For most people, Red Bank is just another stop on the New Jersey Transit rail line. But just a few feet from the lumbering train cars is a place that almost feels like home.
This is the JBJ Soul Kitchen, cooking up classic farm-to-table cuisine five days a week. Fancy stuff, but for the needy, it’s not so much a restaurant as a refuge.
Jon Bon Jovi co-founded the place eight years ago, turning what used to be an auto body repair shop into a restaurant where no one is ever turned away.
Here’s how it works: There are no prices on the menu. Diners are asked to pay a $20 donation that covers their meal, and someone else’s meal, too. And if you can’t donate money, you can donate service, like washing dishes, in exchange for your supper.
It’s actually the brainchild of Bon Jovi’s wife, Dorothea Hurley. She leaned across the couch one day and said, “I have this idea,” he recalled. “It was genius.”
Genius, indeed; nearly all the labor is volunteer, much of the food is donated, and on any given night nearly every seat is filled, roughly half by donors, and half by those who may not know where their next meal is coming from.
“Hunger doesn’t look like what your mind’s eye might imagine,” Hurley said. “It’s the people at your church. It’s the kids that go to school with your kids. And I think that was eye-opening for a lot of the community here that said, ‘Oh, there’s no homeless people here.’ And they look around the restaurant, and I say, ‘I can name five people right now that I know are homeless in this restaurant right now, but they don’t look like what you think they’re gonna look like.”
“It’s not the stereotype that you’re expecting to see?” asked Smith.
It’s no surprise that the place is doing well. The food is really good – and like anything else, a little star power always helps.
Jon Bon Jovi, of course, is the Grammy-winning artist who’s sold millions of records, and millions more concert tickets. Jon and Dorothea met in high school and (much to the anguish of groupies everywhere) they married in 1989. And today she says she’s content to live in what has been a pretty big shadow.
Smith asked, “I’ve heard you tell a story that when you guys go out to dinner, you often don’t get served?”
“Yeah, that’s a fact,” Dorothea replied. “Because everyone’s focusing on what Mr. Bon Jovi wants. And I’m like, ‘Can I get …?’ And everyone’s meal shows up except mine. And it’s just, like, the standing joke in our family. Or I get the wrong thing, or – it doesn’t matter, I just eat it.”
“It’s true,” Bon Jovi laughed. “It’s sad, It’s so sad.”
“I’m used to it, it’s fine,” she said.
But she’s also willing to speak up for a good idea, and this is her latest one: Starting next year, there’ll be a JBJ Soul Kitchen at a place you might not have expected: the Newark campus of Rutgers University.
The faculty got a preview last week, when Bon Jovi said, “We need you guys to spread the message because we can provide great food, but unless the kids are coming in to eat, we failed.”
Smith asked, “Why a college campus?”
“When you send your kids off to school, you don’t think about, after tuition, books, living, what’s left for food?” Bon Jovi said. “And so few are on meal plans to begin with. And that’s another reason why they’re eating ramen noodles. We all think it’s the right of passage – to study hard and eat the ramen noodles. But how about if it’s the only thing you can afford?”
We should point out that Bon Jovi’s music is very much alive and well: In fact, he just finished a new album last week. But fighting hunger is a priority. Besides the place in Red Bank, there’s another Soul Kitchen in Tom’s River, and his JBJ Soul Foundation has plans to open more, as long as there’s a need.
Smith asked, “So, with so much that is wrong with the world today, does this give you hope?”
“You know, it does restore your faith in humanity,” Hurley said. “Because people will, I believe, given the opportunity help another human being. And that’s what we see here all the time.”
“So, how does this compare to an arena of screaming fans?”
“It can obviously never compare to performing or writing songs,” Bon Jovi said. “But what it does do is it gives you the same sense of fulfillment, I think, when we leave here at night. That’s why I say: the way to feel good is to do good, you know?
“Find your good, and do it.”