Big Issue Vendor

Jon Bon Jovi is fighting poverty with the JBJ Soul Kitchen

The three kitchens have become beating hearts in New Jersey communities, connecting marginalised people with services to support their housing or health needs

When you’re a rock and roll legend, selling out stadiums with countless anthems to your name, what do you do next?

Jon Bon Jovi and his wife Dorothea Hurley co-founded the JBJ Soul Kitchen. There are no prices on the menu, instead using a pay-it-forward model that means customers who can afford to pay more cover the cost of others who are struggling to feed themselves.

The kitchen is just one of many projects from Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Foundation which has provided affordable housing to thousands of people across the US.

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Jon said the idea to start the foundation hit him “like a lightning bolt” after he saw someone sleeping rough.

“One night I was looking out a hotel window in Philadelphia and I saw a guy sleeping on a grate. And I said: ‘That’s not what our forefathers were thinking when they created this America that they dreamt of’,” he said.

“And I thought, I know the issue – homelessness. Doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, young, old, Republican, Democrat. I don’t need a scientist to find the cure, and
I can make a difference. It hit me like a lightning bolt.”

Since that day the kitchen has grown into a bigger part of his life with the help, guidance and hard work of his wife Dorothea and experts in the field.

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“Home brings the ability to exhale,” he said, writing in The Big Issue. “Having a roof over your head is the greatest relief. I can’t imagine not having sanctuary to be warm in the cold and comforted in the rain.

“You’ve got to put a roof over someone’s head and then you’ve got to give them the ability to provide so they can keep it over their head. You can’t just give the man a home and go, good luck. Because next month there’s a lighting bill coming.

“Now that I think about it, we don’t give anyone anything; they earn it. We don’t give, this isn’t a contest. These people have gone to great lengths to get back on their feet, to achieve this level of success where they could get that roof over their head. None of this was given to any of them, they worked for it.”

The three kitchens have become beating hearts in New Jersey communities, connecting marginalised people with services to support their housing or health needs – all while keeping them well fed. Dorothea explains more about how they’re serving up hope.

The Big Issue: Apart from the food, what are the key ingredients in the JBJ Soul Kitchen?

Dorothea Hurley: We say the most important ingredient is love. Dignity and respect grow out of that. We treat everyone who comes through our doors the same.

When you give a person the opportunity, they are happy to help and feel part of something bigger than themselves. When we are able to sit across the table from someone we break down the barriers between us. If we are treating all with respect, we are correct in expecting that in return.

Where did the idea originally come from?

We were inspired by community restaurants that allow people to pay what they can. We are different in our approach as we ask our in-need diners to help around the restaurant and not pay anything. While they are volunteering we are getting to know them and creating relationships to help them find resources in our community.

Jon Bon Jovi and his wife Dorothea portion out soup at the JBJ Soul Kitchen
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Jon Bon Jovi and his wife Dorothea portion out soup at the JBJ Soul Kitchen

Who comes to eat at the restaurant?

We serve a mix of people, many who are working but are underemployed, some unemployed, seniors on fixed incomes, some struggle with mental health issues. We also serve those who want to contribute to their community. They are going out to eat anyway, they know that their donation is being used by someone in the restaurant that night.

What are the problems in New Jersey that mean there are people who can’t afford food?

That is a much bigger issue than I could answer here, but basically, the real cost of living is many times higher than what would be considered “living in poverty”. In our county in New Jersey, the gap between poverty and being able to survive, not thrive, just pay all your expenses, is $50,000. That’s why there is a huge push for a $15 minimum wage.

Working at a fast-food restaurant or grocery store used to be a great after-school job for a young person to make money. But now those jobs are done by people with families, they don’t make enough to make ends meet.

What role does the JBJ Soul Kitchen play in the local community?

We are that place that people come to feel part of something, to connect with each other and us. Imagine if you spent all day walking around not speaking to anyone and having most people walk across the street to avoid you. It is nice to walk into a beautiful restaurant and have people genuinely care about you, and what is more heart-warming than a delicious meal?

Jon Bon Jovi gets stuck in with the washing up at his JBJ Soul Kitchen
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Jon gets stuck in with the washing up

How have you adapted to the coronavirus crisis?

We switched to takeout meals for about 11 weeks, we didn’t use any volunteers for fear of anyone getting sick. We gave out masks, made meals for first responders and hospital workers, for other non-profits such as soup kitchens. It was a very stressful time and still is really.

During the spring we were approached to help some pantries on the East End of Long Island that were experiencing up to a 500 per cent increase in need. After making a few calls it became very clear that what was needed was a foodbank, the nearest one was over 50 miles away and delivering once a month. We needed to create a food bank that distributes to pantries, which in turn distribute to individuals. We were able to secure large warehouse space, contracted with a food service provider, and purchased over $400,000 worth of healthy food over 18 weeks.

How many meals have been served?

For starters 131,714 meals in two restaurants with three paid staff in restaurants that seat between 30 and 40 people, that’s a lot of meals. Pre-Covid we served approximately 50 per cent in need with 50 per cent paying. Now, some nights now we are 90 to 100 per cent in need.

At the JBJ Soul Kitchen Food Bank, we distributed over 238 tons of food over an 18-week period: healthy shelf-stable foods, fruit, vegetables, eggs, butter, yogurt, and pre-made frozen meals.

Jon Bon Jovi and the team at the JBJ Soul Kitchen
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Jon and the team at one of the JBJ Soul Kitchens

What can any of us do to help in our own community?

If there is a cause or issue you are interested in, do a little research and volunteer locally. Don’t just show up on holidays and think you are going to help out. Most non-profits have a way for you to sign up, all our volunteers go through orientation so they understand expectations. I would also suggest if you are good at social media, fundraising, bookkeeping, graphic arts or some other talent let the organisation know, they always need help in other areas.

I captured a shot of Jon washing up at the Soul Kitchen, he later posted it to social media with the caption “If You Can’t Do What You Do… Do What You Can.” Following that, Jon’s mind immediately went into action and a complete song. Do What You Can was created the next day and is included in the new album 2020.

What are the best dishes on the JBJ Soul Kitchen menu?

We do our best to cook seasonally, organic healthy meals. We have developed an amazing seasoning we use called Soul Seasoning, it has a rich umami flavour and it elevates the flavours of the other ingredients. Honestly, everything is delicious, which is why we always say hope is delicious!

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