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Nourish Founder Julia Simon Sells Vegan Meal Delivery Service

Plant Joy owner Julia Simon explains her decision to pass the Nourish torch to Alternative Chef's Hannah Riley

Julia Simon smiles as she poses outside of Plant Joy at Camp North End
Julia Simon (Courtesy of Julia Simon)

It’s one thing to believe in the philosophy that wholesome food is better for our bodies and our planet and should be easier to find, but it’s another to make it your life’s work.

That’s what Julia Simon has done with Nourish Charlotte — a locally sourced, organic, plant-based and gluten-free prepared food delivery service she started in 2012 at the age of 31. Nourish puts out a new menu every week and customers subscribe to meal plans or order individual meals a la carte to be brought to their doorstep.

It’s been a labor of love for Simon and for a long time it brought her great joy, until one day it didn’t.

Burnt out from the exhaustion of running a vegan meal delivery company during the pandemic and the scramble of opening a new restaurant, Plant Joy, at Camp North End during a time of unprecedented change in the food industry, Simon realized she bit off more than she could (comfortably) chew.

Also in 2020, Nourish became heavily involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically with Mutual Aid Free Support, Feed the Movement CLT and Jail Support — a supply hub for protesters and recently released inmates that formed alongside George Floyd protests in Uptown. The company also regularly brought free food to the encampment for unsheltered people that came to be widely known as Tent City.

It eventually became too much for Simon to juggle and consistently working 21-hour days was taking its toll. She said once she felt like she was losing sight of the big picture, she knew it was time to take something off her plate.

On June 6, Simon officially handed the reins of Nourish to Charlotte chef Hannah Riley in order to focus solely on Plant Joy. Riley is the founder and owner of Alternative Chef, a well-established catering, weekly meal prep and private chef service centered on healthy, local foods.

Simon said it feels strange yet gratifying to let go of her business after more than a decade — her longest endeavor to date.

“I feel like when I had to decide between the two, I felt like I needed a new adventure and [Plant Joy] is that,” Simon said. “I still don’t really know what I’m doing. I know I have a ton to learn, but I feel like I know a lot about how Nourish works. I’ve learned that lesson.”

Starting a vegan meal delivery service in the Queen City

Simon is originally from New York City, where she studied art at The Cooper Union. She recalled being “extremely broke” and traveling to Queens to eat at ethnic restaurants because it was cheaper than what was in the city.

The ethnic chefs were also kind to her and willing to share their cooking knowledge.

“I got kind of like a crash course in delicious, national, multinational vegetarian, vegan cuisine just living in New York,” Simon said. “Anybody who lives in New York will tell you it’s kind of like a free culinary school because you just are exposed to so much food culture.”

Simon later took a job with a company out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) teaching technology to underserved youth in afterschool programs and moved to Charlotte with the goal of expanding the program here. However, when she couldn’t find a nondenominational space to house it, she decided to switch gears and lean back into her culinary roots.

Simon had taken courses at the Natural Gourmet Institute, a culinary school in New York City that focuses on health-supportive, plant-based cooking. That’s where she learned to make tofu and tempeh and to see food through an Eastern ideological lens.

She put her knowledge to the test and began offering personal chef and catering services, which quickly took off — something she attributes to a lack of vegan, vegetarian, farm-to-fork and allergen-sensitive cooking in Charlotte at the time.

Together with her then business partner Laura Neff, Simon launched Nourish Charlotte in April 2012 as not just the only authentic vegan kitchen in the city, but the only vegan meal delivery service.

Nourish experienced explosive growth in its first year, growing by 200% and expanding out of the tiny restaurant Simon was renting after hours for prep into the much larger kitchen Nourish still uses today. The company naturally grew again during the COVID-19 pandemic, scaling by about 20% in 2020 — its most successful year to date thanks to the hands-off nature of the business, Simon said.

She and her husband, Erik Berns, opened their vegan restaurant Plant Joy that same year. She told Queen City Nerve at the time that she didn’t plan to open a restaurant and it was never one of her goals, but the folks at Camp North End worked with her until all the numbers made sense and the details aligned.

As with Nourish, a big part of the ideology at Plant Joy is not using big corporate meat substitutes. Instead, they make yams into ham and locally sourced fermented soy products like tempeh into chorizo.

A dish of Polenta Fattoush
Polenta Fattoush at Plant Joy. (Courtesy of Julia Simon)

“We make really delicious but specifically nutrient-dense, vegan food that features local artisans every chance we get,” Simon said. “It’s one of the pieces that you pay for. That $13 sandwich has a lot of story behind it.”

From Nourish to Plant Joy to her role as president of Charlotte VegFest, Simon has over the years solidified herself as a gem of the Charlotte vegan scene. The nonprofit aims to grow the vegan community and puts on an annual celebration highlighting the benefits of vegetarian living.

In April, Simon passed her VegFest role onto Jameka Whitten, founder of JSW Media Group, a boutique public relations and brand management agency based in Charlotte. She’s also a podcaster and content creator under the name The Stylish Vegan.

Charlotte VegFest will hold its 10th anniversary event on Sept. 30 at Camp North End.

Nourish taps Alternative Chef founder as successor

It was after many years working on her endeavors that Simon realized she was spreading herself too thin; she had her fill of Nourish and it was time to find a successor.

Simon initially reached out to her vegan network and then her farm-to-table network, most of whom are fellow chefs that belong to the Piedmont Culinary Guild. Nourish received several offers from interested buyers, but Simon said Riley’s was the strongest.

She liked Riley’s vision for Nourish and their similar ideologies around food, being an ethical businessperson and treating employees well.

“I felt like we were sisters in the field,” Simon said.

Julia Simon and Hannah Riley pose together smiling
Julia Simon (left) has sold Nourish to Alternative Chef’s Hannah Riley (right). (Courtesy of Julia Simon)

Riley has worked in the food industry for 22 years, half of which have been in Charlotte. At 18 years old she started her own catering company, which grew into personal chef services and led to her becoming a live-in personal chef for families.

She honed her passion even further when she began branching off to offer meal prep and personal chef services to people with dietary restrictions or health issues trying to mitigate their side effects with food. Her work hit home when she found out people close to her had food allergies that were detrimental to their health and in some cases life-threatening.

“I really dove deep into the allergen side of cooking to learn the ways that people who have food restrictive diets can still enjoy the foods they love without having the foods that are going to make them sick,” Riley said. “Hence the name Alternative Chef.”

For Riley, Nourish is the perfect opportunity to continue in her calling. She said it’s been a seamless transition to add Nourish as a sister company because she and Simon share the same focus of making locally sourced, farm-to-fork, all-natural meals.

It also helped that Nourish has its own dedicated space, so Riley doesn’t have to work out of a shared commercial kitchen any longer.

“When the option to purchase a pre-existing meal prep company came up, I was immediately interested because that means I get my own kitchen,” Riley said.

As an added plus, Nourish is already a gluten-free kitchen, which Riley said is kind of the crux of Alternative Chef. Her son cannot eat gluten and, although he wasn’t born when she started the company, she pivoted her entire business to learn how to cook for his needs.

Now that he has graduated high school and is heading to college in the fall, she said she has more time to devote to taking on another business with Nourish and expanding her services.

Julia Simon wants to ensure everyone is nourished

The most glaring difference between Nourish and Alternative Chef is that Alternative Chef is not exclusively vegan like Nourish is, though the company already offers some plant-based options.

Simon said staying completely plant-based wasn’t a requirement to take over Nourish, especially since her customers have shared through feedback surveys that veganism falls low on the list of what’s important to them. She’ll leave it up Riley to decide how much of a priority it remains at Nourish.

Riley has already done some sharing between menus, like offering vegan dishes at Alternative Chef.

“But we haven’t crossed the line yet with Nourish offering animal proteins. We’re kind of being conscientious of the current clientele base, and not putting that out there to hopefully not scare them off.”

Simon left Riley a database of six months of recipes to build from, including favorites like the mac and cheese, and has trained her in some of her Nourish practices. She said it was important to her to set Riley up for success because the mission of Nourish “is not just to feed moderately to extremely wealthy people,” but to also nourish those that are part of it and that includes the person at the head of the table.

“It’s part of the mission of the company that everybody that touches or is involved with Nourish is fed well and is nourished,” Simon said. “So it’s extremely important to me that Hannah feels comfortable, well-trained, and ready to grow into her next part of her entrepreneurial life, with all the equipment, all the knowledge that she needs to do that.

“I can’t swear that she’s got it all, that I’ve done a perfect job training her, but I do know that there’s a lot of documentation, and I’m leaving her with some truly special people.”

What’s next for Plant Joy and Nourish?

Simon plans to use some of the capital from the sale of Nourish to figure out what’s next with Plant Joy, whether that means a larger space, a second location or more of a commissary-style kitchen concept.

But before any decisions are made, she’s taking a month off and going to the desert.

“That’s where I tend to go when I’m not sure what’s next. I tend to go to that biome and like, hang out a minute,” Simon said. “I have the great privilege to be able to do that for the next three or four weeks and then come back to Charlotte ready to kick it.”

It’s her entrepreneurial spirit that’s gotten Simon this far — but also pushed her to her limits.

“It’s hard to quiet that fire and hear what you need. You always want to make. There’s alway this fire burning in your belly,” she said. “But I need to take a second to quiet the doing so I can see the bigger picture.”

As for Riley, on July 1, she plans to open a retail space in the lobby of Nourish’s kitchen, located on Orchard Lake Drive in the Sardis Woods area of southeast Charlotte. It will have grab-and-go items, ready-to-eat meals, local kombucha, CBD drinks, and products from local farmers, chefs and artisans.

Simon said Riley’s energy when it comes to Nourish has been exciting and refreshing to see, especially for the staff.

“I feel like it’s been a minute since the Nourish kids have seen that and I think it’s exciting for them to see somebody coming in, painting stuff, making it beautiful, having really strong ideas and really excited to execute them. My energy has been a lot lower key,” Simon said. “It’s a lot easier to love and hold down a job with passion. Adding your own personal flame to a job really comes with believing in the big vision, believing in the big leader and I feel like that’s an improvement for them.”

With a new leader comes a new era for Nourish and that, Simon said, is what’s bringing her joy again.

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