When daily menus were out of the question, two Chicago chefs turned to the deep-freeze

Alexis Thomas (left) and Eve Studnicka (right) in a collage illustration. June 2021

Portrait: Courtesy of Alexis Thomas and Eve Studnicka | Collage: The Counter/iStock

Alexis Thomas (left) and Eve Studnicka (right) in a collage illustration. June 2021

Portrait: Courtesy of Alexis Thomas and Eve Studnicka | Collage: The Counter/iStock

After a nightmarish launch in a tiny restaurant kitchen, two entrepreneurs found a larger shared space. In unity there is strength, and, as it turns out, profits.

Eve Studnicka and Alexis Thomas met four years ago working at a small chocolate shop in Chicago’s Logan Square. They later launched separate businesses—for Alexis, the catering company Black Cat Kitchen, and for Eve, a dining series called Dinner at the Grotto, which she ran while also working as chef de cuisine at the coffee shop Finom. When the pandemic hit, all that ended, and to generate income they paired up to sell soup on Facebook. That was just the start.

In mid-March we were on a shopping trip, and Alexis said, ‘Well, what if we did meal kits?’ We could do soups, mac and cheese—stuff that we could freeze, because we had an extra freezer.

We thought that we would be doing it for a couple of weeks until the pandemic was over. We’d both been out of work for two weeks and our finances were still up in the air. We had already sold a good amount of soup on Facebook, and if we just sold $300, $600, it would put a dent in our rent.

Alexis created a graphic for our menu and we created an ordering system. Finom, the little coffee house where Eve had been working, let us use their kitchen. 

So all of that was great, except we got way more orders than we thought we would, and we had to accommodate them: Prepare all of them, package them, and deliver all of them in the 24 hours after we launched the menu. 

We would have been really happy if we’d gotten 15 orders. And we ended up getting somewhere in the 30s. Neither of us had ever done mass large-scale deliveries. Finom has incredibly limited counter space: It was like cooking a catering job for 60 people in a Starbucks. 

We were pretty naive about what the process would be like. We were emailing out invoices until 2:00 in the morning the night before delivery. We’ve said many times it was one of the worst nights of our lives. We were so stressed out. Dishes were falling apart. We would package things and the lids would get soggy and collapse.

Eve Studnick cooking at home. June 2021

Eve Studnick cooking at her apartment in Chicago. Eve previously hosted a dining series called “Dinner at the Grotto.”

Courtesy of Eve Studnicka

It was one of those times where you’re so far into a project and so many people have given you money that you cannot stop. And all you want to do is be like, ‘Never mind, disregard, forget about it.’ 

We both went home and cried and then got up the next morning and did all of the deliveries. And shockingly, people wanted to order the next week. We were really learning as we went. It was fast and loose. 

We needed a real kitchen space, even if we were still thinking we’d do this for maximum a couple of months. At least we’d have more space and not have a repeat of that horrible night. 

Now we work out of a community kitchen. For the first eight or nine months, we were the only ones using it. The biggest benefit of the community kitchen for us has been the flexibility of renting by the hour. We really only need the kitchen actively for about eight hours a week. 

Going from knowing you’re going to have a steady paycheck or knowing, ‘Oh, in November I have a $10,000 catering job, so I’ll be fine,’ to ‘I hope that everyone orders for next Sunday’ was very stressful. Every week could be the last week. Like, next week we could get five orders and this won’t be sustainable anymore. 

That never happened. We kept getting more orders. And then we started seeing more names on the order form, and we’d be like, ‘Do you know that person? I don’t know that person.’ Word was spreading. 

Alexis Thomas in front of a booth for her catering company

Before Covid, Alexis Thomas had a catering company “Black Cat Kitchen” in Chicago.

Courtesy of Alexis Thomas

At a certain point we realized that this is probably going to be what we do, at least for another year. We’ve definitely had weeks where things have dipped way lower than we were anticipating. And then it bounces back and we’re fine. We’ve built a nice, solid core group of customers that order enough to sustain us.

We both have long-ass names for our individual endeavors—Dinner at the Grotto and Black Cat Kitchen—and we both love our individual businesses and didn’t want to give up that identity. But we ran into a lot of people who didn’t understand that we were a collaboration. People just didn’t know what to call us. So we started toying around with a third separate entity once we knew that this was going to have a lot more longevity than we were expecting. 

We both grew up in small towns in the Midwest. When a neighbor has a baby or has a death in the family, the neighbors bring food. It’s a communal experience of nourishment. And at these events, people will almost always bring funeral potatoes, which is a cheesy hash brown casserole. Everybody has their own recipe for it, but it’s usually just cheese, hash browns, sour cream, maybe cream of mushroom soup and some crumbly topping. It’s straight-up comfort food. And so when we were talking about what we want in our name to represent, we kept coming back to this idea of food that helps people through difficult times and is delivered to your house. 

Alexis—kind of as a joke—said we could call it Funeral Potatoes. It had no ring to it the first time. And then 20 minutes later we were like, ‘Actually, yeah.’

We’re not operating too crazy differently from how we were eight months ago. We’ve hired two people. We got delivery help—we were doing 40 to 60 deliveries in two days by ourselves with one vehicle. It’s just been awesome, and we have a pretty solid week-to-week routine now.  We’ve had some great opportunities to collaborate with other small businesses as more small businesses have found their quarantine niche. 

Funeral Potatoes' menu for week 60 on their Instagram. June 2021

Funeral Potatoes’ menu for week 60. They take orders via a Google Form linked in their Instagram account bio @funeral.potatoes.

Courtesy of Funeral Potatoes/Instagram

A lot of the people that are tenants in the kitchen where we work with are the product of pandemic pivots. More people are starting to realize that owning a brick and mortar restaurant is not the only legitimate way to participate in the food world. Hopefully, the average consumer will continue seeking out small businesses like ours, and pop-ups, and people that are doing delivery only.

If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that flexibility is a benefit and we don’t know what the future is going to hold. Not having to tie ourselves to the finality of a brick and mortar is an asset. 

We think people are really excited to participate in this alternative food-world economy. A lot of people that are patronizing one or two businesses that are similar in scale to ours every single week and are getting pickles or cocktails delivered straight to their doors. It’s a part of their routine now. We’re really hoping that that continues once dine-in is a safe option again. 

Alexis Thomas is the co-founder of Funeral Potatoes, a virtual restaurant based in Chicago. She also runs her own catering company "Black Cat Kitchen."

Eve Studnicka is the co-founder of Funeral Potatoes, a virtual restaurant based in Chicago. She also runs her own dining series called "Dinner at the Grotto."

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.