The Evolution of Take-Home Food
The evolution of preparing food has been, well, an evolutionary process.
There had to be that certain someone in a particular prehistoric clan or tribe who could turn out a flank of a woolly mammoth like nobody else. Although, according to paleontologists, even top-grade mammoth lacked flavor based on long-frozen samples. Kind of like the back of the freezer when I was a bachelor.
Others learned from the sage-old prehistoric cook and tried to emulate his amazing talents, but that was difficult to do, so perhaps, maybe an early form of restaurant was created. It would not be difficult to imagine the cook wanted something in return for his work. Consequently, eating out wasn’t always economically practical.
So some took their leftover food home and tried to preserve it for a convenient meal the next day. Those with no economic means survived the best they could with what was at hand or was easy prey.
Maybe I’m reaching, but this comprises a formula that has driven meal preparation ever since.
“It’s quality, convenience and economy,” said Scott McEvoy, owner/chef of the McEvoy’s Culinaria in Sister Bay slated to open April 1. “If you want quality you go to a restaurant, and you might pick up a pizza for convenience. For economy, you see what’s in the pantry.”
But McEvoy is just the latest in the part of an ever-expanding trend that sees some businesses trying to meet all those needs.
It’s evident in the grocery stores where you can fill up your pantry or choose from a variety of hot and cold meals, stores like Main Street Market in Egg Harbor, Piggly Wiggly in Sister Bay or Tadych’s Econo Foods in Sturgeon Bay.
Those very same stores are filled with examples of man’s need to obtain a ready-made meal due to time constraints. There’s the canned food aisle, born when Queen Charlotte of England dipped into Bryan Donkins’ newly invented tin can in 1813 and gave the beef a thumbs up. And then there’s the frozen foods section, where I’d hover until my mother allowed me to pick out my favorite TV dinner – normally Swanson’s fried chicken.
Today, people are expecting more from these take-home meals in terms of taste and quality.
One of the first in our area to see the writing on the wall was Morag Hornsby, who along with her husband, John Witteborg, owns Serves You Right Catering in Sturgeon Bay. And, yes, like any good name the title came while sitting around the dining room table.
Maybe it was the sociology degree Hornsby earned at the University of Wisconsin that helped her identify the human need for something more substantial in their frozen meals, but it was likely the quality of her catered foods and the economy of making larger portions to be sold at their market in Sturgeon Bay.
It spawned a website business that allowed customers to pre-order appetizers, soups and entrees from an online menu to be either picked up or delivered. Orders are requested 5-7 days in advance. That encourages buyers to do meal planning.
“Our selection of frozen soups and entrees are designed with the customer in mind,” Hornsby explained. “To have them when they want them, right from their freezer. As with all our offerings, we try to use local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients; fresh to us and fresh-frozen to them.”
Hornsby said Sully’s Produce, Waseda Farms and Renard’s are just a few of the local providers.
Catering proved to be the foundation for the takeout business.
“The first were catering customers,” she said, stressing that making extra portions and freezing them proved popular. “We would email our regular customers and see what they would like.”
When asked what dishes have emerged as favorites, Hornsby doesn’t hesitate.
“The jubilee chicken,” she said, quickly followed with the Hungarian goulash, which because of the slow process needed to create, is ideal to make in abundance while saving home cooks valuable time.
“We can deliver. It depends on the size of the order,” said Hornsby, who added that the needs of an aging population are taken into account. “We do accommodate people.”
As for spring, Hornsby says there’s one thing that’s definitely on the menu.
“Asparagus soup,” she said. “We make boatloads of it.”
Being the owner of one of the earliest catering businesses in the county, Hornsby smiles when she ponders the growth of her business — especially considering her past.
“I was born in Europe, lived in France, and traveling I was exposed to so many types of cuisine; yet my early attempts were less than a culinary delight,” she said smiling while praising her husband for tolerating and encouraging her early efforts on the stove. Today, she praises a talented and dedicated staff for helping make it all work.
The business is operated out of a building on Sturgeon Bay’s Oxford Avenue owned by Dave and Rita Hunt, owners of Door County Mustard.
“Great landlords,” says Hornsby. “The Hunts are so open to our schedule. They are incredibly flexible to the constant additions to our catering commitments,” she adds with another smile.
Today, there are a number of diverse catering options on the peninsula, some of the most popular stemming from established restaurants like Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay or Alexander’s in Fish Creek.
Culinaria, like Serves You Right, isn’t a restaurant offering ready-made meals for take-out.
McEvoy has more than 30 years experience working restaurants and cateringall over Door County and around the country.
“My first job was picking cherries at Highlander Orchards in Northern Door, and then at The Red Putter in the early eighties,” he said. “Since then it has been all food and beverage in restaurants, hotels and resorts.
“I’ve had lots of fascinating experiences and have been able to cook for and meet heads of state, celebrities and the travel has been great, as well,” said McEvoy “By far my best memories are of the special peopleI’ve metas customers and clients and those who have been regular supporters. After decades of restaurants, resorts, hotel casinos, conference centers, I am thrilled to do exactly what we will be offering at Culinaria.”
McEvoy said more than once he’s been setting up for an event and someone has yelled from their car “It’s the paella guy,” said McEvoy. “If you have had paella in the past 15 years, we have probably met.”
And, yes, Culinaria will be offering it.
“We offer a variety of styles, but the most popular are the Valencia Seafood and the chicken and chorizo,” he said.
But while Culinaria will continue the catering, it’s the prepared offerings that he feels strike at the growing trend in food preparation. He stresses he’s not a restaurant and doesn’t want to compete with them.
“We think great-tasting fresh and healthy food should be convenient and accessible,” said McEvoy, “whether we are providing you with fully prepared meals or with product and guidance to prepare your own amazing creations.”
McEvoy stresses that meal planning and efficient grocery shopping require more time and effort than many people have in their daily lives or on vacation.
“Leftovers and waste drive the costs up,” he points out. “Americans, on average, throw away 20 percent of the food they buy at the grocery store. That is thousands of dollars per year. Door County has an amazing and diverse restaurant scene that we can all enjoy, but eating out repeatedly can be a real strain on the budget and isn't always convenient,” he adds, referring to both local residents and vacationers.
He points out that family mealtime is often a challenge in finding something everyone likes.
“Our diverse selection means everyone can pick what they want.They are an economicaland easy alternative to going out to eat or shopping and cooking without the inconvenience of leftover open packages of grocery ingredients to travel with or store at home.”
The offerings vary widely with everything from a hot entrees case, fresh gyro rotisserie, Panini grill, nightly specials and others packaged individually in oven and microwave packaging.
McEvoy’s wife, Sally, is from Bulgaria, “so look for an Eastern European influence in our entrée and salad selections. It’s truly some of the best food I’ve ever had,” he said.
Regardless, McEvoy is inspired by a quality food movement that is driving the take-home culinary market as it has the restaurant scene.
He maintains, “Eat well and be happy! It’s good for those who love you!”