Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Dedication and long hours, trying to put family first, getting laid off, starting from scratch — these are the all-too-familiar ingredients in the melting pot that represents what has become of the American Dream these days. To live well and gracefully with these challenges takes craft on par with that of a professional chef — which may be why Richard Halka, former head chef at the State Street Grill in Kennett Square, has managed it so admirably.
The strange hours of a chef's life can be particularly hard on a family — nights, weekends and holidays are their busiest days. But "tough" went to "impossible" for Halko when his son was diagnosed with autism.
Halka and his wife sold the State Street Grille in eight days, and Halka went to work as an executive chef for Nordstrom's. But after 16 months, he was told he had met all objectives and that it was time to "move on." Now, Halka has started a personal chef business called "Chefeast."
According to his Web site, http://www.chefeast.com/, the business offers cooking classes and demonstrations, catering for dinner parties — including the option of an interactive experience — and "Shore-licious" prepared meals to take "down the shore." But its piece de resistance is meals prepared start-to-finish by Halka and left for the customer to heat and eat.
Halka will create a menu with input from his clients, do the grocery shopping, bring everything he needs — including herbs and spices — and clean up the kitchen before he leaves.
While the service is on the pricey side when compared to a struggling family's grocery budget — five meals for four, a week's worth of dinner, starts around $350 — it's affordable for the quality and convenience it provides. Halka acknowledged that his target market is more likely to be a "dual-income, no kids" household, people who already dine out several times a week.
We think the idea is a great one. Many people already rely on purchased meals; it's just that they come frozen, often packed with calories and fat, salt and other preservatives. Halka's process means fresher food with the opportunity for more locally grown, locally purchased ingredients. His emphasis on healthfully prepared meals is a foot in the door — or a spoon in the soup? — toward a food culture we hope continues to become the norm, rather than the niche.
It doesn't have to stop here; we think there is room for small businesses focusing on very simple, inexpensive ingredients, not just restaurant-quality chef specials. But it's certainly a start. And we believe there's no one better to advance a good idea than a man who counts his profit over the last two years not so much by the number of dollars in his bank account as by the number of words in his son's vocabulary.
Kennett Paper > News
Thursday, July 22, 2010
By Fran Maye
For dual-income parents, coming home at the end of a long day and preparing a meal can be a real challenge. Some decide to simply eat out. But restaurant fare is more expensive, and most restaurant meals are loaded with fat, sugar, and calories. And the experts agree that home-prepared food is almost always healthier.
Richard Halka, formerly the head chef at State Street Grill in Kennett Square (now Portabella’s), started a new, unique venture last month called “Chefeast,” a personal chef service in which he goes to homes, cooks the meals and even cleans up. So far, he said, business has been good.
“I buy all the food, I make it in your home, and interview on the likes and dislikes to create a customized menu,” Halka said. “Everything is made fresh, and there’s no preservatives and it’s very healthy. People who eat my food will live longer. I make everything fresh and natural.”
Halka, who hails from the Hamptons in New York, worked at the State Street Grill for four years until May 2008. The business was a success, but when Halka and his wife, Evelyn were told their son, Jacob, had autism, things changed. Working 14 hours at the business in Kennett Square wouldn’t do any good for Jacob.
“I decided to put all my effort into our son,” Halka said. “I wanted him to have a normal upbringing. I needed to make a choice and I knew I needed to get out of the business.”
He sold the State Street Grill in May of 2008 in just eight days. His last day there, he said he “made thousands of dollars.” Clearly, he knew he was walking away from a very successful business.
He the landed a job at Nordstrom’s as executive chef, where he lowered prices and cut overtime. He beefed up the menu. But after 16 months, he was quietly told that he met all his objectives and it was time to move on. That was in December.
A part-time job at a catering company helped to bring in some money, but clearly Halka was feeling the financial impact of his decision to spend more time with his family. It wasn’t until a few months ago after preparing a custom meal for friends that he got the idea to start a home chef business.
Halka says many restaurants, especially the chains, don’t offer healthy food, and at many restaurants, the food isn’t even processed on site. And he said eating out can become very expensive. The National Restaurant Association says the average family spends about $2,600 per year eating out. And according to Mintel International, a market research firm, about 60 percent of Americans said they were dining out less frequently because of rising prices at restaurants.
Here’s how his new business works. Halka consults with family members who fill out a questionnaire about food likes. He does the planning, the food shopping, the cooking and cleans up at the customer’s home. He brings everything, even salt, pepper and herbs. The customer only needs a stove and refrigerator. Prices are custom-suited to the meal plans. He can arrange for family dinners for up to a week.
“I’m comfortable in any style of cooking,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 26 years.”
Halka is banking on two concepts for his business to prosper: Convenience and healthy eating. And he is also betting on what he calls DINKs (Dual-Income, No Kids) to spur his business.
Evelyn, who is the firm’s planner and secretary, recently expanded services to include dinner parties (from four to 30), anniversary dinners, birthday parties, or special occasions where a chef is preferred on site.
Halka said he still has many friends in Kennett Square, and even though his business serves all of Chester County, he gets much of it from the Kennett area.
Halka said his decision to abandon the State Street grill has paid off. Not so much in financial terms, though.
“Two years ago, Jacob’s vocabulary was just 4 words,” he said. “Now, it’s 4,000.”
Chefeast is on the web at http://www.chefeast.com/, or 610-990-3663.