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Jerry Costello

Soul Kitchen Feeds Bodies and Spirits
February 22, 2015

You’ve probably never had a meal at the Soul Kitchen in Red Bank. That’s too bad, because the odds are that you’d enjoy it—especially when you’re aware of the restaurant’s back story. It’s a good one, believe me.
                To begin with, the Soul Kitchen is a project of Jon Bon Jovi, the rock singer who’s a native of New Jersey and who keeps the state close to his heart. In turn, the restaurant is a project of the JBJ Soul Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2006 and whose aim is simple and at the same time complex: tackling the twin problems of hunger and homelessness. I had seen a couple of references to the Soul Kitchen, but a recent article by Tammy La Gorce in The New York Times explained its operation in some detail. And when you hear it, I think you’ll like it.
                Here’s the way the Soul Kitchen works: it operates more or less on the honor system, but with a twist. Diners in the 30-seat restaurant are asked to donate $10 for their meal, but if they’re unable to pay they join a host of volunteers who perform restaurant-related duties: folding napkins, filling water pitchers and the like.
                Manager Lou Morreale explained the operation in more detail to La Gorce. “Some (volunteers) wash dishes, some clean windows. But we’re always careful to preserve people’s dignity. No one knows at any table whether you’re paying or whether you’ve worked as a volunteer to eat.”
                Arrangements for either paying customers or volunteer laborers are made in advance with a coordinator, who provides each guest with a voucher. The ratio between those who pay and those who work for their meals hovers at about 50 per cent, the manager explained, but some do both—“because it’s good company and good food in a good environment,” he said.
                Jimmy Elsby, 63, of Red Bank, gave vocal support to what Morreale had been discussing. Along with Howard Bianchi, 68, also of Red Bank, he dines at the Soul Kitchen two or three times a week in exchange for outdoor work.
                “It’s kind of like family here,” he said.
                The Soul Kitchen is located in a former auto shop, one that’s been transformed into a smart-looking dining room. Communal tables foster a communal spirit where regular customers mingle with the volunteer work force. Manager Morreale is one of only four paid employees, but they supervise a list of volunteers that numbers in the hundreds. And it’s been going strong since the foundation was established.
                What exactly does Jon Bon Jovi lend to the enterprise?  His name, for one thing, and his presence for another. With his schedule of personal appearances, of course, he’s somewhat limited in the time he can put in at the restaurant. But when he and his wife are there, according to customer Elsby, “They talk to people and do whatever needs to be done.” Bon Jovi’s wife, Dorothea Hurley, “runs this place like it’s her own kitchen,” Elsby said.
                Most of all, the rock music star is doing something about hunger rather than simply lamenting the fact that it’s there. He’s providing good food and good company at a minimal cost. That’s a start, surely, and, as I said before, it’s a good one.

 

For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, SERVING THE POOR, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org