As Chattanooga area businesses shift, pivot and change, trying to adapt to a new normal, many are tapping into the passion that led them to open their business in the first place. Over the course of the next number of weeks, the Chattanooga Chamber will profile some of these owners and share their inspirational stories on how they are doing it.
After 10 years of high-end corporate and event catering, COVID-19 prompted Dish T’Pass owner Amanda Nelson Varnell to make a major shift and close her longtime catering business.
“We entered 2020 super stoked. We were projecting that 2020 would be our million-dollar year,” Ms. Varnell says. “We had closed 2019 just over $900,000.”
Then suddenly in mid-March, it all changed. Ms. Varnell was heading back from France, she was newly engaged and got word of the COVID-19 travel ban.
“As I was figuring out how I would get back to the states, all of our catering through the end of March, in like a 48-hour period, was canceled or postponed. So I was traveling home with a very sick feeling in my stomach.”
A few days later, Ms. Varnell made the decision to let her staff go. She initially thought it would be temporary but as more days passed, more work dried up.
“Everyday people were inquiring about would they get money back? Can they postpone? Can they shrink their event?” Ms. Varnell says. “I spent a lot of time on my couch crying. The later part of March and well into April was a very, very dark time for me. I was trying to get out in front of it. I had to get with my lender, my landlord, my vehicles, all of that. I was trying to stop as much cash going out and get money owed to me and then make a determination about all of the deposits I was holding.”
Finally, Ms. Varnell made the call, deciding to let her longtime catering business go and get back to her true passion, the weeknight dinner table. It was, after all, how Dish T’Pass began in the first place, initially branded as a cooking school and catering company.
“We didn’t realize how much catering would explode and grow for us. By the time we were eight years in, we dropped the cooking school and were full-time high-end events,” Ms. Varnell says.
Now she was looking at doing the opposite.
“I began to craft and hatch the idea. What if I could do anything, right now? What if catering is off the table? And so, I took this pause and I actually started researching how to grow an online business.”
Starting in August, Dish T’Pass will officially launch as a totally virtual, national cooking school, complete with monthly subscriptions for access to two live-stream cooking classes, an active online community with monthly topics, two newsletters highlighting ingredients, equipment and other food news along with additional cooking curriculum and specialty classes.
“My passion is about the magic that happens around the food,” Ms. Varnell says. “I love getting people around food. I really believe a single dinner conversation can change the world or at least, it can change your world.”
Her niche will be family dinners.
“Busy families who are looking for coaching in the area of the weeknight dinner table. How to do it more efficiently, more cost-effectively and how to make it fun,” Ms. Varnell says.
The new online cooking school means Ms. Varnell is right back to where she started in food: doing cooking demonstrations. That’s what she started doing in 2006 at the BX at Brainerd Baptist Church.
“It was great! I had 18 in my first class, then 36 the next month,” she says.
Soon she had more churches and live events at the Chattanooga Market and Earthfare.
“The paper did a piece on me, and it just started spreading. It grew very organically. It was called Cooking Live. I was in front of people. It was demonstrations only and it was also me sharing what was happening around my own dinner table.”
Fast-forward six years and Dish T’Pass was born.
“I have always been very natural in front of people. I was a theater major in college. When people ask where did I go to culinary school? I say I was a theater major. I can really do anything in front of people. Today, I am pretending to be a cooking instructor,” Ms. Varnell says. “I now run into people all the time who tell me, ‘oh my gosh, I came to your cooking class and you taught me how to make that strawberry almond puff pastry dessert, and I make it for my husband’s birthday every year.’ Or, ‘I have been making your chicken casserole for a decade.’ When you realize those are foundational memories … what you had for dinner, like Taco Tuesday, those are the traditions your children will remember.”
Ms. Varnell definitely remembers her family dinner table growing up.
“The one thing they instilled in me was really the importance of the foundation of the family dinner table. I enjoyed that as a child and experienced that, however, I was not taught how to do that in my own life.”
Growing up with a working mother, dinner was always quickly prepared and simple. While her mother didn’t teach her to cook, her grandmother was a home economics teacher.
“She was definitely an influence on my life. I had all the pieces,” Ms. Varnell says. “From (being) a child, I can remember loving food. I got my first cookbook at eight or nine..”
That love made her even more determined to bring the family dinners she grew up with to her own home. Early on in her first marriage, Ms. Varnell would get cooking advice from other moms. That’s when she realized she had a proficiency for it.
“I feel like one of my strengths is being able to read a recipe with 18 ingredients and to shrink it down to like six or seven ingredients, and it still be really, really yummy,” Ms. Varnell says. “When you think of fun and yummy, simple, delicious and cost-effective - that is really my niche, teaching people how to do that, to become proficient at it and to find some joy in it, is definitely my passion.”
It’s a passion that is now propelling her forward to the new virtual Dish T’Pass cooking school and she owes the idea to the COVID-19 pause.
“There is opportunity in a pause when we have to wait on something or our lives are put on hold. You can choose to engage with it in one of two ways: one is passive, something has happened to you. Or, actively, this is something happening for you,” Ms. Varnell says.
For now, she has no plans to go back to full-time catering.
“What I think I recognized was the work itself did not align with my passion and life is too short,” Ms. Varnell says. “When I began to look at what the next chapter holds for me, I really want to make sure I am investing and making a difference in the lives of everyday people.”