Jennifer Lima grew up working at her father’s restaurant, Tom’s Tavern in Wrentham, but always wanted to be a social worker, or maybe a nurse. When she got pregnant at 16, she managed to finish high school and enroll in the Community College of Rhode Island, earning a degree in social services.
But with a baby to support, she went back to work at Tom’s, where she met Alex Lima, a Brazilian native whose family had moved to Framingham when he was 14. He, too, had grown up in his family’s restaurant back home.
The first thing he said to her: “I’m Alex. I’m going to marry you someday.” She didn’t like him: “He was so cocky.”
But he won her over. They married in 2003 and have a 6-year-old son, plus her 21-year-old daughter and his 17-year-old daughter.
And last year, they added a new member to the family: Novatos Bar and Grill in Norfolk. They bought the spacious restaurant a year ago next month. “Novato” means “new beginnings” in Portuguese, Alex’s first language.
The couple is hardly new to the restaurant business. “We know the stresses of running a restaurant,” says Jennifer, 37. “But we promised each other we would also use it to do some good.”
For Jennifer, it was her inner social worker. Her husband? “He’s the most selfless person I know,” she says. So much for cockiness.
They donate bread weekly to the Wrentham Food Pantry. Their first Easter brunch, they donated much of the sales to the local fire department. They’re constantly giving gift cards to this or that raffle.
When a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, struggling to work while raising her son and undergoing treatment, they donated a percentage of their earnings to Project Princess, which a friend organized on the woman’s behalf.
And when the family of a young Marine just back from Afghanistan wanted to book a weclome home party, the Limas told them no problem. In late December, a peak holiday time, they closed the restaurant and donated the entire party. They hung signs and strung red, white, and blue lights around the bar.
“Who else closes on a busy Saturday night?” asks Lauren Eliopoulos, the Marine’s sister. “They would not take anything in return. It touched my entire family.”
To Alex, it’s simple. He told the veteran: “You served us. Now we’re serving you.”
Which brings us to Rolling in the Dough, the couple’s latest endeavor. Their “Doughboy,” take my word for it, is the best piece of fried dough you’ll ever eat. According to a box at the bottom of Novatos’s menu, it is “crispy fried dough dusted with cinnamon and sugar” for $5.
The box notes that 100 percent of the proceeds from Doughboy sales will go to a person, family, or cause in need. “Do you know a deserving cause? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.”
The campaign is only a few weeks old, and hundreds of Doughboys have already sold. Some customers come in and simply donate to the cause. When the pot reaches $10,000, it will be presented to the chosen person, family, or cause. Submissions are flying as fast as the fried dough.
The causes are enough to make you weep. There’s the man with stage 4 oral cancer, a 3-year-old son, and wife he worries about. There’s the teenager born without the ability to grow teeth, due to a rare disease, who cannot afford the $70,000 in dental work. “And insurance won’t cover it because it’s considered cosmetic,” Alex, 34, says. “When she was younger, it didn’t matter as much. But she’s 17 now and it is affecting her life.”
There’s a family in danger of losing their home. The family from New Bedford who lost everything in a house fire in early December. A man who says he needs no money, but a bed for his daughter. “We’re just going to buy him a bed,” says Alex. The couple whose two little boys have both been diagnosed with a rare, fatal disease who need to make their bathroom handicapped accessible. And so many more.
Submissions can be made until Jan. 30 at email@example.com or sent to 218 Dedham St., Norfolk MA 02056. On Feb. 5, the committee — the Limas, and family and friends — will choose a recipient.
As soon as the first $10,000 is raised and given out — and it shouldn’t be long, the way the Doughboys are selling — they will start with a second round, and then a third, and so on.
“It doesn’t have to stop,” says Alex. “Doughboys don’t cost us much to make, and as long as people keep buying them, we can keep doing it.”
So far, they’ve only had one lame request: from a man who came in and told them he needed money to resurrect his art collection. He was informed it was for people in real need.
The finalists will be vetted for authenticity, to make sure no one is driving home in an Escalade. “We don’t want to be insensitive, but we don’t want to be scammed,” says Jennifer.
The couple has come up with a motto for their Doughboy campaign: “Calories don’t count if it’s for a good cause.”
The Doughboys are great, and so is the cause. Calories, schmalories.
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.