PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS CLARKE
Every year, Edible Communities magazines around the country ask you, our readers, to name Local Heroes in six categories. Here in New Jersey, there is no shortage of worthy candidates for the title. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to local ingredients. Please remember there are many, many more local food heroes than the ones you’ll see highlighted on these pages. The spirit of the Edible Communities Local Heroes award program honors them, one and all. Featuring these food champions is one of our favorite things to do each year. Meet your 2017 Edible Jersey Local Heroes— and congratulate them next time you see them.
“I have one customer who
keeps an extra cake in his freezer
in case he doesn’t see me.”
Judith Smith Parrot
Judith’s Dessert Boutique
Judith Smith Parrott started selling her baked goods in 2012, but she’s no newcomer to baking. The proprietor and sole baker behind Judith’s Dessert Boutique has been baking for decades. “Baking was my hobby. People often told me that I should start a business,” she says, adding that it wasn’t until she was retired from her job as a teacher in the Newark public schools that she turned to baking again.
She started by going to farmers’ markets to sell her baked goods, and while she still frequents two markets—Rutgers Garden and Merchantville— she also sells directly through special-order requests on her website. She’s especially proud to have been selected to participate in the Hatchery, a pop-up store within the Whole Foods in Cherry Hill. “The Hatchery was a pilot program designed to help small businesses establish themselves,” she explains. “There are food purveyors like me, as well as beauty products and homemade dog biscuits,” she adds.
Parrott bakes her pastries at Something Special commercial kitchen in Ewing. From the end of April to the beginning of November— farmers’ market season—she bakes 200 to 250 of her famous six-inch cakes each week. These cakes are her signature, with carrot and lemon among the most requested flavors. “My Hummingbird cake—made with bananas—is another favorite,” she says. “I have one customer who keeps an extra one in his freezer in case he doesn’t see me,” she laughs. Another customer recently shared that the cake she bought for her family didn’t make it home. “She ate the whole thing in the car on the way back,” she says. “I love those stories. When someone tells you that they love your product, it really brings joy.”
Are there any sour notes for this sweets entrepreneur who found her calling later in life?
“I just wish I had listened years ago to all of those people who told me to do this.”
JUDITH’S DESSERT BOUTIQUE
“Wine is really liquid food,” he says.
“People want to know where their food
comes from, so why not their wine?”
It’s time to rethink your drink. While you peruse the farm stands for vegetables, pick your fruit straight from the tree, and seek out local honey, chances are you’re plucking a bottle of wine off the shelf that’s been shipped from California or Europe. Mike Beneduce is here to change that. “Wine is really liquid food,” he says. “People want to know where their food comes from, so why not their wine?”
This passionate winemaker may be young (he’s not even 30 yet), but his age belies his wisdom. “As part of an Italian family, I grew up making wine in the basement,” he explains. “It was always fun having everyone together.”
If fun is what initially drew him to the business, it’s hard work that has propelled him. While studying winemaking at Cornell, he planted his first vines in 2009. “I learned what grapes grow best in this region,” he says, explaining that the climate in his slice of New Jersey is similar to those in Austria and northern France.
While many of his wines win awards, Beneduce isn’t taken with his own press. “We don’t put the awards up,” he says. “I want someone to drink my wine because they like it and not because someone else says it’s good.” He describes his product as “great wine that’s accessible to people.” Indeed, that down-home charm isn’t just a branding gimmick; it’s part of the experience. Beneduce has kept the vineyard small, with 98% of sales conducted at the vineyard. The wines aren’t distributed to stores and are only sold at two local BYOB restaurants. “I want people to come in to learn about the process, take a vineyard tour, make it a destination.”
Beneduce Vineyards is indeed a destination, with a tasting room in the barn and a greenhouse-cum-bar, Oasis, where patrons listen to live music while sipping wine and snacking on items from a rotating schedule of food trucks that swing by on weekends. “New Jersey wines account for 2% of the wine consumed here, while it’s 30 to 50% in California. It’s time to change that.”
1 Jeremiah Lane, Pittstown
“I’m proud that I’m not only able to make a living
off the acreage but also to hire locals who can honor
this kind of work and be paid a fair wage.”
Chickadee Creek Farm
As if the name of her farm didn’t give it away, Jess Niederer loves birds. Her post-college career plan was to dedicate her life to their study and conservation, but then Hurricane Katrina hit. “I was doing relief work in New Orleans and realized that I wanted to do something with humans instead,” she says.
Farming runs in her blood, but her family’s farm produced hay, wheat, and soy while her father held a full-time job. “Farming wasn’t something people thought they could make a living doing. In fact, 85% of U.S. farmers have an off-farm job to support their families.” To test whether she really wanted to make a go of it, Niederer worked at Honey Brook Organic Farm, just down the road from her family’s home in Hopewell. “Farmer Jim [Kinsel] really taught me about farming during those two years.”
In 2010, Niederer leased an acre and a half from her family’s 80-acre farm. Today, she leases 20 acres and grows a variety of vegetables and small fruits, as well as uncommon items like oats and baby ginger—both of which are firsts for a New Jersey farm. During the growing season, Chickadee Creek Farm sells its products at seven farmers’ markets, while in winter it sells at two. “We have high tunnels that allow us to keep growing year-round,” she says. “This definitely distinguishes us from other farms.”
Though the mild-mannered Niederer doesn’t act like it, she is something of a disrupter in a field dominated largely by older men (the average age of a farmer is 59). She was nominated to be vice president of the NJ Vegetable Growers Association, an organization that has never had a female president or VP, and was named the US’s National Outstanding Young Farmer for 2016.
Of course, if you ask her, Niederer will point to the team effort that farming requires. “I’m proud that I’m not only able to make a living off the acreage but also to hire locals who can honor this kind of work and be paid a fair wage,” she says. She even has a former employee joining the business as an equity partner this year.
As for the name, well, there’s a reason behind that, too.
“Chickadees are native to New Jersey and they are really feisty. They don’t behave like they’re small,” she laughs.
CHICKADEE CREEK FARM
Titus Mill Road, Pennington
“I started 12 Farms to support the local farming
community and because their products are just
higher quality and have higher nutrient value,
but in the end it’s just about good food.”
To hear Chef Rennie DiLorenzo talk of his 12 Farms Restaurant is to be reminded of the classic story of a couple who fall in love in kindergarten and then rediscover each other late in life. 12 Farms is indeed its own love story—a tale of a man with a passion for cooking and for products.
DiLorenzo started cooking in his family kitchen at the tender age of three, eventually getting his first job in a commercial kitchen when he was 14. He was bitten by the bug and, despite going on to a career in information technology, worked weekends in a restaurant kitchen “just because I loved it.”
It was a chance encounter with a building that changed everything. DiLorenzo was living in Manhattan and commuting to his IT job in New Jersey when he decided the commute was getting to him. “I came out to look for a house in Hightstown and went to grab coffee at a coffee shop in town,” he explains. He knew the space would be perfect for a restaurant. After moving to town and realizing the coffee shop wasn’t open on a regular schedule, he reached out to the landlord. “I told the landlord that if the space became available, I wanted it.” Sure enough, the coffee shop vacated the space; DiLorenzo opened 12 Farms in February 2015.
The rustic 64-seat restaurant lives up to its name—and then some (he works with more than 36 local farms). “Other than oils and nuts that we can’t get here, almost everything is sourced locally.” From cheeses crafted at Cherry Grove Farm and vegetables from Chickadee Creek Farm to meat from Double Brook Farm and wheat from Castle Valley Mill, DiLorenzo’s passion for the product can be seen in his weekly—sometimes twice-weekly— drives to source directly from farmers. “I do a loop and stop in and see them,” he says, making the chore sound more like a social call. Even the wine is local; while 12 Farms is BYOB, bottles from nearby Working Dog Winery are available for purchase.
“I started 12 Farms to support the local farming community and because their products are just higher quality and have higher nutrient value, but in the end it’s just about good food.”
120 North Main Street, Hightstown
“I knew the chance of my son
finding a job was remote, despite
the advantages we had worked
hard to secure for him.”
Ability2Work and its café, Grateful Bites, were born from a mother’s love for her son. Karen Monroy, founder and CEO, is the mother of an autistic child. Five years before his high school graduation, she began thinking about what her son’s future would look like. “I knew the chance of my son finding a job was remote, despite the advantages we had worked hard to secure for him,” she explains. With two other typically abled children at home who wondered where they might go to college or what they might like to do with their lives, the bleak future for Zachary was hammered home.
Monroy dove into researching the possibilities, quickly realizing that she found the currently available programs “appalling.” Monroy began putting together a “vision board, filled with everything we wanted to accomplish, and food kept coming up a lot.” After a friend in the restaurant business told her of the difficult culture of the business, Monroy had an idea. What if she redesigned the restaurant business to be a place where talented people wanted to work, and employed developmentally disabled individuals at the same time? Just like that, Ability2Work, the nonprofit that runs Grateful Bites, was born.
Grateful Bites opened three years ago. The nonprofit operates a café and catering business where 100% of the proceeds support its mission to help developmentally disabled individuals thrive, not just survive. The staff of 54 includes 18 apprentices, who are shadowed by paraprofessionals to help them learn life skills and enjoy themselves.
“We have 400 different jobs, from harvesting vegetables and picking up the eggs from the farm to cooking and baking in the two kitchens and even working in the café with the patrons.” Grateful Bites isn’t just heartwarming, either; the gourmet comfort food is seriously good. “After our first year, the Star-Ledger named us a Top 20 Bakery in New Jersey.” Monroy sees pure magic in that. “From the front of house to the back of the facility, there is a real alchemy between the typically abled chefs and the differently abled apprentices. When you see the chef light up because an apprentice made a recipe suggestion—that’s pure love and joy.”
42 Route 12, Flemington
“We had five and a half feet of
water in the store. Butcher blocks
were floating and everything was
knocked down like it was nothing.”
Bay Head Cheese Shop
It’s one of those phrases that get batted about when something unplanned occurs, but the adage “when one door closes, another opens” rings true for Charlie Dilatush. Dilatush was building a career as a special-education teacher in a private school until 2008, when the housing market crashed and the Great Recession reared its ugly head. “I lost my job,” she explains. “I was devastated.”
While some would choose to drown their sorrows in a pint of ice cream or a glass of wine, Dilatush headed straight for the 40-year-old Bay Head Cheese Shop. “I came in to comfort myself, but I noticed a sign indicating the shop was for sale,” she says. It took all of one day for her to decide that the shop would be her next move. She bought the shop. In 2010 she added a liquor license to sell wine in a space she had converted from a storage room.
Then, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit. Dilatush, along with all of the business owners on Bay Head’s main street, lost everything. “We had five and a half feet of water in the store. Butcher blocks were floating and everything was knocked down like it was nothing,” she recalls.
Once again, Dilatush mustered her strength and managed to get the store open for the summer season. She reopened in June 2013—and quickly realized the power of community. “I put a paper sign in the window saying we were reopening, and locals kept coming in and out, telling me they wanted to support me. I learned a lot that day about how people operate.”
In addition to wines and cheeses from all over the world, the shop features 25 homemade spreads. Dilatush makes her own soups (usually three to five different ones seasonally), as well as homemade quiches, but it’s the service that brings people back. “People come in and say they’re having a party and want to serve cheese but don’t know what to buy. I like to help them,” says Dilatush.
BAY HEAD CHEESE SHOP
91 Bridge Ave, Bay Head