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Barry Cohen is a good Jewish guy. You might wonder, then, what he's doing in a church. A banker by profession, Cohen is the brains behind an idea that on the surface seems so simple, it's surprising that nobody has made it work before. Tired of seeing homeless people sitting idle and hopeless on the streets, Cohen thought that, given the right set of circumstances, he could create a concept that might help some of them build new futures. Then, the circumstances started to fall into place.
Driving on the east side of downtown last year, Cohen stumbled upon Love-Joy Ministries, a nondenominational outreach ministry at 2711 Harrisburg, and upon Sister Mary Nance, a recovered alcoholic and drug addict who now works to help others overcome their addictions. The soup-kitchen idea was inspired by the stories Cohen's grandfather told him when he was a child about the Great Depression and places where you could get a bowl of soup for five cents. A year later, Just Soup was born.
Take a group of homeless people, screened by Sister Mary and motivated enough to enter a yearlong job-training program, add the culinary training of volunteers from Alain and Marie Le Nôtre's Culinary Institute and 15 soups developed by the Art Institute, and Cohen had the beginning of a recipe for success: an upscale soup kitchen staffed by the homeless. Well, they're not exactly homeless anymore. All Just Soup employees live on the Love-Joy premises. And Sister Mary assists the graduates of the job-training program in developing money-management skills and looking for employment in local restaurants.
Houston businesses have been quick to latch on to the Just Soup idea; donations -- from furniture to formal wear for the waiters -- have been pouring in.
It was an unusually hot day for May, and soup was the farthest thing from my mind when I entered the church. All conversation stopped, and I was greeted warmly by the employees, especially Willie Warner, the official greeter and menu dispenser, who quietly waits in his wheelchair for each customer to arrive. Soup prices have gone up since Barry's grandfather's days, to $5 instead of five cents. But when you consider that these soups are homemade with fresh ingredients purchased daily (Sister Mary is still looking for grocery donors) and served with a nice helping of buttered French bread, the price doesn't seem bad.
Besides, the most important thing to remember is that this $5 is directly helping a homeless person get back on his or her feet. "Everybody has to eat lunch somewhere," says Cohen. "We realize that people have a lot of choices, but we hope that they choose us, knowing that they are also performing a good deed."
The featured soups were tortilla, vegetable and cream of potato on the day I visited. Additional soups, such Mexican chicken, broccoli cheese, beef barley and beef and tomato are served on other days. Just Soup is open Monday through Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sister Mary says she'll be adding some lighter fare to the menu for the summer, like tuna salad or maybe some sandwiches.
While most patrons come for the soup and decline dessert, they're missing out on perhaps the best part of the Just Soup meal. Sister Mary makes all of the desserts herself, from her own recipes. For $1.50 you can get a mean slice of pecan pie or delectable double-layer pumpkin or even fluffy lemon-berry. Whole pies are a bargain at $6.50 each.
Barry Cohen is so sure that his concept is a win-win for all concerned that he has already approached other area churches with the idea. "Hey, they get the religion, they get the training," he says. "They're set for life, and we turn a homeless person into a productive member of society." There's hope in that soup. For more information, call 713-228-2502.
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