We are months (maybe years?) into the Charlotte shutdown. Parking lots are empty, I-77 has become a dream to drive on, and the airplanes flying overhead have dwindled down to next to nothing. For Alyssa and Andrew Wilen, the parking lot they share with Brewers at 4001 Yancey is occupied only with cars of the seven employees holding down Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen.
“Closing wasn’t really an option,” Andrew said. “Mid-March, 95% of our business stopped and we had to regroup and just thought, ‘What’s next?’”
“Closing down didn’t feel right,” Alyssa continued. “It was a hard decision to stay open but a lot of people rely on us to keep the cycle of business going. Farmers and vendors rely on us and so does our staff.”
And so they kept at it, and with a new home-delivery program and virtual cooking classes, they’ve been able to power through the stay-at-home order, though it’s been far from easy.
For a business that is run mainly on in-person cooking classes, the Wilens, like other small-business owners, had to get creative to figure out how to keep their family business afloat, all the while keeping their full-time staff members on the payroll.
Virtual classes come front and center
In the beginning, there were a lot of virtual cooking classes. Alyssa would set attendees up with a rough idea of what they needed, teaching recipes that were easily substitutable and required primarily ingredients likely already lining folks’ pantries.
“I wanted to make this simple. We just did these kind of ‘one-pan dinners’. People really want to tackle what they enjoy eating so we started there,” Alyssa said. “I created classes with approachable, low-cost meals where people could simply tune in with what they have.”
These demo-style classes ran start-to-finish with Alyssa completing recipes for which she’d heavily prepped, while participants asked questions and interacted in Zoom’s comment section. Andrew, who played the role of producer, stayed in the background toggling between three cameras, providing a recording of the session for participants to re-watch and allowing those who couldn’t watch live to access the contents.
The classes started off strong. People were really drawn to the homemade breads (like the rest of the world’s quarantine Instagrammers). The dumpling, enchilada, gnocchi and cast iron classes were all hits, too. The hour-long classes began taking place a few times weekly in mid-March but have now slowed, coming to an (at least temporary) halt as June nears.
In-person classes are a huge hit — in fact, that’s how the business got its start in 2013 before evolving to include Family Table Meals, Saturday brunch and corporate catering. In these “normal” classes, Alyssa guides participants through four dishes made with fresh, local ingredients in a state-of-the-art kitchen on culinary-school-approved butcher block tables over the span of two-and-a-half hours.
All Zoomed out and nowhere to go
During the relatively short time Chef Alyssa has had her kitchen opened, she’s picked up various awards for “Best Cooking Class,” and been recognized as one of the city’s most influential women, among other accolades.
The online classes began taking off before the stay-at-home orders caused them to be the only option, a great alternative to the in-person class, which could only seat 24 and often had wait lists.
So why has it all come to a halt?
“People are just over it,” Alyssa said. “They’re Zoomed out.”
In March, Zoom, Google Hangout, Skype, FaceTime, and any other video-conferencing tool took over, but that seems to be taking a toll on our collective experience. Google “Zoom Burnout” and you’ll find article after article on why we’re drained by virtual interaction. It’s happening everywhere.
“Our goal when we first opened up was to create fun family classes from the moment participants walk in the door.
We want to be there for people so the family kindness, unselfish attitude permeates throughout the whole room,” Andrew said.
“I enjoy seeing cooking-class guests and hope to create those feelings and positive memories all together. Now, it’s really nice when people send photos of what they’ve made and can interact differently,” he continued. “There’s something to be said of cooking with someone for two hours when they’ve had self-doubt. It’s something you can’t quite get online. We are fulfilled in different ways when people have their videos on and talk about how pleased they were but in-person is hard to replicate.”
When the staff of seven gets together in their now eerily quiet building, at least one staff member at Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen every day longingly says, “I miss our customers”.
“The challenge is that every day we are focusing on something new, having to create something we haven’t really done before,” Andrew said. “We are working a lot longer and a lot harder to get to the goal we need to get to just because we want to stay open.”
Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen delivers
And now the Wilens are once again coming up with new, creative business practices to keep the doors of their custom-designed, 3,300 square foot kitchen space open, so they set their sights on the next step: food delivery in Charlotte and the surrounding areas.
In the fall, Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen launched the Family Table Meals portion of their business that they’d been ramping up for. The Wilen’s whole vision has been centered around creating a family vibe, and as a newly minted family-of-three (their 7-month-old daughter cooed cutely in the background during the couple’s interview with Queen City Nerve). The goal is to keep supporting and encouraging people to get around the family table, especially now, with meals delivered to your home.
Alyssa spent more than a year developing the Family Table based on what she would feed her family, she said — items like pan-roasted chicken and Nutella pie. And now she’s rolled it out just in time for the surge in food delivery.
“We had to think of food that would travel well. To-go food doesn’t always hold up well in a box but we just love the idea of family gathering around the table,” she said. “There aren’t minimums to what you can order and in what quantities; it’s just built around people eating together.”
There are meal pack options with well-sourced meats, vegetarian options, lots of side options — something for everyone. In the beginning stages of the business, when Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen occupied shared space at Atherton Mills, Alyssa began making connections with local farmers and merchants, many of whom started with them right there in the market. This helped set them up to consistently offer the freshest and local ingredients they can source.
“It’s all food you’d want to cook if you had the time,” Alyssa said. “For now, the biggest thing we’ve done is add delivery as an option and it looks like we got it figured out right when we needed to have it.”
The couple found a way to use the catering portion of DoorDash to not only expand their reach (deliveries can reach a 17-mile radius of Charlotte to include Huntersville, Gastonia, Mint Hill, Matthews) but to also keep their prices consistent. Customers can order day-of through chefalyssaskitchen.com and they will organize delivery.
“We are trying our hardest to grow this portion of the business, which is challenging because we’re not fully a restaurant and not thought of as a dinner option. We’re still fighting for that to happen and getting into the mix,” Alyssa said.
So now, with a high-end-classroom-turned-take-out-operation, the tables once covered with cutting boards and prepped class ingredients hold stacks of to-go containers, and a staff cut in half. And yet, as Phase 2 of Gov. Cooper’s plan to reopen North Carolina rolls out, Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen is beginning to prepare for a return to some sort of regular schedule.
Alyssa will host the last virtual class, focused on outdoor grilling, on June 3. In-person classes will resume in mid-June with smaller class sizes and other safety protocols — same with the in-person culinary summer camps for kids. She will also offer virtual summer camps, in which students will participate at their own pace, receiving a two-hour video from Alyssa every day, and joining a Zoom call with culinary instructors twice a week.
The team will continue offering Family Table Meal delivery, with new seasonal options on the way. In-house dining for Saturday brunch will remain closed for the time being.
Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen, like the rest of the world, is figuring how to make it work in a way none of us planned for. Charlotte does a great job with supporting local, Alyssa pointed out, and the camaraderie established during this time to show love and money to these businesses is a testament not only to patrons but to the businesses who have earned our trust and respect over the years when it was business as usual.
“At this point, it’s hard to imagine what a real-life scenario might look like,” Alyssa said. “The online classes and Family Table Meals aren’t just special events. We are really grateful for what we’ve been able to do with our customers who continue to support us and hope they’ll continue to think of that as things get back to normal.”