Featured photo: Monique Miller’s Chicken and Shrimp Pineapple Boat (courtesy photo)
I became a food entrepreneur in 7th grade.
Between third and fourth period, we had a 10-minute break. Some kids would scribble last-minute homework assignments or carouse in the hallway. I sold bags of sunflower seeds and cups of Pepsi for $1 each. I eventually expanded sales to include pens, pencils and single sheets of looseleaf paper to kids who came to school without them. The cash I made went to pocket money for field trips and entrance fees to the neighborhood pool.
That entrepreneurial spirit carried me through my twenties when I would cater luncheons for staff at area companies and the Forsyth Public Library. That was my seed money for what my Nik Snacks brand is today.
Food can become a window into business ownership, financial independence and creativity. Selling plates of food is a time-honored tradition where many entrepreneurs get their start.
Former Food Network star Paula Deen sold plates of fried chicken, pies and cakes out of her home while her sons made deliveries across Savannah, Ga. Eugenia Duke, founder of Dukes Mayonnaise, sold sandwiches and prepared salads to soldiers in Greenville, SC during World War I. Most people who sell their wares are either trying to make ends meet with extra cash, have an intense need to share their love and craft of food, or are trying out new ideas on family and friends. And while both Deen and Duke are prominent white women who made their claim to fame by starting in their homes, Black and Brown entrepreneurs have found that selling plates is an option for them too.
Opportunities to make a flexible income at home are rare and relying on friends, family and extended neighborhood networks is a major factor to make the business of selling plates successful. It’s a “private-club” situation for home cooks and out-of-work culinary professionals to solicit donations and sell hot meals to their friends and neighbors without paying the rent of high-overhead commercial kitchens.
Winston-Salem native Anthony Kellum says, “I’m just somebody who grew up in the streets, trying to make a dollar. That’s it.” Kellum, who works at Fratelli’s Steakhouse, worked his way up from dishwasher to grill cook and sells plates on his day off.
“I would watch my mom and my grandma cooking in the kitchen and then one day I started cooking on my own,” he says. “After my son was born, I had to provide for him, someway, somehow. So I started selling plates.”
Inspired by television shows and meals he had as a kid, Kellum sells a variety of plates: salmon stuffed with crabmeat, shrimp with lobster-alfredo cream sauce, smoked-brisket sandwiches, Philly cheesesteaks, shrimp po-boys, smoked turkey wings. Armed with a 27-inch griddle and a smoker in his backyard, Kellum sells between 20 to 25 plates a week. After promoting on Facebook to his network, potential and future patrons can pay via Cash App, a mobile banking service. Recently, he applied to create his own business operating as Irene’s Catering, LLC.
“I want to be legal because there are people out there who will try to knock you down,” he says, “and I made it so people can’t knock me down.”
Cottage food laws are laws that allow small-time producers to use appliances in their homes to bake, cook, can, dehydrate or candy certain foods for sale. According to the NC Department of Agriculture, any food individually packaged for self-service sale must be labeled. Foods “custom made” or “on demand” for sale as a single unit can be exempt from individual labels.
Monique Miller of Winston-Salem says, “I used to always love being in the kitchen to watch my grandma bake and watch my mama cook.”
Her grandmother owned a restaurant in downtown Winston-Salem in what is now the Arts District, so she has been exposed to entrepreneurship early on in life. After her grandmother shuttered the eatery, the matriarch sold plates on weekends. Miller took after her and started selling plates in 2007. Miller says she’s known for her desserts: pound cakes, cobblers, cheesecakes, layered cheesecakes, cakes and pies. For less than $10, she also makes homestyle dishes like curried chicken with cabbage and rice, meatloaf or chicken pot pie with macaroni and cheese and potato salad, fried chicken and fish with green beans. Strictly advertising on Facebook, customers pay with cash during pick up or via Cash App. She averages over 100 plates sold every weekend.
It’s not so much about economics, it’s about feeding the community and sharing talents and giving of yourself, she says.
“If I have food left over,” says, “my daughter, son and uncle will go around and give plates to the homeless people.”
Terrell Anistead worked his way around prestigious kitchens in Winston-Salem, formerly of Willow’s Bistro and Providence Kitchen. He too sells plates during his time off.
“I’ve seen a lot of people make ends meet by selling plates,” says the Providence Community Training Program graduate.” It’s a whole operation of family and friends that make it happen. You can’t do this by yourself.”
Recently Anistead sold plates of Cajun salmon and shrimp with grits, peppers and onions garnished with fine slivers of radish and scallions after advertising on Facebook.
“I’ve come across some people who can really cook,” he says, “and if they had that mentorship like I had, they don’t know how great they can really be.”
He says he wants to do more to support the community and selling plates is giving a chance to get reconnected with those around him.
“I love the history selling plates,” he says. “I’ve watched a bunch of families survive doing this. It’s not so much about the price of the final product, it’s also about being accessible so everybody can eat.”