Caroline “Cookie” Till has served nearly half a million slices of blueberry pie at Steve & Cookie’s in Margate City over the past 21 years. And for most part, at least until now, she’s made every single pie herself.
It’s a simple but secret recipe that captures the inky sweet burst of summer-ripe Hammonton fruit in a delicate graham cracker crust. And making them has always been Till’s way of connecting with the memory of her mom, Florence Sandler, who taught her how to make it, and “who would have been so proud that everyone loves it.” There’s even a light in the window at Ventnor No. 7311, the coffee shop and bakery nearby she co-owns with Kim Richmond, that turns blue when pies are fresh from the oven.
But this year, Till, 61, has finally handed off her pie duties to some trusted longtime employees, the brothers Tito and Mario Sanchez.
Like many restaurateurs, she has been grappling with the challenges of surviving the COVID-19 crisis. And, true to form, her popular Amherst Avenue institution has been crushing it, shifting from takeout-only early in the spring to outdoor dining in June on her wide parking lot, where she can comfortably serve 200-plus diners a night. With generous table spacing, meticulous safety precautions for guests and her consummately professional staff, and, of course, a classic tomato-blue cheese salad with crunchy shallots and a perfect seafood pan roast from chef Kevin Kelly, our meal was the kind of memorable dining experience I’d expect from an operator who earlier this year was named a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for America’s best restaurateur.
But this seemingly tireless woman who friends call “the great connector,” a philanthropic member of six boards and overall Jersey Shore food visionary, has also been busy helping yet another ambitious project take root.
“Welcome to Reed’s Organic Farm and Animal Sanctuary!” she said.
Her tanned and bespectacled face beamed from beneath a sensible bucket hat as she led a tour of the nearly 80-acre former Reed’s farm in Egg Harbor Township which, after six fallow years, has become a vibrant hive of rebirth as a community center built around the power of food and agriculture.
“This is Violet, a miniature donkey who moved here after the horses she lived with shunned her,” said Till, who then turned to a neighboring pen and dropped a handful of feed on the dirt. Two spotted potbellied pigs came running from behind their little shed to be petted and fed. “And this is Clementine and Rosebud.”
Farm manager Brian DeRias turned on a hose to make a mud puddle, and Clementine and Rosebud eagerly dove in: “That’s the pig life!” said Till, noting these creatures were here to live and be loved by the farm’s visitors — not raised for meat.
“We’re going to have a movable fence so the animals can move around and do their job to fertilize the grounds,” Till says. “Next year, that land will be ready to be planted.”
Till always bought tomatoes, corn, and asparagus for her restaurant from this century-old farm just a few miles from the Margate bridge until the Reed family put it up for sale in 2015. She dreamed of buying the land to protect it from development, as it is already fringed by a maze of subdivisions. But that didn’t become a reality until early March when it was purchased by Caring Inc. and then leased for $1 a year to A Meaningful Purpose, the nonprofit Till founded with liquor store entrepreneur Lenny Varvaro and health-care executive Beth Senay.
The reimagined version of Reed’s technically will not be open to the public until this fall. But if the rising greenhouses filled with plump cucumbers, flowering zucchini, and tomato plants are any indication, this will be a thriving food source again soon. And, once everyone gets their bearings after this abbreviated first season, it should grow enough organic produce to eventually supply Till’s restaurants, which will pay for the ingredients, plus enough surplus to be donated to local food banks.
This is where this project diverges from many other restaurant-affiliated organic farms. A Meaningful Purpose envisions this property as more than just a food source, but also as a bucolic hub of agricultural skill-building, job opportunities, and animal therapy to be used by a variety of groups, including special-needs communities, veterans organizations, addiction rehab and recovery centers, and youth education programs.
“I could not be more excited about the farm,” says Stephanie Koch, the chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City, which provides recreation, education, and career placement for up to 1,400 kids a year. “The farm creates an oasis for our kids to go explore and opportunities to practice the skills they learn at the club in a real-world agricultural environment. We have a garden at the club in A.C. — and Cookie, who’s a board member, helped with that, too — but the size of Reed’s Farm is a whole different world for them to be surrounded by chickens and ducks, and to get their hands dirty.”
Till is especially excited about the transformation of the main barn into a big market center with a large working kitchen, where they’ll be cooking from the farm — “pies and soups, canning tomatoes and peppers” — and jobs await in running the retail operation.
“There are also so many opportunities here with equine therapy — even chicken therapy,” says Till. “We have adult children who come with their parents to spend a couple hours with animals weekly, and it’s very rewarding. We’re not fully formed yet. We’re figuring out our strategic plan and letting it unfold naturally.”
Caring Inc., a nonprofit that provides long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities, has plans to build two group homes for special-needs residents on the property.
Till’s talent for connecting with people, fostered through two decades of running one of the Shore’s most popular restaurants, has been a powerful magnet. Nearly half a million dollars in donations and in-kind labor have already been put into action, as evidenced by the bulldozer leveling earth during our tour in preparation for the four greenhouses that were rising. And volunteers were everywhere on an early-summer Friday, weeding, prepping the new sign and parking lot, staining picnic tables, and tending a steel tub filled with just-hatched guinea hen chicks that scurried beneath a heat lamp, soon to be pecking their way through critters in the gardens. (”Nature’s tick patrol!” said Lenny Varvaro.)
“Anything Cookie gets involved in, I want to be a part of,” said Bruce Lev, a marketing executive hanging out near the animal pens whose Center City advertising agency, LevLane, volunteered to create the farm’s logo and manage its website and social media.
It’s been easy to generate enthusiasm, says Till. But the farm project also connects seamlessly with her career-long pursuit of fostering a stronger, sustainable local food system in her corner of South Jersey on Absecon Island, which she said has always been just beyond the distribution reach of like-minded sources in Philadelphia.
So she has gone about building those resources herself. That’s what happened 12 years ago when Till, a one-time product developer at Campbell Soup who has a master’s in nutrition from Drexel University, gathered some of her favorite food artisans and local farmers (including the Reed family) to launch the Margate farmers market in her parking lot.
Not everyone was pleased at such an innovation back in 2008. She had to weather a legal tussle with the owner of the nearby Casel’s supermarket, whose lawyers challenged the farm market proposal at a city council meeting as an unfair competitive threat to capitalism, “like people pulling up and selling dresses out of a truck.”
The council voted in Till’s favor and the market has since become a bustling hub of artisan food activity and commerce that’s now a coveted ritual of summer Thursday mornings at the Shore. Taking that impulse further and getting her own hands in the soil of a farm itself — and bringing along her multitude of friends and fans to help — is the logical next step.
“I simply see things that are good that this community needs and get crazy notions — like this farm — and say, ‘Why not?’ ”
Well, for one thing, as Koch says, “Cookie is already the busiest person on the planet.” Plus, who’s going to make all those blueberry pies with 200-some regulars expected for dinner?
“I’ve learned to delegate,” says Till, who credits her team of longtime employees with the restaurant’s success, including the Sanchez brothers, who have worked there since beginning as dishwashers in high school more than a decade ago and risen through the ranks. “After all those pies, I think it’s OK for me to finally pass it on. Plus, Tito and Mario, honestly, do a much better job!”