RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The owners of Latin American-Southern fusion restaurant Soul Taco in Richmond have opened up a new pop-up dining concept called JewFro, blending their Jewish and African roots.
Co-owners Ari Augenbaum, Narine Hovnanian and Trey Owens were also behind the holiday pop-up Jingle Belle, which served holiday-inspired food and drinks at the site of the former Belle eatery and bar from Halloween until New Year’s Day. JewFro has taken over the same space and is scheduled to be there until March 28.
“Literally from when Jingle Belle closed until JewFro opened […] was just all research and product development,” Owens said. “We had to kind of start immediately because the corned beef and some different things have to brine and have to sit.”
After the success of Jingle Belle and the feedback from the community, Owens knew he wanted to offer another pop-up experience to the City of Richmond. Pulling from his own culture and that of his business partners, JewFro was born as a way to both educate and entertain people through food.
“It’s ed-ertainment,” Owens said. “We’re committed to the craft and committed to the whole idea of it, so we’re going to do it and do it right.”
For Owens and Augenbaum, that meant sticking to authentic recipes, even as they combined their cultures.
“There’s a lot of similarities, a lot of things that really pair well together,” Owens said. “On the menu, you’ll find lots of traditional dishes from different regions.
The menu was inspired by dishes from all over Africa, including Tunisia, Morocco, Ghana and Nigeria, as wells as the the Middle East and Europe to incorporate Augenbaum’s Jewish heritage. Almost everything is made from scratch, and much of the ingredients on the menu are locally sourced.
“It’s so many different iterations and so many different things just all coming together,” Owens said. “For me, it made it worth it, even before JewFro opened, when my chefs were looking through at all the different recipes.”
With the team at JewFro’s commitment to authenticity, there may be dishes on the menu that many restaurant patrons are seeing for the first time. But there’s a tool to help.
“On the menu, literally on the back of it, we have a glossary of all of the different terms that are in there that people might not be familiar with,” Owens said.
At JewFro, Jewish and African cultures intersect not only in the food, but also through the décor. Owens said he was inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the Middle East, which, in 1971, saw the rise of the Israeli Black Panther Party. Founded in 1966 in California, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was originally formed to patrol Black neighborhoods to protect residents from acts of police brutality. The name was later changed to the Black Panther Party as the group’s ideals evolved.
During the 1970s, the Black Panthers were an Israeli protest movement of second-generation Jewish immigrants from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries, working for social justice for Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews.
Owens said he was wanted to bring that intersection of African and Jewish culture into JewFro, so he thought of ’70s culture.
“The ’70s were a time where — I mean, I wasn’t alive, but I wish I was — but, from what I see, it’s the free love society, everybody’s being groovy,” he said. “I wanted to bring that in.”
Those who visit JewFro will see disco balls, flowers and metallic streamers bringing the space to life.
“It’s really us just trying to stick into the community and trying to find what kind of new and innovative things that we can bring them that they can appreciate and, in turn, us connect with them and go from there,” Owens said.
In fact, Owens said that JewFro is hoping to stick around a bit longer.
“Officially, JewFro will be open until the end of March,” he said. “We are looking to keep it going. If there is a local restauranteur in the City that […] wouldn’t mind sharing their space, we’d love to move the concept there.”
Owens said that much of the drive to keep a pop-up concept running is to be able to continue to work with Phil Zimmer, who either oversees or makes everything that patrons tasted at Jingle Belle and now have a chance to try at JewFro.
“I just can’t let him go,” Owens said. “He is two years clean and he is an amazing public speaker, and he has been instrumental in bringing people on the team that are also in that struggle to stay sober.”
While Owens said that finding people to hire for the pop-up has been a challenging, it has also been rewarding because the people who have been brought on to the JewFro team make it clear that they want to work. If not through JewFro, Owens said that he hopes to keep them employed through another pop-up in the works.
“We will be doing another pop-up coming very soon,” he said. “That is going to be a futuristic concept, and we will be accepting cryptocurrency. We’ll be the first restaurant in the City to do so.”
The details of this next pop-up are still being finalized, but Owens said that it will likely be run out of Soul Taco, which will then continue to accept cryptocurrency after the pop-up closes.
The team at Soul Taco is also looking to make its first move across state lines, eyeing a new location in Baltimore, Md.