At Bon Jovi restaurant, service is key

Jon Bon Jovi's Soul Kitchen is part of an effort to redefine how hunger is addressed.
Jon Bon Jovi's Soul Kitchen is part of an effort to redefine how hunger is addressed. (MEL EVANS / AP)
Posted: November 07, 2011

On a recent Thursday night, at a small restaurant with a new concept and only two weeks under its belt, customers lined up well before the doors opened for dinner.

The menu of "seasonal, regional American cuisine" offered rainbow beet salad, butternut squash soup, chicken in Creole sauce, pork chops with cranberry butter, cornmeal-crusted catfish, and grilled salmon with sweet potato mash.

But no prices.

Cash ($10 minimum per person, please, for a three-course meal that includes drinks and dessert) or vouchers earned through volunteer work are the only payments accepted.

Using this "community restaurant" model started in Utah, the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, N.J., about 90 miles from Philadelphia, is in the vanguard of redefining how hunger can be addressed.

More than a dozen small eateries have been created nationwide using this model, though nothing like it yet in Philadelphia. "At a time when one in five families are living at or below the poverty line and one in six children in New Jersey are food insecure, this is a restaurant whose time has come," Bon Jovi, 49, said on the restaurant's Oct. 19 opening day.

Dishes are prepared by paid chefs, using organic ingredients grown on-site or provided by Whole Foods Market in Middletown, which is where the rocker lives.

Most servers (four to six per evening) are volunteers from the wealthier nearby towns. Those who cannot pay the $10 minimum can put in an hour here or in one of two nearby food pantries to earn "gift vouchers."

The Soul Kitchen, centrally located in Red Bank's hip Arts and Antiques district, is in a former auto-body shop that sparkles with glass bay doors, sunny yellow walls, black tables and chairs covered in butcher paper, and floor-to-ceiling shelves decorated with jars of honey, pickled peaches, grains, and gadgets.

'Community kitchen'

The 25-seater has become a mecca, with guests waiting up to an hour to share a table with strangers, in keeping with the "community kitchen" concept.

"The response has been even better than we could have hoped for," Bon Jovi wrote on the kitchen's website (jbjsoulkitchen.org).

So far, about 15 percent of patrons have paid with vouchers. The rest have paid in cash, which is what is needed if this restaurant is to stay afloat. Many are tourists making a side trip in the hopes of seeing Bon Jovi himself. But the musician has made a point of staying away, so as not to be disruptive.

Tony and Michelle Dragicevich, who said they retired early to travel the world running marathons and attending Bon Jovi concerts, came in from New Zealand to run in Sunday's New York City Marathon and eat at the Soul Kitchen.

Cathy Greene was driving north from South Carolina to visit family and made a point of stopping here.

The three elderly Saunders sisters, from nearby Ocean Township, said they had seen a community restaurant like this on an episode of The Bold and the Beautiful. And Pat Labunski, of Red Bank, said she heard about the kitchen from her daughter in Seattle.

As Mimi Box, executive director of the JBJ Soul Foundation, tells it, Jon Bon Jovi was performing in Philadelphia one winter and saw a homeless man huddled against a wall.

That led to a partnership with Sister Mary Scullion and Project Home in 2006. Bon Jovi calls Scullion, who serves on his foundation's board of directors, his "philanthropic mentor."

'It's not just Jon'

"When Jon gets involved, it's not just Jon - his family, his colleagues all join in," Scullion said. "And he brings strong business acumen to the work."

The foundation started when Bon Jovi was an owner of the Philadelphia Soul Arena Football team; it was renamed the JBJ Soul Foundation in 2009, after the team's ownership was restructured.

Often working with Habitat for Humanity, the foundation has helped create affordable housing in North Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

In Camden, it helped create two homeownership programs and an entrepreneurship effort through which young people develop websites. And earlier this year, the foundation helped Covenant House in Philadelphia open a shelter for youth.

"Jon has a lot of input into the work we do," Box said. "He becomes a voice within the community."

Next, the foundation turned to food insecurity. Box picks up the story:

This time Bon Jovi is watching television. He sees a news story on a community kitchen in Denver called SAME (so all may eat) and learns the idea came from Denise Cerreta of Salt Lake City, who started OWEE (one world, everybody eats).

"We visited Denise and saw her model and talked about what makes it work," Box said.

"Every organization has to tweak the model to fit the needs of that community," Box said. "Denise cautioned us that to make the project work, it has to be at the intersection of a population that could support the kitchen as well as a population in need."

Red Bank scores on both counts. Its poverty rate, especially among 5- to 15-year-olds, is twice that of the rest of the state. So there are certainly sufficient individuals and families to welcome an opportunity to buy a meal in exchange for work.

But Red Bank is also home to artsy newcomers whose one-of-a-kind work draws shoppers from nearby moneyed towns. Colts Neck, eight miles away, is home to many of the country's wealthiest 1 percent (and their horses).

A renovated train station with service to Manhattan and the Count Basie Theatre for Performing Arts is steps from the Soul Kitchen.

"When we've perfected the model here," Box said, "we'd love to expand."

Scullion, who has dined several times at Red Bank's Soul Kitchen ("great vegetarian chili with homemade corn bread; perfect catfish") is ready, if and when that happens.

Project Home had a Back Home Cafe on Fairmount Avenue, but it did not succeed, Scullion said, "because it didn't have the necessary foot traffic." The organization's Home Page Cafe, inside the Free Library of Philadelphia's Logan Square building, serves coffee from Starbucks and pastries from Metropolitan Bakery and is "going great," she said.

"It's important for us to find a location in a community that can support a program like this," Box said, "for people who don't just want a handout."


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com.

The JBJ Soul Kitchen, 207 Monmouth St., Red Bank, N.J., 07701; 732-842-0900; or www.jbjsoulkitchen.org

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