Restaurants as community leaders

Restaurants provide a quality meal, an evening’s entertainment, and a chance to escape the normal routine. But for many restaurant owners and chefs, they are taking actions that go beyond just an enjoyable meal. Throughout South Jersey, these chefs and owners are becoming leaders in their respective communities by their actions. By becoming involved, these restaurants help to provide support, guidance and even a little bit of hope.

Making the locals see the local connection

Back in 2002, Chef Mark Smith was hopeful when he opened Tortilla Press on Haddon Avenue in Collingswood. He liked the close, neighborhood feel of the town, having a PATCO stop and a local government that was eager to bring in new business. And as Tortilla Press reaches its 10-year anniversary, his hopes have paid off.

Early on, Chef Mark saw an opportunity to be a part of the local farmers market, preparing fresh food with ingredients provided by local farms and stressing the connection between those farms and restaurants. As the farmers’ market grew in popularity, so did Chef Mark’s market booth. He then decided to further the connection made between the foods we enjoy and the farms that produce them by doing market tours, demonstrating his thought process in creating Tortilla Press’s daily menu.

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Along with his farm-to-fork initiatives, Chef Mark has also become involved in ‘green’ initiatives. His restaurant does composting. The ‘doggie bags’ and takeout containers from Tortilla Press are environmentally friendly. And don’t look for any bottled water at his eatery; it’s tap water only.

When asked if there were any other community activities that Tortilla Press was involved in, Chef Mark’s response was: “All of them!” As he explained, “I’m not a loner — I like the feel of a working, breathing, living community around me. It’s easy to feel part of that in Collingswood.”

Helping those who are hurting

For Ron Zold, owner of Venice Italian Eatery, Pizza and Catering, it was the uniqueness and stability of Pitman that made him decide to buy the restaurant four years ago. Since taking over, Venice Italian Eatery has enjoyed much success, including being voted “Best Dinner” in 2010 and 2012 by the Gloucester County Times.

This success has allowed Zold to give back to the community in many different ways. His restaurant has participated in numerous fundraisers, from the local high school to an animal rescue organization. He has even worked with handicapped children and adults by teaching them how to make pizzas and panzarottis at his restaurant.

But it’s during the holidays where he has best demonstrated his gift for giving. As someone who grew up in poverty, Zold understood how hard the holidays can be for those who are struggling. He decided three years ago to serve free dinners on Thanksgiving at his restaurant, serving 450 dinners. That number grew to over 1,000 dinners last year. And this past Christmas, after hearing about a local family of nine who had lost their mother, Venice gave the family Christmas dinner and pizzas for the day after Christmas.

Being involved in community functions and activities is very important to Zold. As he put it, “Not only does it make my heart feel good, it lets the community know I am thankful for their support year ’round, which enables me to give back year ’round.”

One more positive notch

The reputation of Atlantic City took another hit recently with the tragic stabbing death of two Canadian tourists. The last thing the city needed heading into this Memorial Day weekend was a reason for people to avoid it for fear of their safety. Michael Hauke, who runs Tony Boloney’s, is one who fights that perception with everything he does at his pizza joint.

“I live here. We’re here for the community,” says Hauke when talking about the importance of being involved in the local area. Seeing Atlantic City as a good market and one that was ripe for change, Hauke opened Tony Boloney’s in 2009 and his place quickly made a name for itself. For the mayor, city workers, and cops patrolling the area, Tony Boloney’s has become the regular go-to place when it comes to pizza and sandwiches.

This coming Saturday will showcase one of his biggest achievements: Pizza Slaughterfest, a massive street festival that surrounds a pizza-eating contest. Started on a whim, Slaughterfest has become a major event on the Atlantic City calendar: and yet it has nothing to do with the casinos. It is also a charity event, and this year the big charity involved is the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City. The involvement of the Boys and Girls Club in Slaughterfest is not a one-shot deal for Hauke; he works with the kids on a regular basis – even conducting weekly cooking classes.

Feeding public officials and working with local youth organizations is all well and good, but it’s what Hauke does with the kids in his neighborhood that is more special. When kids come to hang out at his place, he will ask them how they are doing and if they are hungry, knowing that they don’t have money for a slice. And he will give them free pizza – so long as they do something creative for him. Kids have drawn pictures or sang and danced, giving them a chance to spark their creativity. For every act of kindness, Michael Hauke believes that each is “one more positive notch on the belt of Atlantic City.”

And with each positive notch that people like Chef Mark Smith, Ron Zold and Michael Hauke make, we are all raised to a higher level.

Jersey Bites is a collaborative website of food writers in New Jersey. They write about restaurants, recipes, food news, food products, events, hunger relief programs, and anything else that tickles their taste buds.

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