When Jonathan Sands, 40, decided to open The Spot, a restaurant in Northfield, the goal was a simple one. His plan was to make the same food for his customers that he loves to eat at home for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
For his customers, that means an eclectic tour around the culinary world, including brief stops in Korea, Italy, Greece, the Middle East and Vietnam. Sands already knew that good food is good food, no matter the culture that inspired it.
"We're doing everything that no one else is doing. It's not the same as any other place," Sands says. As far as the food goes, Sands has always liked putting things together that you wouldn't normally expect to go together, although they taste good together, but maybe people are reluctant to pair up.
For instance, pancakes can be made with blueberries, chocolate chips, M&M's, walnuts, peanuts or banana.
Sands, whose background is Russian, Hungarian and Armenian, says he didn't eat well at home. As a latch key kid he learned quickly that if he wanted to eat well, he would need to learn how to cook on his own.
Working in restaurants from the time he was 11 years old, he started out as a dishwasher and eventually moved up to a line cook position at a local deli. At seventeen, a visit to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., convinced him that was where he should be. By the time he graduated in 1993, he had refined his cooking skills and had learned how to run a restaurant from his time at the deli.
Sands owned and operated a breakfast place in Ventnor for 10 years before moving on to the new restaurant in Northfield. With his life partner, Erin McGee, 31, a business major in school, the couple splits the work. Jonathan handles the chef duties; Erin does everything else from the books to marketing.
Breakfast at The Spot includes many recognizable egg, potato and meat dishes, along with some of Sands's signature plates. The Mikey is an omelet with well-done pork roll, green peppers and American cheese ($6.50), Len's omelet ($7.50) has potatoes, crisp onions, well-done sausage and bacon, Swiss and American cheeses.
The breakfast menu also includes a heart-smart choice of yogurt topped with granola and fresh fruit.
Before The Spot, the restaurant that occupied the space was open only for six weeks, then it closed for six months before the owners moved on. McGee says no one really knows they are there and open yet.
That is destined to change.
What makes The Spot different from many other restaurants is Sands' attention to the product he serves from his kitchen. "I go to the market at least once a day, sometimes twice, " says Sands, who likes to visit every ethnic grocery or market he can find. Shying away from premade products that are overprocessed, Sands says the only can he has in his kitchen holds ketchup.
"I make my own salad dressings, I make my own mayonnaise. It's like a mini culinary school in my kitchen," Sands says. Sands toasts off all his own spices to make curry powder, creates his own blackening spice and his own garlic powder. Pointing to his wrinkled fingers, Sands explains that he stretches his own fresh string cheese made from curds.
All of the soups on the menu are made from scratch. "I don't want food from a can," Sands says.
The only freezer in his kitchen is stocked just with bananas. Frozen bananas are a necessary step to make banana whips.
"I want people to know that our food is really fresh, and it's as close to the earth as we can make it," Sands says. Sands makes his own potato chips from scratch, and his own pickles, a skill one of his aunt's taught him. There are no bags of pancake mix on the shelf, because he makes his own mix.
When Sands does use an outside product, it must be of the highest quality.
"I don't have a bread oven so we use fresh Formica Bros. bread everyday, stuffed with all the freshest ingredients," Sands says.
Almost all of the dairy and eggs used at The Spot come from a local farmer in Vineland.
The lunch and dinner menu offers unusual starters like loaded fries ($5.75) tossed in the house buffalo sauce with a homemade white sauce made from Cooper sharp American cheese, blue cheese crumbles, bacon, tomato, diced celery and red onion.
"Everything you would ever want on a French fry, but no one will ever do for you," Sands says.
Sweet potato wontons ($5.75) are Asian-style dumplings served with jalapeno jelly and "the chiller" sauce made with sour cream, lemon zest and vanilla, and BBQ pork lettuce wraps ($6.75) is Korean-style BBQ pork served with crisp lettuce leaves and pickled root vegetable salad. Salad selections include a classic Greek salad ($5 small/ $9 large) which includes the unusual Bulgarian sheep's milk feta, a creamier more complex version of feta.
Sands is all about raising the quality with his ingredients. The cheese for the string cheese salad ($5 small/ $9 large) is made by hand from fresh cow's milk cheese curds in Sands' kitchen, and the "bun me" ($6) is Sands' play-on-words version of the Vietnamese hoagie called a Bahn Mi, made with his own pickled vegetables.
Daily specials may include items as diverse as edamame ($4), soy beans in a salty ginger lemongrass broth or a black and blue bacon burger ($10) made from freshly ground Black Angus beef with homemade pickles and potato chips, or a French bread pizza ($5) made with fresh mozzarella.
The menu at The Spot is not too long and everything is simple. The restaurant does a lot of sandwich trays for local businesses, faxing out a daily menu to everyone on their list.
"If you're in the mood for good food, there is going to be something on this menu for you," Sands says.
Although, as you might expect, the regulars at The Spot already know that with such a flexible chef, he is willing to prepare anything his customers dream of eating.