Aside from the cheese steaks at Donkey’s Place, which the late Anthony Bourdain made famous on his show Parts Unknown, Camden is not necessarily known for its eateries. Damon Pennington wants to change that, and he’s off to a good start with two newly updated projects.
First up is the reimagined Camden Lunchbox that Pennington and his Signatures 315 Restaurant company have taken over. Back in 2018, two upcycled (read: cleaned up) shipping containers were brought to the town square in Roosevelt Park, just outside City Hall.
Under the auspices of the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership and the Camden charity Cathedral Soup Kitchen, and fueled by a $500,000 Urban Enterprise Zone grant, the truck-size boxes were outfitted with utilities and kitchens. With menus developed by Cathedral, CK Café, as it was known, served nutritious, affordable food to locals. It made for a sociable outdoor eating experience in the bustling plaza.
After CK Café closed in 2020, the city looked for a new operator to return vibrancy and foot traffic to the area. Pennington decided to step up. President and CEO of Camden-based ATS Group, which owns several properties in the city’s business district, decided to get involved.
“Many people think Camden is a food desert,” he says. “They don’t know that there are many great places to grab a bite to eat downtown. “My goal for the Camden Lunchbox is to accentuate what the city already has and offer a central place where everybody can eat high-quality, healthy food and converge safely as a community.”
He knew that getting the menu right would be key. He brought in Camden native Darrell Gaffin, a 30-year veteran chef, as culinary director. Gaffin developed a casual menu featuring what he calls “the five S’s: sandwiches, salads, soups, sides and smoothies.” Customers can grab items, and the staff also prepares hot dishes to order.
“Our focus is on delicious food people can feel good about eating,” says Gaffin, who sources his ingredients as locally as possible. “We will always have something on the menu to satisfy everyone’s taste buds and dietary restrictions.” The offerings include vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free items. Examples of the approach include the grilled cheese sandwich, which will combine Muenster, Gouda, pepper jack and cheddar, and the Reuben, which will be packed with half a pound of corned beef.
Perhaps thinking of Camden’s industrial past (including shipbuilding, leather goods and cigar making), Gaffin speaks with emotion about his city. “Everybody else benefitted from Camden, but not the folks in Camden,” he says. “It’s time for everybody to benefit from what the city has to offer. We encourage folks to come out and enjoy something good to eat in downtown. But,” he is quick to add, “we will also deliver locally.”
Pennington is betting that food will be key to revitalizing the embattled downtown. “There’s so much more to the city of Camden that people don’t know, and it’s time they find out,” he says.
Before the pandemic, a primary focus of Pennington’s business ventures was bringing people together. In 2019, he debuted the Camden Arts Yard. Previously an abandoned lot, it was redeveloped to celebrate art, music, culture, food and drink, all aiming to keep people downtown after the workday ended.
Since then, the 7,800-square-foot pop-up arts garden has attracted young professionals who work in the city for big companies such as Campbell’s, Subaru and American Water Works.
“I wanted to offer people who work and live in the city a place to grab a bite with a beer or cocktail and hang out with their friends, listen to music, and have fun right here in Camden,” Pennington says. “We don’t want people leaving right after work and going back to their homes in the suburbs.”
The Arts Yard is undergoing upgrades to accommodate more people and expand its food and entertainment options. Plans for the coming summer include a new outdoor stage and space for food trucks.
Pennington’s businesses also help create jobs. The City Hall kiosks and the Camden Arts Yard employ 15–20 people, a mix of business and hospitality students from Rutgers University and city residents who, he hopes, will encourage even more entrepreneurism.
“I want there to be new interest and excitement in Camden,” he says. “I want this to be a model for others to follow their dreams and take a chance on opening new businesses in the city.”
Asked about Pennington’s projects, Camden City Mayor Vic Carstarphen responds, “I’m all for it! These are positive developments that are good for the community and help build hope and inspire others. I’m 100 percent behind it. This is just the start of more great things to come in Camden, and I’m happy to have a small part in it.”Click here to leave a comment