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From sub buns to Soup's On faith inspires Bob and Deb to feed the hungry

by Paul R. Kopenkoskey | Photography by Holly Dolci

Repeatedly disposing of day-old bread in his line of work challenged Bob Napolillo to ask a question: How can his 16-inch sub buns help feed people whose stomachs rumble with hunger?

His answer would not only help feed hungry people, but nourish the Catholic faith he shares with his wife of 29 years, Deb. As co-owners of a submarine sandwich franchise, the two have embraced the  opportunity to express their faith by using their restaurant acumen to serve others.
 
For the Napolillos, parishioners at the Cathedral of Saint Andrew, helping to feed the hungry has been a journey expressed in more than one way.
 
It began with bread donations to God’s Kitchen, a food and pantry program of Catholic Charities West Michigan (CCWM). The couple went on to make shopping runs to Feeding America West Michigan, selecting the best available provisions for the chefs at God’s Kitchen.
 
For the past five years, they have volunteered as floor directors for the annual Soup’s On For All! dinner, which raises more than $100,000 per year for CCWM’s food and pantry programs. This year’s event is Jan. 29.
 
Bob and Deb affirm they are compelled to lend a hand at making Soup’s On For All! as successful as possible. As owners of a Jimmy John’s franchise, the restaurateurs bring plenty of skills and experience
to the table.
 
“We both agree that we’ve been blessed with so many things,” says Bob. “We’ve been blessed with three daughters (Marissa, 28, Andrea, 27, Darci, 24) and when we started doing this, we knew it was from God. When we start giving back, we know it’s the right thing to do.”
 
It was in 2008 when Bob and Deb took the plunge and opened a Jimmy John’s in Hudsonville. As is true with many businesses starting out, ordering the right amount of sub buns is a skill all its own.
 
Abiding with Jimmy John’s freshness policy, every day Bob and his employees tossed in the trash bin an average of 90 loaves of bread. There had to be a better way, Bob reasoned.
 
“At first, we didn’t know how much bread to make,” recalls Bob of the early months. “They tell you to make extra bread, and we just had so much bread that we were throwing it out and filling the dumpster. After six months, I thought there’s got to be some place to give this bread.”
 
And there was. The Knights of Columbus initially agreed to pick up the bread and deliver it to God’s Kitchen. The food and pantry program is located in the Heartside neighborhood, an area near downtown Grand Rapids bounded by Fulton and Wealthy streets and Grandville and Lafayette avenues.
 
From 2012 to 2015, Bob and Deb personally delivered the bread to God’s Kitchen.
 
Those days of making deliveries to God’s Kitchen expanded their perception of what it means to feed their neighbors – which, in the case of God’s Kitchen, amounts to around 175,000 noontime hot meals per year.
 
When you volunteer to help someone else, and don’t worry about yourself, you get rewarded in such a big way,” says Deb. “The joy of giving opens your heart. It’s the little things like a lady (a God’s Kitchen patron) opening the door so you can bring the bread inside.
 
She’s having a hard time and she’s smiling. It’s so good to think outside yourself.”
 
But donating the yeasty concoctions eventually wasn’t enough.
 
The Napolillos started driving a van God’s Kitchen owns to Plainfield Township to purchase fresh meats, vegetables and fruits at Feeding America West Michigan.
 
They developed a game plan: Bob became a linebacker of sorts on behalf of the hungry, determined to tackle the freshest sources of food for those who rely on receiving a nutritious meal from God’s Kitchen.
 
“We’d get there at 8 in the morning and all the charities are lined up waiting for Feeding America to open,” says Bob. “And everybody rushes in and you’re fighting everybody else in the name of God to get
to best stuff.”
 
They soon went from being neophytes to seasoned shoppers determined to fulfill their mission in the best way possible.
 
“We noticed we’d put something on our cart and someone would take it,” says Bob. “So I’m in the freezer battling for food and Deb’s guarding the cart. We really enjoyed doing that and really got good at it.”
 
Deb says her relationship with God keeps their volunteer efforts in perspective.
 
“Throughout my life when problems come, there’s only one place where you can just let it all out there, and that’s either in church, talking to someone else or talking to God,” she says. “We took this van to Feeding America and have so much fun doing something worthwhile, to do something outside the box.”
 
Bob and Deb were then asked to serve as floor directors for the annual Soup’s On For All! fundraiser, and 2018 marks their fifth year.
 
As floor directors, Bob and Deb greet guests, help ensure the flow of patrons is seamless when they arrive at the B.O.B. and when they leave, and coordinate the 150 or so volunteers.
 
Soup's On For All! promises an entertaining night for the more than 1,000 attendees who are encouraged to go to the B.O.B.’s five floors to sample soups, breads and desserts donated by area restaurants and served by community leaders and local celebrities.
 
Each guest also selects a hand-painted bowl as a souvenir of the evening and a reminder that hunger is a reality every day for many in the community.
 
“There’s always a buzz during the evening,” says Deb. “Did you try the lobster bisque? What station is the lobster bisque?”
 
Bob says he clocks an average of 20,000 steps jaunting throughout the B.O.B. He wouldn’t have it any other way. Their volunteering fuels the direction they want their retirement years to one day take.
 
“For me, it’s an extension of doing unto others,” says Bob. “We want to do more when we retire, to volunteer, and to do things for the community and for the Church. That’s what we’re going to focus on. 

Upcoming Events

SOUP'S ON FOR ALL!
WHEN: 6:30 p.m., Jan. 29, 2018
WHERE: The B.O.B., 20 Monroe Ave. NW
WHAT: Guests enjoy live music and entertainment, along with a medley of soups, breads and desserts donated by area restaurant and served by local celebrities and community leaders. 
Cost: $50 per person in advance or $60 at the door. Will-call tickets can be picked up the night of the event on the B.O.B’s first floor, directly across from the hostess stand.
 
SOUP'S ON ALONG THE LAKESHORE
WHEN: 6 p.m., Feb. 12, 2018
WHERE: Trillium Events Center, 17246
Van Wagoner Rd., Spring Lake
Tickets: $40 per person
For more information on either event, visit www.ccwestmi.org