Robert Blau, president of the Long Beach Soup Kitchen — a nonprofit organization dedicated to feeding the hungry — was once a sales executive for Take-Two Interactive, the parent company of the popular video game publisher Rockstar Games. During his tenure, Blau helped launch such well-known games as Grand Theft Auto and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
After more than 20 years in the industry, a change of management at the company over a decade ago opened the door for his retirement, which, he said, was a blessing in disguise. Blau, the Herald’s 2019 Person of the Year, has been working with the soup kitchen, on Pine Street, for close to a decade, and under his leadership it has helped serve thousands of meals to people in need.
When he retired from Take-Two Interactive at age 53, the lifelong Long Beach resident began to search for something more meaningful to do.
“Shortly after they retired me, there was an earthquake in Haiti,” the 65-year-old Blau, who’s known as Rob, recalled recently at the soup kitchen, “and I decided that I needed to do something other than just work for a corporation, which is what I’d done all my life.”
The earthquake in Haiti in 2010 left an estimated 300,000 people dead and more than a million displaced. That March, Blau joined the Global Volunteer Network, based in New Zealand, and headed to Haiti for two weeks to help.
“I go over there and I come back, and I’m a mess,” Blau recounted. “I got home and I sat on my porch, and I looked at the fact that I have two cars, that I have four or five TVs. The people in Haiti that I met, most of them were the happiest people that you could ever imagine with absolutely, unequivocally, nothing. It was life-changing.”
When Blau returned home, he looked for opportunities to volunteer locally. At the time, his wife, Joyce, was volunteering at the soup kitchen — formerly the Long Beach Food and Friendship INN, operated by the Hempstead-based Interfaith Nutrition Network — and encouraged him to join the organization, which has been around since 1983. Coincidentally, Rob saw an ad in a local newspaper that said the kitchen was searching for a cook.
Blau — who said he is an avid cook at home — began preparing meals there in 2011. Just a year later, however, Hurricane Sandy hit, and left most of the city heavily damaged, including the kitchen. Its president at the time resigned in the wake of the storm, and Blau stepped up to take the position.
With the help of the Long Beach Lions Club, which donated enough money to rebuild the facility and supply it with new equipment, the kitchen was up and running again by March 2013.
“Without the financial assistance from the Lions,” Blau said, “there’s a good chance we would have never been able to rebuild and continue the great work we do to help serve those in need in our community and neighboring communities.”
The kitchen, which serves more than 6,500 meals per year, opens for lunch at 11:45 a.m. Monday through Saturday. It offers homemade soups, salads, a variety of entrees and dessert and beverages. Guests are also offered take-home bags with sandwiches, fruit and desserts. Blau and his team of close to 80 volunteers staff the facility every week.
Nicole Rieger, who has worked there for eight years, was named volunteer coordinator by Blau six years ago. He gave the kitchen the structure it needed to operate most efficiently, she said. “He has implemented good rules and expectations for all of us,” Rieger said. “We’re a well-oiled team, and he really runs a tight ship.”
Blau has worked hard to promote the kitchen, attending boardwalk fairs, sending out pledge letters and hosting fundraisers. By 2017 it no longer required the INN’s support, and became an independent nonprofit that, under Blau’s leadership, has been able to sustain itself. The city owns the building and covers its utility costs, and local supermarkets like Trader Joe’s donates food.
Blau’s efforts have attracted the attention of many in the city, including State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, who said that the facility’s work is critical. “The soup kitchen has played an important role in the community, and its reputation proceeds itself,” Kaminsky said. “Rob is the backbone, heart and soul for one of Long Beach’s most important institutions.”
James Hodge, chairman of the Martin Luther King Center, agreed. The center and the kitchen often work together to organize food drives, as well as a Thanksgiving dinner at the center.
“I’m grateful that we have a man like him and his team to help thousands of meals go out,” Hodge said of Blau. “Long Beach is blessed to have him and the services he provides.”
Rob, who is at the kitchen almost every day, has made volunteering a family affair. His daughters Lara, 33, and Kasey, 29, volunteer often, especially during the holiday season. Their father said that many of his guests have a sense of family during the holidays, and his daughters help bring that to the kitchen.
He added that he never asks his guest about their circumstances. He just looks forward to helping them out, and putting smiles on their faces.
He choked back tears when he remembered being honored a few years ago by Long Beach Reach Inc., a nonprofit that provides comprehensive social, psychological, educational and legal assistance to individuals and families. A “meticulously dressed” man, about 6 feet 2, approached him in the buffet line, he recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘If it wasn’t for you and your soup kitchen, I don’t know if I would be here today,’” Blau said, “‘because you helped me get through tough times.’”
The man was out of work at the time, but eventually went back to school and earned a college degree that led to a career. “It’s probably the only story that I can tell you that, physically, someone came to me and said that — and it made it all worthwhile,” Blau said. “Whatever happens after that, it doesn’t matter. It’s that you changed one person’s life, and hopefully you changed more for the positive.”