By Michele J. Kuhn
RED BANK – Those looking for hope, some help, a bit of fellowship or a way to help others can find it served up with a three-course meal on Monmouth Street.
Diners at the Soul Kitchen at 207 Monmouth St. sit near a wall emblazoned with the motto “Hope is delicious” and either pay a minimum of $10 for their meal or pay for their dinner by doing some volunteer work. The community restaurant, a program of the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, recently celebrated its second anniversary.
“It’s been going really well,” said Dorothea Bongiovi, the wife of rock star Jon Bon Jovi. “Just last month 50 percent of our customers were in-need customers; those are people who come and volunteer for their meals. That always was a goal we were trying to reach.”
Soul Kitchen served 7,800 meals from January through the end of October, more than 3,500 of which were to in-need customers.
Those who volunteer for their meals can also get a variety of social services, if they wish. The Soul Kitchen, which has seatings from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, depends on the work of its volunteers but has a paid kitchen staff, including chef Zeet Peabody, restaurant manager Ryan Timmons and Marylou Caputo, the community coordinator.
The concept for Soul Kitchen came about when Bongiovi heard NBC News’ Brian Williams – who grew up in Middletown – talk about a restaurant in Denver during one of his “Nightly News Making a Difference” segments. The Colorado program was “more of a diner” but customers who couldn’t afford to pay for their meals could help around the diner.
“It was a simple, empowering way to give people dignity and feed people that I just was obsessed with it and could not stop thinking about it,” Bongiovi said.
That was the jumping off point and the idea for the Red Bank program evolved from there. Bongiovi began looking on the Internet for Red Bank restaurants that might be closing – or might be interested in doing such a program a few nights a week – and called people to see if there was interest in such an effort.
“I really didn’t have a vision where I thought: this is what it’s going to be. We came to the community and said, ‘Will this be something you’d be interested in?’ We took surveys. We started at St. Anthony’s and we did a pilot program there… There was interest.
“Even when we came into this space, it’s such an organic business model, that we kind of just let the community lead us to where and what it needed,” she said.
Bongiovi said Red Bank offered the right mix of elements they believed would help make the venture a success. “We have people in need. We have people who can support us. We have people who want to volunteer … We are near the railroad tracks so people can get here easily,” she said.
The restaurant aspect of Soul Kitchen is really the vehicle used to steer those in need toward services that are available. “The goal is to be a hub so that when people come, we find out what their needs are and we direct them. We supply some services but there are so many service providers out there that we try to help people reach those services,” Bongiovi said.
People have been receptive to using Soul Kitchen as their pathway toward accessing services and the need for such assistance intensified in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy, Bongiovi said. “There were so many people displaced from their homes … and these were people who were not used to asking for help,” she said. “It was a way for them to come here, volunteer and then, as we learned their stories, we could direct them to the help they needed.”
Soul Kitchen is housed in a former garage and sports three large glass garage doors. Diners sit at communal-style tables so they are often paired with strangers. It is at those black tables and chairs where Bongiovi sees connections being made on a regular basis between diners with problems and tablemates who can help.
That is part of the charm of the operation where smiles are genuine, people are friendly and the willingness to help is always present. “Eating together is a good equalizer,” Bongiovi said.
While “everyone is treated the same,” Bongiovi said they usually know in advance who is unable to pay for their meal. “If $10 is too difficult for you to pay, we ask that you volunteer … Most people, when they come up, are unsure of how it works. We usually have a conversation with people before so we know if they are capable of paying or not … It’s a difficult thing to come up and say. We try to make it as welcoming as possible and everyone has the same experience when they come here.”
Those who volunteer can offer their help that night or come back at a later time. Each night, diners are seated at tables where they can choose between a soup or salad, pick an entrée from a selection that usually includes a chicken and fish plus a vegetarian option, and then have dessert that is donated by commercial establishments, including Red Bank’s own Sugarush and Cupcake Magician and Atlantic Highland’s Flaky Tart.
Most customers are from the area but, because Soul Kitchen is a Bon Jovi project, people do travel to the restaurant because of the rocker’s worldwide fame. “I think in this community, we have done a lot of philanthropy so people know we come from a place where we give back to our community,” Bongiovi said. “What we try to do is to encourage people – rather than travel a long way – to volunteer in their own community and see what changes they can make in their own community. We ask that our community supports us and pay it forward in their own community.”
Bongiovi has found the element of Soul Kitchen that has hit home for her is the sense of community and fellowship that she has seen developed, particularly for people who may be “isolated, who don’t have family or a support group. They come here and get that here. That’s a wonderful thing to see.”
Jon and Dorothea’s drive to take on such projects is rooted in the way they were raised, she said, and “being so lucky and being so blessed. I think that everyone should give back whenever they can. Not everyone has the wherewithal to do what we do but you can just help your neighbor … It doesn’t have to be a restaurant or building houses. It’s keeping that sense of community that I think sometimes we lose.
“It’s just about being compassionate,” Bongiovi said. “When you see people suffering and there’s a way you can help, then you should try to do that.
“It’s also very humbling that people feel comfortable enough to come and share their stories and share a meal with us,” she said.
Plans for the future call for the opening of another Soul Kitchen.
The name of the restaurant is from the Bon Jovi’s Soul Foundation that developed from his Philadelphia Soul arena football team, named for the Philly Soul music style.
Those who wish to donate directly may do so on the website at www.jbjsoulkitchen.org.
The JBJ Foundation Soul Kitchen Community Restaurant is located at 207 Monmouth St., Red Bank. Seatings are 5 to 7 p.m. Thursdays through Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. 732-842-0900. email: firstname.lastname@example.org.