Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

For virtual school families, this local chef couple brings the lunch line home

Posted September 9, 2020 8:02 p.m. EDT

Holly Hopkins and Chef Mario Huante are Raleigh locals who own Chef Mario’s, a locally-owned personal chef meal delivery service and catering company. After being married for a little over a year and in business together for five years, the pandemic has thrown their business a curve ball that they’ve caught and run with.

Holly Hopkins and Chef Mario Huante, owner of Chef Mario's

Since March, they’ve been working seven days a week to keep their customers happy with healthy, scratch-made meals to help their families manage the COVID-19 chaos. Recently, they’ve introduced a new menu line – Homeschool Lunch Line – designed to help feed busy families who are trying to balance work, virtual school and whatever else 2020 may bring.

Go Ask Mom: For those who don’t know you, tell us a little about Chef Mario’s.

Chef Mario’s Inc. is a locally-owned personal chef meal delivery service and catering company. Prior to the pandemic, we had a heavy focus on corporate catering with a smaller portion of our business coming from the personal chef side – even though that’s how Chef Mario got started many years ago.

Our approach is to start with fresh, whole ingredients to make everything from stocks, dressings, sauces, marinades, spice blends, and even all of our sweets. We know what is in your food because we put it there. We are terribly conscientious of the fact that we have many clients that eat our food almost daily. We also know that so many pre-made foods, boxed mixes, canned and jarred sauces, and bottled marinades and dressings are loaded with fillers, hidden sugars, artificial colors, and many other unnecessary ingredients. That is why we work hard to avoid them! We want our customers to feel good about what they’re eating and feeding their families.

Entree from Chef Mario's

GAM: How has COVID-19 affected your business? How have your customers’ needs changed since March?

Well…. I very vividly remember canceling EVERY SINGLE CATERING EVENT I had on the books for the entire spring and summer in a single day in March. At the same time, restaurants were closing and people started to get really tired of cooking for their families day after day but many were hesitant to do takeout from just anywhere.

I knew immediately that we had to change our business model to focus on our personal chef delivery service. While we had numerous personal chef clients at the time, we corresponded through email for orders and had a much more limited menu. Demand was increasing for our meal delivery service and clients wanted more variety to choose from. We added many new options, including breakfast items and our new Homeschool Lunch Line options.

Our business continues to evolve as we’re working to build a user-friendly e-commerce website. (Right now, we’re hobbling along with Google Doc order forms!) We so appreciate that our clients continue to be so supportive and patient with us through many changes.

Sadly, we did have to downsize our team and reduce hours for others, which has been the hardest part of this entire year. On the plus side, working environment changes were relatively easy for us – commercial kitchens are already highly regulated with cleaning and sanitizing procedures, so adapting to an increased level of sanitization was easy. With fewer people cooking in the kitchen, it is easy for us to meet social distancing requirements.

A year ago at this time, this is NOT where I saw our business going. But, we have shifted our strategies and cooking for our customers makes it all worthwhile. Mario and I love and care for our clients who are like an extension of our family. We know their kids’ names, we know their favorite dishes, etc. Many of our customers order every week and we are thankful!

Veggie and cheese from Chef Mario's

GAM: How did you come up with the concept of Homeschool Lunch Line menu?

I am a member of various Facebook groups and I have lots of mom friends. Just listening and reading about their experiences in the spring with distance learning and their fears with having to do it again this fall got me thinking about what we could do to take something off their plates: feeding their kids. I know lunches are something that every kid needs and that parents have to prepare for.

We have several clients who I know are moms with school-aged kids. So, I reached out to a few and asked if this concept was something they would find helpful if we made it available. In chatting with them, one thing that seemed to be appealing to a few is the idea of using the meals as a way to encourage independence with their kids while they are learning virtually. They say it is a great way to show kids that they can do things for themselves by letting them pick out a meal and get it heated up in the microwave (if needed) or simply opening it and getting themselves fed. Parents can keep working, or just check in if needed.

Then Chef and I spent some time brainstorming and checking out popular kid meal ideas on the internet. Plus, we scoured our menu to find items we could make into both dishes for our personal chef meals as well as Homeschool Lunch Line meals. We came up with the idea of doing a few entrées plus some sides that could be used as meals or even snacks. Our Homeschool Lunch Line Menu includes vegetarian options, gluten-free and dairy-free options since we know lots of kids (and adults!) have dietary restrictions. Our menu is specially-designed with kids in mind.

Entree from Chef Mario's

GAM: How have parents responded to the Homeschool Lunch Line idea? What are some “fan favorite” menu items among kids?

Parents have been very receptive to these offerings. Moms are so happy to have options that they know are coming from a scratch-made kitchen instead of processed grocery store items that become the default for anyone with limited time. Orders are due Sunday night by midnight and they’re ready by Wednesday – which is right around the time parents are so tired of making lunches and snacks every day.

So far, the favorites have been anything with our Burger/Meatloaf Mix (shhhhh….don’t tell your kids, but it is loaded with micro-diced veggies. They will NEVER know, but you will feel good knowing they are eating it!); Our Veggie and Cheese Plate – Chef cuts the veggies in unique shapes and sizes to keep the kids interested (our Broccoli Amoebas are unique and colorful and crunchy and easy to dip!); and our Friendship Bread and Muffin Breads are also very popular. Finally, our flat jack chicken nuggets are a huge hit! Parents tell us their kids love that their meals are served in individual kid-friendly containers that can go right in the microwave.

GAM: Do you have any exciting new menu items, ideas or concepts in the works we can share?

We will definitely continue to expand and we rotate our menu options each week. As a small, locally-owned and operated business, we have the ability to adapt quickly. Our popular Veggie Snack Packs will continue to grow and evolve. Watch for fruit options, cheese and cracker options, sandwich snack packs, afternoon sweet and salty packs and more. They seem to be a nice option for kids to grab for themselves without the need to heat, so parents love them. We order locally from The Produce Box so we can get unique and local veggies to keep your kids experiencing fresh, local, and often unique veggies.

We are also looking at the concept of a mix-and-match option for kids’ entrees: You pick the protein; you pick the starch; you pick the veggies; you pick the sauce. We know there are plenty of kids out there who are particular. This may help parents get the things they know their kids will eat. But, this will have to wait until our new e-commerce page is up and running. We’re just excited to keep serving our customers and their families through these challenging times, and are glad we can help make life just a little easier for many!

Stay tuned for a recipe from Chef Mario's on Go Ask Mom on Friday!