“Cooking was always a passion. I always get lost in the food and the aroma of making food. Food is an international language, it brings everyone together,” explains Kelly Chang, who left his job as a human resource executive in a fortune 100 company two years ago to open Friends Café across from the Rutgers Camden campus in Camden, NJ. “I wanted to make food where it didn’t matter who you are, if you come in a suit or a pair of jeans or if you are homeless, you can still come in to eat good food and be happy.”
But creating an inviting atmosphere for everyone has not been easy. “When I first got here, the locals were like, ‘are you here for the students or for us?’ They felt intimidated coming here. I asked them, ‘Why don’t you come to my restaurant?’ and they said, ‘We don’t feel right with all the students there. We’re not students.’” Kelly hypothesizes that local people also believe this because, “Kelly’s restaurant is in front of a school, he is going to high price everything because the students have an RU card.” The university issues RU cards through its dining dollar program, which parents often pay for.
Kelly feels that this perception is fading with the restaurant’s growing reputation. “This fall the word is really getting out. The food is good and so is the service.” Additionally, Friends Café is one of the only restaurants in the area that stays open until 10:00pm on weekdays, and the only location offering periodic movie nights open to the wider community.
Kelly sees himself becoming a bigger part of the community over time. “I want to get involved with the high schools and bring them here and teach them about culinary arts. I’ll give students a job here and teach them how to run a small business.” It won’t be just about cooking, but also about “paying the bills, showing them what a bill looks like, and doing quick books.” And further in the future, Kelly hopes to sponsor a local little league baseball or tennis or swimming team. “That is my dream – to have Friends Café on the back of their shirts.”