There’s a Long Line at BelleJohns’ Soul Food, But it’s Worth the Wait
The line in front of BelleJohns’ Soul Food is always long, but customers are willing to wait. “They have a lot of options around Military Park and South Orange,” chef and owner Jewel Domino says, “but they know I use high quality ingredients.”
This year, she had so many customers that she had to come up with a plan. “I had to buy a crowd control rope for Newark,” Jewel says. “This big circle would form around the front of the tent, so I had to help them form a line. It gets so long it starts to snake through the market.”
Her signature dishes are the draw. There’s wild-caught, antibiotic-free filleted whiting fish that she carefully dips in a gluten-free cornmeal batter and fries to order. A fresh, lightened macaroni salad made with chicken that’s seared instead of fried is another popular option. The lunch rush is busy, but she loves every minute it.
Turning a Profit & Scaling Up
“I am enamored with what I do,” Jewel says. She launched BelleJohns’ Soul Food four years ago. At the farmers markets, she tells customers about her Chef Plate Service, a custom catering and meal delivery service geared toward busy families. Business has steadily grown and she’s now turning a profit. “It’s been slow, but it’s been amazing. This is the first year I’ve seen a decent owner’s draw.”
Next year, she’s scaling up. She has plans for a second tent to accommodate three fryers, two cashiers, and extra space for her signature sweet potato pies.
Goals & A Family Legacy
The long lines bode well for one of Jewel’s many goals as an entrepreneur: keep growing BelleJohns’ Soul Food so she can leave it to her kids Belle and John, the two namesakes of her company. “Belle is my princess, that’s my daughter, and John is my son, my superhero. I put the ‘s’ on it and the apostrophe after the ‘s’ to show ownership,” she explains. “When I leave this planet, they own my business – it goes straight to them in my will. They can continue it or sell it – whatever makes them happy.”
It All Started with a Career in Engineering
Jewel started cooking while she was studying at NJIT to become an engineer. When asked to bring food to events at the National Society of Black Engineers, she turned to recipes she learned from her mom who catered for 25 years and her dad who cooked in the military for 13 years. Her food was an instant hit.
Becoming a Boss
After graduating with a bachelor of science degree and certifications from the American Concrete Institute, she put cooking on hold and looked for a job in industrial management and building construction. As an African American woman, she said it was tough landing a job and advancing in a field dominated by men, but she did it. She was hired as a quality control technician at the port in Newark. “They appreciated my brain and my education and my skill set,” she says. “It was wonderful experience and beginning.” From there, she went on to supervise a crew of eight men before leaving the field.
Jewel still loves building things and empowering other women to do the same. “I have a tool bag in my work van,” she says. “I show the women who work for me how to put up the signs, the tents, and the fryers at the farmers markets – everything. People are so impressed – you should see the women watching us as we put it together. We get so many compliments.”
Investing in Future Generations
While equity and empowerment are important to Jewel, so is financial stability for her family and future generations. With plans to retire as a millionaire, she’s working on her goals and investments. She has her eye on Puras Paletas, a growing all-natural fruit ice pop business also based at Garden State Kitchen. “I want to invest as much as I can in different small businesses and I want to focus on women,” she says. “I’m here when and if she’s ready.”
Challenges & Forgiveness
While this past year has brought Jewel entrepreneurial success, she’s seen some challenges. In November, she was hit by a drunk driver and ended up losing the lower part of her left leg. Through it all, Jewel stayed focused on healing. “They told me it would take a year before I would be back on my feet again, before I could even think about cooking,” she says. “I was working in May – six months later.”
Many surgeries later, she wears a prosthetic and sits on a stool in the kitchen when she wants to. Despite the physical pain, she feels lucky to be able to pursue her dreams. She also says she forgives the man who brought her so much harm.
“I wish him well, I really do. I have to forgive him in order to forgive myself and move on,” Jewel explains. “I can’t be upset or angry because that takes energy away from me and makes my health dissipate. He made some bad decisions, and we’ve all done that.”
“In a way, I thank him,” she continues. “It put me in a different place in life – I see things I never thought about, or noticed, or even knew were here on the planet. I feel like I’m in another life. It’s beautiful. I am blessed.”
Find Jewel and BelleJohns’ Soul Food at the farmers markets and online.