Newark’s Halsey Street was hopping last Friday night, as Mayor Cory Booker, Rutgers University Chancellor Steven J. Diner and a host of other luminaries gathered to celebrate the grand opening of Cravings, a gourmet eatery and caterer that aims to transform the city’s downtown.

Owned by South Orange resident Marisa Blackwell, Cravings is the result of a unique public-private partnership between The Profeta Urban Investment Foundation and The Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development (CUEED) at Rutgers Business School. The venture funds minority-owned entrepreneurs who want to launch or expand their businesses in Newark.

At the event, the partnership presented an emotional Blackwell with a $155,400 check, representing an interest-free loan. “It was overwhelming,” she said. “It was the culmination of two years of work.”

Cravings joins three other Halsey Street establishments – a coffeehouse, a printing company and a financial services firm founded by people with disabilities – assisted by the joint venture. For the partners, it is just the beginning of a quest to transform the Brick City into a 24/7 hot spot.

“In the 1950s, Newark rivaled New York City in prestige, action and electricity,” said Paul Profeta, a real estate investor who spearheaded the project (shown here at far right). “I want to bring it back to its former glory.” Profeta, who has donated $1 million of his own money through his foundation, envisions the area as a destination like the Ironbound, with a lively mix of restaurants, bakeries and coffeehouses.

Halsey Street’s position at the center of the city’s business district and adjacent to the campuses of Rutgers, NJIT, UMDNJ and Essex Community College made it the ideal location. “We have over 30,000 students in the area,” said Dr. dt ogilvie, CUEED’s Founding Director. “Having a revitalized Halsey Street would make a difference to them, the community and the City of Newark.”

The business school’s Executive MBA students recommend candidates for the Profeta Foundation to fund, and the students also serve as mentors to the business owners. Dr. ogilvie and the other key players hope the project will spur on similar public-private alliances in other urban university areas. “Our Dean says he’ll be thrilled when kids from New York City come to Halsey Street for entertainment,” she said.

The program’s influence has already been felt. For example, it provided a loan for the owner of the printing company to purchase more sophisticated equipment. Said Profeta, “At the grand opening event, he told me that his bottom line has more than doubled.”

Blackwell, who has a background in food service, says the idea for Cravings emanated from her experience as the go-to caterer for the EMBA program. The globally-influenced menu, which includes items like Kung Pao Chicken, chicken teriyaki dumplings, salads with housemade vinaigrettes and mango chai, reflects the diversity of her staff and of the student population. Blackwell strives for authenticity, regularly scouting out ingredients that are fresh and local.

Profeta is a fan. “The food is spectacular,” he said. “I especially like the curried eggplant soup.”

For her part, Blackwell said she wants to grow her business carefully, train talented people interested in culinary careers, and eventually become a staple of the community.

She has already made an impact closer to home: “My children didn’t always like me working so much,” she said, “but they definitely learned the importance of hard work, perseverance and determination.”