By Patty Talahongva
The first thing you should know about The Joy Bus Diner, 3375 E. Shea Blvd., is that there is no bus, nor is there a food truck— but there is plenty of joy in the food they make, and the people they serve it to.
One year ago Jennifer Caraway founded the diner with the guidance of her board of directors, because the eatery happens to be an enterprise of a local nonprofit organization. All of the profits go to The Joy Bus’s mission of making fresh and nutritious meals for cancer patients.
Caraway embraced this philosophy of “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade” wholeheartedly after losing her friend, her friend’s sister (named Joy) and their mother, all to cancer. “They were both adopted,” she points out, leading Caraway to believe the cancer was caused by environmental factors.
The Joy Bus nonprofit was formed six years ago and started delivering meals to 12 cancer patients a week. The food was made in a rented commercial kitchen with the help of volunteers. Since opening the restaurant, The Joy Bus has increased its roster to 42 homes. Family members caring for the patient can also request food from The Joy Bus, at no charge.
There are some limits to those who can be served through the nonprofit. Case managers refer patients of all ages with all types cancer to the organization. The patients must live within 15 miles of The Joy Bus Diner and be determined to be homebound by a doctor.
Caraway says it’s important to “Let them know somebody cares.” Meals are delivered every Friday. Patient meals are different from what is served in the restaurant.
You will not find canned or boxed food in the kitchen at the small but homey diner. What you will find are dishes inspired by past patient customers. Carol’s Cherry Mason Jar Pies are absolutely delicious. The recipe comes from Carol, a woman they served and who saved her recipe just for The Joy Bus. Shanny’s Frozen Bananas comes from another patient. Jammin’ Jan’s Jams is from the mother of a friend who just wanted to help out.
“It’s a collaborative community effort,” says Caraway. “It’s so cool to have all these people live on” in the products.
All of the meals are prepared from a variety of food donated to The Joy Bus. Crooked Sky Farms donates all the vegetables twice a week. Most of the bread is donated by Wildflower Bread Co. twice a week (Caraway’s volunteers make the baguettes). The coffee is donated by Roastery of Cave Creek and the tepary beans are donated by a company in Flagstaff.
Prices are kept low for a reason because Caraway wants to make sure anyone can afford to come eat and contribute to a good cause. Breakfasts averages $8 but you can get several dishes for $5.
Her personal favorite is the chilaquiles. Diners also can enjoy chicken and waffles, French toast, biscuits and gravy, and several egg and omelet selections.
For lunch, several healthy and hearty salads are available, as well as the classic comfort food combination of grilled cheese and tomato soup. If you are looking for a more substantial meal, try a Rueben sandwich or the Joy Bus Burger, or even the “Honkin’ Huge Burrito,” with chicken breast, pinto beans, tomato, onion, chile and avocado. Wash it all down with the daily milkshake.
There are about 30 tables inside and a few outside with some stools at the counter. It gets busy at breakfast but it’s worth the wait and of course the cause.
More than 50 volunteers work at the diner and help deliver the meals, but more help is always needed. “They (the volunteers) created an organizations that is so much cooler than I ever imagined,” Caraway says.
When the volunteers deliver the meals, they also spend time with the patient to visit. It’s that gift of time along with the food that is precious to Caraway.
It’s a way to help society, and everybody wins, she says. “People step up to give. I’m lucky I get to see that people really are giving.”