Sometimes doors open when you least expect them. And for East End resident Rob Blau, those doors are planted underneath the letters TKOPS.
They stand for The Kitchen On Pine Street, a restaurant formerly owned and operated by chef and former city councilman, Leonard Remo. He deeded the property to the city with the stipulation that it be used to feed people in need. It’s located just east of the Long Beach Ice Arena, at 140 West Pine Street.
Today, it’s known as the Long Beach Food and Friendship Inn, providing meals for 30-40 people per day. Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, guests are seated and served a hot, nutritious lunch by Rob and his corp of nearly 70 volunteers. “We serve restaurant quality meals,” explains Rob, who is a bit of chef himself.
Rob, a Long Beach local since the age of six months, had a long career working in corporate America for a video game company. It all abruptly came to an end in 2009 when a consulting group came in and purged the staff. Rob looked around and said, “Okay, so what do I do now?”
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti answered that question.
Except for the “occasional sandwich I bought for people on the streets of Manhattan,” Rob reflects that he had never done anything philanthropic in his life. But going to Haiti to lend a hand was a surprisingly easy decision. “Something inside me said, ‘right time, right moment.'”
Rob joined up with the Global Volunteer Network and went to Jacmel, an old coffee town on the bay on the south side of the island. He spent a week moving debris. From there he made his way to Port-Au-Prince and did whatever was needed. From contractor work – to teaching English – to running recreation programs. He slept on the floor in a tent that he brought himself.
The experience was life changing.
“When I got home, I wanted to get rid of every television in the house. We had six, it was unnecessary. Here we had all these creature comforts and they had nothing. I came home traumatized. It took me time to get over it.”
His wife saw an advertisement in the Herald that volunteers were needed at the soup kitchen and suggested they give it a go. Rob loved to cook and began volunteering on Tuesdays. “Back then, the kitchen didn’t even have a stove. Everything was cooked with an electric grill and a microwave.”
In 2012, two-feet of Hurricane Sandy water flooded the building and shut down the entire operation. Rob and his volunteers did what they could, making sandwiches and handing them out at the Long Beach Recreation Center. Later, when the coffee shop Gentle Brew re-opened, they let the volunteers distribute soup from their store.
Following the hurricane, the woman who was in charge of running the soup kitchen resigned. And that’s when Rob stepped up to the proverbial plate. He had his work cut out for him – but help arrived from a variety of caring people. The Long Beach Lions Club stepped in and donated $50,000 to rebuild the kitchen and replace the damaged appliances. Local contractors reduced their rates and restored the building. Just four months after the storm, the Inn was able to re-open.
Rob doesn’t draw a salary, nor do any of the volunteers. The only person on the payroll is an employee responsible for cleaning and maintaining the building. The panty itself is very organized. “I’m a total neat freak. When it comes to stacking cans, the peas have to be with the peas, the corn with the corn. I’m nuts!” Rob admits with a grin.
Many of the diners know each other. Some are transient. Rob says “he doesn’t know exactly why some of them are here. We don’t ask.” With sadness, he tells me that the homeless man who was found frozen to death under the bridge last winter was one of their guests.
In 2015, Rob’s was honored for his commitment to community service by Long Beach Reach at their annual brunch. During the event, a man came over and shook his hand and told him that when he lost his job he had gone to the soup kitchen every day for six months. Now, back on his feet, the man told Rob that he didn’t know what he would have done without the meals they provided him. “If I never hear another story that like, that one is enough for me,” Rob says, deeply emotional about that exchange.
The Inn receives donations from a variety of sources but it’s a constant cycle of need. They are especially grateful for Trader Joe’s in Oceanside – who gives them “a ton of meat.”
Just recently, a group of locals, led by do-gooder Christen Roper, organized the Good Karma Food Drive at The Beach House. It was a great success and Rob was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and donations. Next spring, Lola’s Kitchen and Wine Bar will play host to their annual fundraiser. Check back for details on the Inn’s Facebook Page.
Rob also has plans to transform the dining room into an elegant restaurant for a special one-night-affair fundraiser. He’s looking for celebrity chef’s to curate each course of the fancy meal, as well designers who will decorate the interior into something magnificent. If you have any connections that might help him pull that off he’d be happy to hear from you. Likewise, if you’re keen to volunteer your time or get involved in any of their other fundraising efforts, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Food donations are always welcome, but paper goods are often their most pressing need –specifically reinforced paper plates, paper or plastic cups, napkins and utensils. (But no styrofoam – they’ve gone green!) Packaged cakes, cookies and other baked items are greatly appreciated as well. Non-holiday times are when the cupboards tend to grow bare, so keep that in mind when timing your donations or volunteer services.
Money donations can be sent to: The Long Beach Food and Friendship Inn, P.O. Box 294, Long Beach, NY 11561.
In January 2017, Rob will be returning to Haiti with a group called Friar Suppliers. Only time will tell what that trip will inspire him to do next!
Coming up next on Short Stories from Long Beach: The colorful, wonderful world of local painter, Hedy Pagremanski.