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Jennifer Caraway has been making borscht.
“I had all these beets,” she explains in a phone call from the kitchen of The Joy Bus Diner, the nonprofit restaurant she founded a decade ago. “And you should see this borscht. The color is so pretty!”
Inspired by her close friend Joy, who died of ovarian cancer, Caraway launched The Joy Bus in 2011 to hand-deliver meals to local cancer patients and their families. “We wanted to do something to improve their lives,” says Caraway, who was born in Rhode Island but grew up in Phoenix. “Good food and a good conversation can help some.”
Soon, with the support of local chefs, farmers, and other food community types (including Crooked Sky Farms and Fox Restaurant Concepts), The Joy Bus became The Joy Bus Diner, a Shea Boulevard restaurant (3375 East Shea Boulevard, to be exact) whose profits fund the food-delivery campaign. The organization’s board is a Who’s Who of local food professionals including Tracy Dempsey (Tracy Dempsey’s Originals), Gio Osso (Virtu Honest Craft), and Bernie Kantak (Citizen Public House, The Gladly).
That tony board was resistant when Caraway suggested a four-walls diner. “They were reminding me how hard it is to run a restaurant,” Caraway recalls. “And I was saying, ‘Yeah, but I know that. It’s all I’ve ever done.’”
The $10,000 prize she bagged as a contestant on the Food Network’s Chopped in 2018 helped seal the diner deal. “We used that money to push the Joy Bus to the next level,” she says of her brief TV stardom. “I’m glad I won, and I’m glad it’s over. Chopped was a lot of work.”
It was worth it, she insists. Neighbors love Joy Bus cuisine only a little more than they like making a difference in someone else’s life.
“Not everyone has the ability to write a fat check to an organization,” she explains. “We offer the opportunity to give back to the community by ordering biscuits and gravy or whatever, knowing that the proceeds go to improving someone else’s day. When you come into that space, there’s nothing like it. People are sitting at tables, laughing, crying, talking about their diagnosis or about someone they lost.”
The pandemic, of course, has temporarily halted the diner’s business. “It sucks,” Caraway says. “I don’t know how to put it more intelligently than that. We had to close because we’re only 10 tables, and we didn’t have the space to social-distance correctly.”
Caraway tried a Joy Bus take-out-only model for a while. “I did the work myself. I set up the line, cooked, washed the dishes, broke down the line, all of it. And I was working so hard I got sick. I’m old! I just can’t hustle like I did in my 20s.”
But that youthful hustle has paid off in other ways these past few years. Caraway’s high-profile alliance with AZWomenInFood, a collaboration with the James Beard Foundation Women’s Leadership Program, has been turning heads. She’s just published More Than a Meal: The Joy Bus Community of Chefs, a cookbook featuring recipes from a dozen different local chefs. The book was two years in the making.
“It took so long because we are talking about really busy professionals here,” says Caraway of the cookbook, proceeds from which will fund the patient meal-delivery program. During the time she was preparing the cookbook, several other local chefs jumped on the Joy Bus. “I feel bad that these great people aren’t included in the book,” she says. “I may have to do a second cookbook, but I don’t really want to. It was such hard work, and we need to focus on our clients.”
And then there’s the thing about the beer.
“Four Peaks has named a beer after The Joy Bus!” Caraway exclaims. “How cool is that? I basically stalked every local brewery, begging them to create a beer for us and give the proceeds to the Joy Bus.” When local beer-makers weren’t interested in a Joy Bus brew, Caraway met with reps from Four Peaks Brewing Co.
“They were immediately like, ‘What do you want it to taste like, what do you want the label to look like?’” she says. “Now I’m grateful that all the local breweries said no.”
(There are actually two beers. The first, the Joy Bus RAD IPA, was released in June 2020, and named for how often Caraway apparently says, “Rad.” The second is the Joy Bus WOW Wheat Ale, which launched in December.)
Caraway says she’s trying to focus on that kind of gratitude while she waits out the pandemic.
“I don’t know when we’ll be able to open the diner again,” she says with a sigh. “But I know this: I’ve got a lot of borscht to deliver today. And that’s a good thing.”
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