When Thomas Maroulakos first came up with the Feeding Newark Initiative over the winter, it was admittedly low on the list of things he focused on each day. “It was pre-pandemic initiative that we were kind of saying ‘in the grand scheme of things, [we’ll do it], but day to day you have a list of 20 running items and it was unfortunately on the bottom of the list. But when the pandemic hit, it gave us some time to focus on it,” Maroulakos said.
The three-pronged plan focused on combating local food insecurity, supporting local farms, and cultivating a sustainable workforce development program took shape with “a bunch of networking,” Maroulakos said, with Director Glenn Best at the Newark Alliance and President Chip Hallock of the Newark Regional Business Partnership.
Like all restaurateurs, Maroulakos “is really focused on feeding people,” he said. He entered the hospitality industry when he needed income to supplement his career as a brewer making $11 an hour. As a bartender in Manhattan, he “caught the bug, as they say,” and since 2015 has opened four restaurants in North Jersey under his outfit Skopos Hospitality.
Focusing on food insecurity, he opened his doors at The Vanguard in Harrison to Executive Director Yolanda Gadson of the I Have a Dream Foundation to prepare meals for Newark’s schoolchildren.
“Food insecurity, which has always been an issue, was really exacerbated during COVID. Ninety percent [of the kids at the Thirteenth Avenue School] are Title 1 food insecure, which qualifies for food subsidies from the state. Some schools were still able to provide the food Monday through Friday, but what happens on the weekends? Families are struggling to find jobs. There was a greater need for people on a day to day basis to be fed,” Maroulakos said.
Before partnering with The Vanguard, Gadson was preparing food for donation in the apartments of volunteers, but with the uptick in need over the course of the pandemic, she started using nearly all 6,000 square feet of The Vanguard.
When indoor dining reopens, Maroulakos plans to section off 1,500 square feet of his dining room twice weekly for Gadson and her team of volunteers. The process of receiving and sorting the products, a portion of which donated by Skopos, takes two days. The town of Harrison created a Saturday morning drop-off/pick-up point for the program, and the volunteers take meals directly to the doors of the families in need.
“It’s something we envision as a long-term program for us, not just a COVID initiative,” Maroulakos said.
The second arm of the Feeding Newark Initiative is raising awareness not just of urban poverty but rural poverty, and supporting small local farms in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania by sourcing food from them. And for the third, a focus on workforce development, Skopos is at the early stages of cultivating partnerships with the Marion P. Thomas Charter School, Newark Vocational and the Newark Alliance to set up internship and apprenticeship programs where students can get some of their education in one of his Skopos’ restaurants and realize that working as a line cook for $15 an hour isn’t their only opportunity in the restaurant business. Opportunities exist in front of house management positions, accounting, design and more, along with all back of house positions from line cook to executive chef.
“The financial burden of higher education, what we’ve seen from our experience is individuals will go to culinary school, take on six figures of debt, feel a tremendous amount of pressure and jump from job to job to take the extra dollar an hour, and they become very burnt out and frustrated,” Maroulakos said. “Our goal is to educate and bring awareness to [opportunities like vocational school], whether in Newark or the surrounding towns, [which provides a] different route. They don’t have to worry about taking on that debt, so they can work through the career path at a better rate, which [sets them up] for a better success rate.”
His company is no stranger to atypical routes into a career in the industry. Skopos’ culinary director and the head chef at The Vanguard both came to Skopos through the Paterson-based Straight and Narrow program, which works with formerly incarcerated individuals.
“We’re very proud of them to rise through the ranks. There’s some proof in the pudding, so to speak. [The success with Straight and Narrow] highlights the importance of giving individuals access to opportunities … Some might have an easier path to access than others, and it’s having that conversation that’s not easy but opens up an important dialogue,” he said.
Despite his do-gooder intentions, Maroulakos is quick to tell anyone he runs a for-profit business. But there’s business sense in his actions, and it goes beyond brand equity and the positive marketing of charitable work.
“It’s how it energizes the community and the team. Particularly at The Vanguard, we’ve seen a boost in the staff’s energy. There’s a vibrancy to seeing volunteers hustling around,” he said. “It goes beyond just serving food and beverage, now you’re serving those in need in the community.”
Maroulakos hopes to bring in some corporate partners who’ll aid in the Feeding Newark Intiative.
“They can source through us and have a greater impact than just feeding their client or their team. They’re helping the community at the same time,” he said.o