By JOHN T. WARD
Three months after opening, Soul Kitchen, the pay-what-you-can-or-work-it-off restaurant on Red Bank’s West Side, is progresssing toward its goal of feeding the haves and have-nots in equal numbers, new manager Ryan Timmons tells redbankgreen.
About 30 percent of the restaurant’s patrons pay with vouchers earned through volunteer work at Soul Kitchen or a growing roster of other non-profits, Timmons said. The goal is a 50-50 mix among diners, and “the voucher-to-payment ratio is going up,” he said.
Meanwhile, paying customers are being generous when settling up bills via the discreet donation envelopes that servers present to them at the end of their three-course dinners, he said. The suggested donation is $10, but “very few” customers leave just that amount, he said, and instead pay more to help subsidize meals for others.
Timmons is heading into his second weekend running the restaurant, having been hired away from his on-again, off-again gig as Andrew Gennusa’s right hand at Zebu Forno last week.
He was brought on board at Soul Kitchen, he said, to free executive chef Zeet Peabody to focus on the food, public outreach, and the sponsor JBJ Soul Foundation‘s goal of replicating the model elsewhere.
“We’re trying to structure this so we can put more of these restaurants in places where they’re needed,” he said.
Soul Kitchen is the brainchild of pop rocker Jon Bon Jovi and his wife, Dorothea Bongiovi.
The restaurant staff, with two outreach employees, is beginning to solidify relationships with other organizations where volunteers would earn vouchers. Already on board are the nearby soup kitchen, Lunch Break, St. Anthony of Padua RC Church and a homeless shelter at Fort Monmouth, and Soul Kitchen hopes to soon begin working with Habitat for Humanity and local arts groups.
Timmons, 32, of Fair Haven, has been working in the food service industry since he was 16, when he began busing tables and washing dishes.
As much as he enjoyed working at Zebu, he said, the offer from Soul Kitchen was something he could not turn down.
“This is why a lot of us get into this business to see the smiling faces,” he said. “Nobody who comes here complains. They’re here for the right reasons.”
Some of the customers, he said, have not eaten in a restaurant with linen tablecloths in years, if ever.
In one of his first days on the job, he said three women who work as housekeepers volunteered to dust the restaurant, including a high wall of shelves. That night, he said, the women came in with their families and paid for their meals with the vouchers they’d earned.
At the end of the night, he said, “you leave here feeling great.”
Soul Kitchen is open Thursday through Saturday, featuring community-style seatings at 5, 6 and 7 p.m. Sunday hours are 12 to 3 p.m. Alcohol is not permitted.