July 20, 2020 —
From the moment you enter its door, Sorriso Kitchen’s fresh, urban vibe and tempting aromas will put a smile on your face. But there’s much more to smile about at this unique family-owned Chatham, New Jersey, restaurant than its cheerful décor and delicious cuisine. Sorriso Kitchen also is home to an extraordinary service and hospitality training program for young adults with special needs.
Sorriso Kitchen owners, Jimmy and Karen Bellas,
are dedicated to supporting people with special needs
and their families.
Jimmy, LJ, Nico, and Karen Bellas.
BRINGING THEIR DREAM TO LIFE
After opening Sorriso Kitchen in November 2018, owners Jimmy and Karen Bellas wanted to create an opportunity where their son LJ could work in a safe, respectful environment after he graduates at age 21 from Chatham’s Education, Learning & Lifelong Community (ECLC) program. As a result, the Bellases transformed their restaurant into a once-weekly classroom for young adults like LJ who has Down syndrome.
The Sorriso Kitchen program offers students
with Down syndrome, autism, and other developmental disabilities
an effective curriculum focused on skills
for real-life jobs in the service industry.
“Since becoming parents, Jimmy and I had often talked about opening a place where both our boys, LJ and Nico, could work with us,” says Karen. “Before we opened the restaurant, we agreed to having Mondays off to preserve family time away from work; but after we opened, we realized that on its day off Sorriso also could be a terrific resource for other kids like LJ.” Without missing a beat, the Bellas launched Sorriso’s service and hospitality training program in January 2019.
LJ’s smile and laughter inspired the name Sorriso,
which means smile in Italian.
A PROGRAM WITH A POSITIVE, PRACTICAL PURPOSE
The once-weekly, 4-month Sorriso Kitchen program is designed to polish students’ interpersonal skills by teaching them to communicate with coworkers as well as meet, greet, and seat customers. Students also learn hands-on tasks, including preparing the dining room for service by setting and cleaning tables, filling water glasses, cleaning menus, refilling sugar and napkin caddies, sweeping, and presenting customers’ checks. Before each Monday’s class, ECLC staff members help prepare students with role playing and images depicting proper table settings.
Graduates of the Sorriso program celebrate by serving lunch at the restaurant to family members and friends. Karen says that after graduation, several graduates continued working at Sorriso as servers and bussers. The Bellas look forward to providing more opportunities for graduates to work at Sorriso.
The Sorriso Kitchen Winter 2020 graduating class
shares their certificates and smiles.
SORRISO IS A FAMILY AFFAIR
Jimmy and Karen say their son Nico, who has inherited his parents’ love for cooking, enjoys helping run the family restaurant while working alongside LJ. “Both our boys have grown personally and professionally in the Sorriso environment,” says Karen. “We ensure that each of our staff members and our boys are surrounded with love and respect here.”
A junior at Chatham High School, Nico plays saxophone in his school jazz and marching bands. At home, he also plays piano and guitar. Nico’s love of and gift for music has inspired live keyboard and guitar performances at Sorriso.
LJ’s outgoing personality and love of people keep everyone at Sorriso smiling. “LJ is a joy to have around,” says Karen. “He has many friends, and he loves swimming, music, dogs, and eating.”
LJ Bellas is all smiles when greeting and seating Sorriso’s hungry clients.
LJ created and is named for the LJB panini —
one of Sorriso Kitchen’s most popular items.
GREAT FOOD AND A SPRIGHTLY AMBIENCE
Located at 252 Main Street in the former home of Angie’s Family Restaurant, Sorriso features fresh, delicious, and creative farm-to-table meals in a welcoming, lively environment. The Sorriso culinary team uses the highest quality meats, produce, and other foods to present appetizing fare and scrumptious baked goods to its many customers.
Thanks to Karen Bellas’s talent for design, Sorriso’s diners also can delight in the restaurant’s positive atmosphere while savoring a great meal. Karen’s branding for Sorriso includes her custom-designed wallpaper with inspirational messages and an upbeat logo, menus, and promotional items.
Jimmy and Karen Bellas want folks to feel
the way LJ makes them feel when they are at Sorriso — happy!
SHARING THE SORRISO PROGRAM
Jimmy and Karen Bellas are eager to share their knowledge and experience with other organizations and businesses that want to implement a program like Sorriso’s. Jimmy says, “Sorriso and ECLC have created a successful model that other businesses can emulate to support people with special needs and enhance their communities.”
“We want to inspire other businesses and organizations
to provide training so that people with special needs
develop skills and confidence to achieve their full potential.”
— Karen Bellas
Karen says there are few opportunities for young adults once they graduate from the Sorriso program. “If businesses offered a training program for an hour a week,” she says, “it could make a difference in someone’s life.”
Sorriso Kitchen graduate Donovan Garrity.
SORRISO ADAPTS TO UNPRECEDENTED TIMES
Like many other businesses, Sorriso has quickly adapted to meet its customers’ needs despite the COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing. “Thankfully, we didn’t have to close,” says Karen. Sorriso has stayed open “with a skeleton crew of 3 servers and our chef, John Acosta,” says Karen. “John has come up with creative ideas for takeout suppers that have been extremely popular with our clientele.” Karen also says that Polly Peters has kept Sorriso Kitchen top of clients’ minds with social media marketing.
Although the Sorriso classroom is temporarily on hold, Karen and Jimmy are poised to bring it back in action as soon as health safety guidelines permit. In the meantime, Sorriso has contributed food and desserts for frontline workers at Morristown Medical Center and Atlantic Health Rehabilitation Institute through the Front Line Appreciation Group (FLAG) to lift spirits during quarantine. “Our baker, Arnie Seth, makes wonderful smile cakes that make people feel good,” says Karen.
“We’re very grateful to be healthy,” says Karen.
“The way everyone has cheered us on and supported us
during this difficult time has been heartwarming.”
THE CHATHAM COMMUNITY RESPONDS TO SORRISO’S MISSION
The Bellas have lived in Chatham since 2001, when Karen was pregnant with LJ. “We love everything about Chatham, including its beautiful neighborhoods, awesome schools, walkable town center, and ability to get to New York City with a quick trip on the train; and we have been especially moved by the warmth and support of this exceptional community,” says Karen.
“Many people in the Chatham community have told us how comforting it has been that we’ve stayed open through the COVID lockdown,” says Karen. “In addition, people have made anonymous donations to help us out. Someone even left a hand-painted smile rock by the Sorriso door. These things mean the world to us,” says Karen. “They have helped keep our heads above water.”
“Returning to my roots [in the restaurant business]
with my family after years in corporate America is wonderful,” says Jimmy.”
“We’re delighted to be downtown.”
IT’S ALL IN THE BELLAS’S NAME
It’s no surprise that the root of the Bellas’s name, bella, can mean beautiful, nice, or great in Italian. They are, after all, a family whose inner beauty, kindness, and great generosity contribute to and reflect the spirit of the Chatham community. They are among the many reasons Chatham is an outstanding place to live, own a business, make friends, and raise a family.
If you haven’t already eaten at Sorriso Kitchen and met the Bellas, I encourage you to visit them soon for outdoor dining or take out. The Bellas and their staff members will welcome you with a smile and your tummy will thank you!
Call Sorriso Kitchen at 973-665-8068 or visit sorrisokitchen.com to see the menu, explore catering options, learn more about the Sorriso, ECLC, or make a donation.
Karen and Jimmy Bellas have earned
the well-deserved 2019 Morris County Council of Education Association
Friend of Public Education Award
for supporting students with special needs.
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