visited with owners of a few local food establishments that opened during the pandemic or morphed the way they do business to accommodate change. The result is a series of stories featuring Tampa Bay foodie entrepreneurs who have survived and are thriving. Below is the first in a series.
The spring of 2020 found many independent restaurants closing their doors, some for good, no thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. For meal kit delivery service Chef Ami, the pandemic had the opposite effect -- its business structure was tailor-made for these unprecedented times.
It still didn't ease the mind of its co-founder Elijah Dickhaus.
Chef Ami had only just launched its Tampa location in 2019. Dickhaus calls the pandemic and potential repercussions on his business alarming. "The majority of food businesses go bankrupt in the first three years, and with the economy shutting down and us barely breaking even, it was easy to imagine we were doomed," says Dickhaus.
The worry soon subsided.
"You would have a hard time finding a business more suited to the broad societal shifts that occurred as a result of the pandemic," Dickhaus says.
For weeks and even months, people were stuck at home with extra free time on their hands. They were unable to dine at restaurants, and some had no idea how to cook. "Many were more concerned than ever about maintaining their health as they were unable to go about their usual activities," says Dickhaus.
Chef Ami, the first of its kind in Florida, is packaged with locally-sourced, farm-fresh, seasonal ingredients. What sets Chef Ami apart from the big, national brands is that it serves two counties, Hillsborough and Pinellas, and hand delivery is free. Delivery also includes the pick-up of reusable packaging.
"You can't compete with the freshness of ingredients that are coming farm-to-table in 24 hours, which just isn't possible when you're trying to send hundreds of thousands of boxes all over the country from one city."
All in the family
Chef Ami got its start in Gainesville in 2013. As popularity skyrocketed, the company expanded south to Tampa Bay in 2019.
Dickhaus's brother, Matt, founded its original location with his wife, Johana. As the company grew, Elijah was asked if he wanted
to help open the Tampa location.
As the pandemic dragged on and people ate more often at home, Chef Ami adjusted by adding a fourth recipe to the usual three weekly recipes to meet increased demand.
The weekly rotating menu has healthy and tasty recipes for two, four, or six people. And no need to fret if you don't particularly like to cook. Chef Ami's recipes are easy and can be completed in an average of 30 minutes.
Chef Ami's good fortune -- the surge in the service's subscribers -- was the gain of another organization -- Feeding Tampa Bay. "We were very grateful and conscious of how lucky we were, and for that reason, during the worst months of the pandemic before things opened back up again, we doubled our donations to Feeding Tampa Bay for a five-month period.
In 2020, Chef Ami was able to donate 22,000 meals to local families through the partnership.
Just as those who Feeding Tampa Bay serves, Chef Ami's partnership with the non-profit means a great deal.
"My brother and I have both spent a good amount of time living and traveling in nations much poorer than we are here," Dickhaus says. "Or so you think until you see the statistics and realize that a huge percentage of the population is living in hunger right here in our own neighborhoods."
Feeding the hungry
Florida ranks fourth in the nation for family hunger. Twenty-five percent of children and 15 percent of adults are food insecure in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
"I love the balance behind the formula that we donate a meal for every meal bought so that whenever you sit down to eat a Chef Ami meal, you know someone else is sitting down to a meal as well, thanks to you."
Dickhaus says Feeding Tampa isn't the only rewarding aspect of Chef Ami. He says he often receives emails from customers expressing the joy, happiness, sense of accomplishment, and impact that Chef Ami has had on their lives.
"I get moms thanking me for breaking the stranglehold that chicken nuggets and mac and cheese had on their kids," Dickhaus shares, "older ladies writing in shock that her husband had a meal waiting for her when she came home for the first time in 60 years of marriage.
"Kids or husbands giving mom a night off each week as they prepare a gourmet meal for the whole family all by themselves," he continues. "Couples are finding a new spark in their relationships as they turn a cooking journey into a weekly date night ritual."
"I've literally been hugged by a mom and mobbed by her kids at a gas station when they saw the truck outside thanking me for the food. It's awesome."
For more information or to sign up for the hand-delivered meal service, visit Chef Ami.
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