Some days at the height of lunch rush, Chuck Beverly leaves his post behind the serving window at Sister Jean’s Kitchen to help out in the dining room.
Dashing through the kitchen door, he glances over at the column between the prep area and the main hall and, for a moment, sees Jean Webster. She presided over many meals from her seat there, dispensing hardscrabble wisdom and stern discipline.
“She only had little feet, but we all have big shoes to fill,” said Beverly, 53, who started volunteering for Webster in 2008 after being recruited from one of the lunch tables.
Nearly three years after her death, a tight-knit group of employees — including Beverly as head chef — still feed about 400 of Atlantic City’s poor each weekday.
Meals continue amid high demand for the kitchen’s services, financial strain from declining donations and mounting pressure from officials to relocate the operation out of the Tourism District. For years, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has proposed moving the kitchen away from its Pacific Avenue location inside Victory First Presbyterian Church.
“The only way this is going to continue on is with Jesus’ help,” said Frank Bright, who “grew up a jailbird” until Webster straightened him out and gave him a job 10 years ago as a dishwasher and doorman. “God is holding us up.”
Behind the scenes, the enterprise Webster began a quarter-century ago is small in financial terms. According to its 2012 IRS form 990 tax return, the operation was funded through about $277,000 in contributions. It also receives in-kind donations of food, largely from the casinos and local food bank.
This summer, the kitchen hit a crisis point as donations dwindled post-Hurricane Sandy and bills went unpaid. As has been the case in the past, last-minute donations helped return the nonprofit to the black.
“I’ve always admired the work they do,” said one of those donors, Anthony Mack, who owns two McDonald’s franchises in the city with his wife, Rita. “I know what it’s like to not know where your next meal is coming from.”
The stagnant economy — this winter, the city’s unemployment rate crested at nearly 25 percent — means more people than ever are using the kitchen.
“(Local officials) have been pushing the homeless out of town, so that’s contributed to a decrease, but the economy has also increased the number in need,” said the Rev. John Scotland, the nonprofit’s executive director. “It’s not a significant jump, but we’re serving different people.”
The day begins at 6 a.m. for the kitchen staff, all of whom trained under Webster prior to her death Jan. 10, 2011, at 76. Most were also clients of the kitchen at one point in their lives.
Beverly said the process begins by thawing hundreds of servings of meat. Wednesday’s meal was chicken. Then he prepares the rest of the menu, a starch and a vegetable, based on what’s available. The smaller tasks are centered on the day’s menu, and the five employees divide the duties. Volunteers start to trickle in. The crew never knows whether they’re going to get 5 or 50 people, but they’re prepared to pick up the slack if a rush comes.
The rush, of course, comes when lunch is served at 12:30 p.m. (It comes earlier in the winter, when the kitchen serves breakfast and lunch.) Depending on any number of factors — such as the time of year, when food stamps run out and how many people were turned away by other charities — the cooks may need to get creative with their limited supply.
“If I see we’re starting to run low, I’ll cut the portion sizes to feed everybody,” Beverly said. Similarly, he’ll stretch out mashed potatoes and other foods with milk or water.
Beverly always saves leftovers for the next day’s meal, but he is careful never to reheat anything more than once.
Frank Ortiz, called “Cisco” because his co-workers don’t want to call him “Francis,” met Webster while working at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, where she managed the cafeteria. They had had their disagreements, but, after Ortiz lost his job, Webster invited him to join the kitchen.
“We cursed each other out,” he said. “She was hard, military, and if you didn’t do it her way, she’d throw it in the trash and (you would) do it again.”
For instance, Webster fried her chicken halfway and put it in the oven to finish. It added an extra step to the process, said Ortiz, 48, but woe to the cook who didn’t follow her lead.
Webster was also firm with her clients.
Bright said they never wore hats inside the dining room, with its stained-glass windows and imposing painting of Jesus on the cross.
“Jean didn’t take no mess,” he said. “And guess what? Neither do us staff.”
However, Bright said he treats all visitors with respect.
“If they’re aggressive, I talk calm so the level always stays low,” he said. “I look at them and, when they open their mouth, I know what they’re coming from.”
Webster’s rules seemed arbitrary, but her proteges say that’s how she instilled accountability and discipline. Her cooks carry those lessons, and the accompanying recipes, with them today.
When Hurricane Sandy hit, the employees — most of whom live in the city — rallied to provide food to those left behind. Ortiz, for instance, kept his Shih Tzu Pookie in a carry bag in another room as he cooked. Beverly walked past his stricken neighbors on the way to check for damage at the church.
While the electricity was out, the gas stoves still worked and there was no flooding.
“We told people, ‘Whoever you see, tell them to come back at 12 o’clock for a meal,’” he said. “Some 400 people were served here.”
Back in the kitchen, as Beverly transfers boiled chicken from the heating pans, assistant chef Ortiz jokes that he’s the “mother of the house” while Beverly is the stern father, adding a gibe about his friend’s feminine last name.
For all of the camaraderie, Bright said the crew still has their differences. The goal of helping people, however, means more than the minor scraps.
“Some days we come in with an attitude. We all have a bad day, at times, but we’re still a team,” he said. “Sister Jean will never die as long as her name is still spoken on the street.”
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
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