PART 3: ENTER ALISON
Continued from Part 2.
It was August of 2009. I had just finished up a grueling but rewarding summer working as sous-chef at Camp Ballibay in northeastern PA. After 30 years in business, the camp had decided to shift from serving kids processed, pre-packaged food to making fresh, locally sourced, from scratch meals. The head chef and I created their new food program and co-ran the kitchen, and a very small team of people successfully pulled off a very large job (under budget even!). While there, my landlord had informed me that he had sold my beloved Carroll Gardens apartment. I would have to be out by the end of the month. Since I had ended my personal chef gigs before heading off for the summer, nothing was really tying me to NYC. I put most of my stuff in storage, and Connor and I headed down to Florida for a few months to stay with my parents while I figured out my next steps.
In early October, I got a call from a friend in Brooklyn who had to travel for a few weeks, asking if I felt like coming up to take care of her cat. Still untethered to any place or job, and with trustworthy care for Connor, I said sure. The night I arrived, my phone rang. It was my former private cooking client and old next-door neighbor, David, asking when I could start cooking for him again. Over the next 48 hours, a few other well-timed events occurred, and the synchronicity had me rethinking my future. It felt as if the universe was telling me that my time in NYC was not over (at that point, I was California dreaming). I decided to find a sublet so I could reestablish my health-supportive personal chef business and see if I was reading the signs correctly.
The next day, I went to David’s to cook his week’s worth of meals. As I was leaving his apartment, I ran into my old friend and neighbor Ethan and asked if he had any sublet leads. He thought for a second, then said, “Hmm, I might have the perfect situation for you.” A few hours later, I was in Red Hook sitting across from Hanna, our mutual dog walker, whom I barely knew. We were in a huge, loft-like apartment with a view of the Statue of Liberty and art leaning on every surface. There were also copious books strewn throughout the apartment on dog heath and nutrition, along with piles of hand-written index cards and computer printouts on the subjects. The woman who lived here, Mary, was a dog-walking client and friend of Hanna’s who had just had a stroke and would be in the hospital for four to six weeks. Mary had a small, local business where she made dog food that she sold in two Manhattan stores, as well as custom recipes for a handful of health-compromised canine customers. A few neighbors had already stepped in to help out in various ways, but no one had much food experience. Perhaps I could stay there at a reduced rent while I helped make the custom dog food batches?
How could I say no? An opportunity had just presented itself that combined my deep, lifelong passions for healthy food, dogs, and helping people. As sad as I was about the situation, I was excited to be in a position where I could add real value to someone who needed all the love and support she could get at the moment. Plus, in my mind, good food was good food—it didn’t matter whether the end users were restaurant goers, kids, or dogs. In the meantime, I would have a few weeks to calmly find a place to live. Mary’s business would not have to suffer in her absence, and I’d go my merry way once she was back on her feet. It all seemed straightforward, so I made arrangements to go back to Florida and retrieve Connor.
While en route with Connor back to Brooklyn, Hanna called. Mary had suffered two more neurological events that had led to a much less optimistic prognosis. She would not be leaving the hospital anytime soon, though there was still hope she would recover. She had to start physical therapy ASAP, and her need to focus on rehabilitation would greatly hinder her ability to focus on dog food. Now that I was here, living amid her belongings indefinitely, perhaps I could help with the next production run, too? All of a sudden, it did not seem so simple anymore. Things moved quickly at that point. I had never met Mary before her stroke, yet suddenly found myself in her home and custodian of her life’s work.
From the get go, it was clear to me that the food was transformative. In less than a month, even Connor (who hasn’t had a bad meal in his life) became more energetic, got a shiner coat, slimmed down, and had perfect poop—just like back in the day, when I had more time on my hands to cook for him. This food had to keep being made, a sentiment echoed by a small but dedicated group of Tribeca customers. I visited Mary as often as possible, setting aside soups to bring her that I had made for my personal chef clients. I so badly wanted to ease her mind and keep her engaged—regularly reviewing and clarifying her custom recipes, consulting with her about sourcing and cooking practices, and discussing nutritional analyses.
November came and went. Mary was still immersed in physical therapy, though it had become more and more obvious that she would not be leaving the nursing home anytime soon, or ever. Still clinging to the hope that she might get better, Hanna and I began spending most of our time together, trying to get a handle on her business… until we realized it was a total mess from any regulatory standpoint and in serious debt. It was time for a state of the union. We were running ourselves ragged working for free in the most expensive city in the country for someone who may never recover, but we truly believed in the idea of home cooking for dogs. If we were going to invest our time, money, and expertise into making dog food, we needed to start from scratch and have ownership. Plus, to responsibly formulate and sell commercial dog food to the public, we still needed to do a significant amount of research and laboratory testing.
In early December, we met with Mary. As difficult as it was for her to acknowledge the reality of her situation, she also cared deeply that dogs would be able to have access to a gently cooked, detoxifying diet. With her blessing, Evermore was born… and with it, a very steep learning curve into the realities of running a pet food company.
Continue to Part 4, Laying Roots.