A self-described potluck overachiever, Stephanie Eakins has always loved to cook. These days she’s cooking for much more than just herself, but for several families all across Central Ohio as the one-woman show that is Retro Dinner Diva.
The hint of nostalgia in the name is a nod to summers spent on her grandmother’s farm.
“Everything was fresh,” Eakins says “You went out to the garden to pick stuff for dinner every night.”
But with today’s on-the-go lifestyles, “It’s really hard to get dinner on the table,” Eakins says. However colleagues noticed she was able to do just that, four to five nights a week. Her secret: planning.
“If you don’t plan, that’s when we make the bad decisions,” she says.
Filling the gaps between planning, convenience and a chance for a family to have a nice, sit-down dinner is the diva’s deliverable, ready-to-cook meals and stock-up freezer parties.
“I just wanted to be able to help with that [planning] and bring back some of that nostalgia from my childhood where you sat down with mom and dad and actually enjoyed a little family time around the table.”
Eakins started the business a little over a year ago with Wednesday casserole deliveries that she makes across Columbus and all of the surrounding suburbs. Retro Diner Diva now offers a menu of 15 to 20 items a month.
“My focus when I started was really on comfort casseroles, and I still do that, but I’m definitely trying to add some more options for people,” Eakins says. For her traditional casseroles, she stays away from gloppy canned soups and much of the processed foods associated with casseroles, making as many sauces as possible from scratch. The menu also has some seasonal flair with salads and grill-able dinners ready to order in the summer.
Most meals come oven-ready in foil tins with cooking instructions, and several can be frozen. Diva diners can also choose from two, four and six serving portions.
Eakins strives to make delivery straight-forward and easy.
“You just order as you need it and as you want it,” she says. No weird monthly subscriptions or strange sign ups, just a $25 minimum order for delivery.
In addition to a more robust menu, “The other thing I started about halfway through my first year were freezer meal parties,” Eakins says. “In about two hours they go home with 10 family-sized meals.” All the shopping, chopping and cooking that needs to happen pre-freezer, the dinner diva takes care of that. With themes like family-friendly comfort food, clean eating, paelo and crock-pot only, there’s a freezer party for almost anyone’s tastes.
An opportunity to rent from the newly constructed Commissary has been an almost invaluable resource for Eakins.
“I love the commissary, I can’t say enough about them,” she boasts. “It’s helping me grow my business without this huge overhead of having my own space.” The space covers all the Retro Dinner Diva’s needs – hot kitchen area to cook, a prep kitchen side and meeting space where she holds the freezer parties, not to mention valuable storage space.
The overhead of a commercial kitchen is typically a major dream killer for startup food businesses. Eakins says kitchens can cost upwards of $30,000 and it’s often difficult to get a loan as a food-based business. Then, there’s long leases if you do find a space. You’ve got rent to pay even if orders aren’t coming in as anticipated.
“[The Commissary] is great because I kind of only rent as I need,” she says. Slow week and not a lot of orders? No obligation to rent.
“It really takes a lot of stress off,” she adds. “It’s just going to be really exciting how many businesses this place is going to help.”
Slow growth to start has turned to steady with Eakins poised for a strong second year. Growth is an interesting but welcome challenge when running a one-person operation. The workload is sometimes the biggest challenge Eakins faces, wondering how she will do it all in a week. In 2015 the diva will look to expand her staff, potentially hiring another member.
For more information, visit retrodinnerdiva.com.