine. "Hoboken is the heart and soul of our business," he said.
Ad men...and women also
Dziman isn't the only one that says the casual atmosphere and lack of corporate stuffiness is a definite plus. When Hammerhead Advertising Agency was formed five years ago, it operated out of founder John Perl's cramped Jersey City apartment. But then about three years ago, they moved into a spacious loft in the Monroe Center, where their business has more than doubled every year since.
Today Perls and co-founder Todd McVey have an eight-person staff, bill out over $5 million annually, and have held prized accounts with noted companies such as Chef Central, buybuy Baby, Component Hardware, Intronis, Bayonne Medical Center, NJ Partnership for a Drug Free America, and the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation. "Here we are, a small firm, tucked into a loft space on the west side of Hoboken that's taking business away from Madison Avenue," Perls said.
In many ways, said Perls and McVay, the milieu at the Monroe Center has helped them build their image. "It a great environment with so many different funky businesses and people," said Perls.
"I think that one of the reasons that most people in the building get along so well is because we're all in the same boat," said Perls. "We're entrepreneurs that are trying to make it, which gives us a lot of common ground to talk about."
You think it, we make it
Another one of the more fascinating businesses is the three-person industrial design firm Propeller Inc. What does an industrial designer do?
"It's similar to an architect, but instead of designing buildings, we design products," explained Propeller President Ken Zorovich, who runs the company with Managing Director Yos Kumthampinij and Senior Mechanical Engineer John Earle. Their clients include small start-ups to Fortune 500 companies from a wide rage of industries.
The two-and-a-half-year-old company has designed everything from toys to camping equipment, to complex medical machines.
Clients come to them with a concept and then Propeller conducts research, graphically and mechanically designs the product, builds a prototype, and even pitches a marketing and brand strategy.
Recently, they have designed high-tech headlamps for camping and spelunking. Also, they are working with Nike's Advanced Innovation Team on a product development project.
"The environment at the Monroe Center has been a real benefit for us because there is this great cross-pollination of ideas and services," said Zorovich. He said that recently they used a photographer from the Monroe Center whose product shots were part of the presentation that won them the Nike contract.
Plans for the future
The Monroe Center currently has city approvals to expand into a large mixed-use project. Upon completion, Monroe Center will include 435 residences, 125,000 square feet of retail, and 110,500 square feet of office/studio space, 1,120 indoor parking spaces, and 1.25 acres of community space.
In addition to the existing buildings, Monroe Center will consist of two new 13-story high-rises, one new 12-story high-rise, one new 10-story high-rise, two new five-story mid-rises, enclosed parking garages, ancillary parking and other amenities.