Innovation and Mentorship at This Year’s Next Level Conference


Last week, I participated in the eighth annual Next Level Conference, hosted by the New Jersey Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (IFEL) and the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (Newark CEDC). This incredible event is geared at helping Newark’s small-business owners innovate and grow their businesses.

IFEL is an organization that has proudly supported for several years (full disclosure: I have been invited to serve on their board), and we love to see the great work they are doing helping small business owners. This is, after all, part of what we try to do at

Anyone is welcome to join IFEL, and the NextLevel Conference is designed to benefit real businesses—operating businesses, from restaurant owners to small manufacturers, from retail store owners to construction companies. It is always amazing to see how a true startup begins and becomes a prosperous business, employing people in the community. It is especially amazing when you follow businesses that you have helped. This is what IFEL does.

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Tailgate touchdown: N.J. Caterers Prepping for the Biggest Game of Their Careers.

By Vicki Hyman/The Star Ledger


If Demaryius Thomas and Richard Sherman think they’re training hard for Super Bowl XLVIII, they should check out Vonda McPherson’s regime — rolling out enough homemade puff pastry to feed thousands.

The caterer and chef-owner of Vonda’s Kitchen in Newark has been at it for days already, grimacing as she mimes working the rolling pin — commercial puff pastry just isn’t up to her standards. But as one of the caterers for the official VIP NFL tailgate party at the Meadowlands Racetrack, she’s not complaining. It’s the biggest, most high-profile gig a caterer could ask for (and one of the best-paying, although McPherson won’t say how much she is earning).

“When they call, be prepared to answer the call,” she told herself. “It’s big time.”

The NFL wouldn’t say how many local caterers got the nod for the event, although Danielle D’Angelo of D’Angelo Italian Market in Princeton confirmed they will also be representing the Garden State at the VIP party.

The selection process was long, with McPherson comparing it to a high-stakes version of the television show “Chopped.” She helped cater themed events for members of the NFL Host Committee; each time she returned, she says, there seemed to be fewer chefs.

McPherson is a self-taught chef, the youngest of four siblings who took over the kitchen from her mother, who worked and attended school at night, when she was seven. For years, she traveled the tristate area as a medical supply saleswoman, pushing coronary stents on cardiologists — which is a bit ironic, considering the fried chicken, mac and cheese and smoked beef sliders that figure prominently on the Vonda’s Kitchen menu today.

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Chef Vonda’s Signature Crab Cakes


Ingredients (Makes 8 Large Crab Cakes)

  • 2 cans of Maryland Lump Crab Meat
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped red onions
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh sweet red peppers
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped green peppers
  • 1/4 roasted sweet corn (no excess juice)
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 TBSP dijon mustard
  • 1 TBSP Franks Hot Sauce
  • 2 Eggs
  • 2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1 TSP black pepper
  • 2 stems of fresh tarragon
  • A pinch of crushed red peppers


Mix all of the ingredients from top to bottom in a large mixing bowl. Make eight (8) large crab cakes. Refrigerate for two hours. Then deep fry each crab cake at 350 degrees for 5 minutes or you can sauté them with Olive oil on both sides for 5 minutes each. Garnish and serve.

Vonda’s Kitchen in Newark Offers Soul Food with Style.

The last time I saw Vonda McPherson, she was behind the counter of Shack’s, her barbecue/soul food restaurant in downtown Elizabeth.

The place was spare but cozy — three tables, a picnic table for waiting takeout customers, photos of Negro League ballplayers and jazz greats on the wall.

She sure has come a long way. No more being located next to a bail bondsman (it was her dad, but still). No more customers scrambling for parking spots in downtown Elizabeth.

The owner of Vonda’s Kitchen now operates out of a sprawling kitchen/dining room on the ground floor of the City View Landing senior residences in Newark. One of her catering clients, the Newark Housing Authority, suggested she move into one of its new developments.

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If you’re celebrating National Soul Food Month and Juneteenth this month, you’re probably well acquainted with crispy fried chicken, ham hock-laden collard greens, smothered pork chops and gooey macaroni and cheese.

Vonda McPherson

Restaurateur Vonda McPherson supports healthy soul food.

But what about wheat sautéed tilapia salad, grilled salmon cake panini, black-eyed pea dip and roasted green beans? In the eyes of restaurateur Vonda McPherson, that’s soul food, too.

The chef and owner of Vonda’s Kitchen in Newark, N.J., is on a mission to make fresh and organic a part of the lingo of soul food cooking and eating. She calls her menu offerings “down-home, clean food,” which she had the opportunity to showcase as one of the vendors at this year’s Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.



When you think healthy food, you don't necessarily think soul food, but Vonda's Kitchen has changed that. Located in the historic Lincoln Park Section of newark, Vonda's Kitchen offers soul food with a fresh and healthy twist using produce that is often locally sourced. In addition to soul food classics like fried chicken, smothered turkey wings, oxtails and macaroni and cheese, you'll also find healthier alternatives like vegetable soul rolls, grilled chicken wings, baked catfish, grilled jumbo shrimp and several tossed salads. Breakfast is served all day with healthy options like their egg white omelette that contains spinach, peppers, onions and tomatoes and a toasted oat bowl made with cranberries, bananas, cinnamon and drizzled with honey.

Cook for 10,000 People: Bring It On

Article by Liz Titus
Taken from the Business Connect Newsletter Volume 4
On Super Bowl Sunday, Vonda McPherson is going to be a busy woman. Her business, Vonda’s Kitchen, was awarded a contract to provide food at the tailgate party at the Meadowlands racetrack that day. She’s got quite a few mouths to feed – around 10,000, is her guess. Her theme, in keeping with the New Jersey focus, will be “boardwalk.”
To say that Vonda is ecstatic is an understatement; she is over the top.
“This is beyond BIG,” she enthuses. “This is a chance to be on the national stage!” She will go to the site the day before, setting up a complete kitchen. She plans to hire eight to 10 additional staff.
Since Vonda joined Business Connect, big jobs just seem to come her way. She’s catered trade shows for the NFL at the Meadowlands and at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), feeding over 500 people at each event. She is not only a chef, but also an event planner and designer. For her second show at the Meadowlands, she presented foods that represented the connection between New Jersey and New York, such as Thai chicken for Queens.
“For the sixth borough, New Jersey,” she laughs, “I did Italian hot dogs.”
The Newark native’s background includes over a decade in corporate America, where she did a stint with Johnson & Johnson right out of college selling stints to cardiologists. She loved the work, because it brought out her natural people and selling skills, and she also trained doctors and nurses, bringing out her mentor side.
After a period with Primedia in ad sales, Vonda decided to follow her lifelong passion for food and set up her own shop 14 years ago. Her first venture was Shack’s BBQ in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It was there that she got to know the staff of the Newark Housing Authority, which developed the West Kinney Street site into City View Landing, an attractive, affordable housing complex of single-family townhouses. When she was approached to open a restaurant offering healthy, homemade food at City View Landing, she jumped at the opportunity. She opened in March 2011, and Vonda’s Kitchen quickly became a welcoming, integral part of a revitalized community.
Vonda is especially proud of the recent Thanksgiving dinner she prepared for former Newark mayor, and now U.S. Senator from New Jersey, Cory Booker. “He’s vegetarian,” she explains, “but his mother was there, and she eats meat, so there was turkey. He even Tweeted about the meal!”
A woman on the go, Vonda plans to open a jazz club in March 2014 in downtown Newark, called Duke’s Southern Table. “The Profeta Urban Investment Foundation called one day, and I couldn’t say no.”

Vonda’s Kitchen Secures Contract for Services at MetLife Stadium for Superbowl 2014

"I am proud to announce as a member of the NFL NJ/NY Super bowl Host Committee, that the following AACCNJ member organizations, have secured Contracts for Services at MetLife Stadium through Business Connect: MZM Construction, Sharpened Image, and Vonda's Kitchen. When the playing field is level, AACCNJ members know how to close the deal", stated John E. Harmon, Sr.
Vonda's Kitchen, the newest restaurant to open in Newark that has seemingly done the impossible - offer healthy, homemade comfort food, like macaroni and cheese and meatloaf, without compromising taste.  That's because restaurateur Vonda McPherson uses fresh and often times organic ingredients from local farms at her namesake eatery, which celebrated its grand opening Thursday.

"What we tried to do here is have a collective marketplace of food where you can have the southern traditions and the Spanish food that you're looking for," said McPherson, who was born in Newark. "However, we have great salads and vegetables; we're changing the way we're doing things."

"Vonda's Kitchen will be doing the tailgate party, and providing breakfast, lunch and dinner for an estimated 500 members of the International Broadcasters and staff for the week leading into the Super bowl and Super bowl Sunday.  This experience has been a positive one and I am so grateful for this opportunity",   stated Vonda McPherson,   Chef & Owner, Vonda's Kitchen.