Three or four years ago, Vivienne Whitfield (above, left, with Marta Feder) ate like a pretty typical young professional: lots of takeout, lots of microwave dinners. She hadn’t cooked much since she was a teenager and her mother kicked her out of the kitchen for some pretty typical teenage slovenliness.
Then, as they say, a baby changed everything. Pregnant with her first child, she was sick every day for nine months and found she simply couldn’t stomach processed food. “If I wanted ketchup,” she says, “it had to be homemade ketchup.” That and an eye-opening viewing of Food, Inc. led Whitfield back into the kitchen and eventually to the aisles of the Linden Hills Co-op — and into a whole world of food she had never paid much attention to before.
She spent a year reteaching herself to cook, pulling out her South African gran’s cookbooks from 30-plus years ago, to make bobotie — ground meat seasoned with cumin, coriander, and raisins — and butternut soup. She got hooked on the homey simplicity of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. She mixed hearty vegetarian meals like cauliflower with chickpeas with updated versions of classics like shepherd’s pie.
For a year, Whitfield tested all these recipes out on her husband Paul and their now-two-year-old son. And now she cooks them for other people, mostly new parents, but also people undergoing cancer treatment and others who just appreciate having a home-cooked meal show up on their doorstep once a week.
Whitfield founded her organic meal delivery service, Liv with Viv, a year ago, and now how has dozens of steady customers. She emails each week’s menu — this week the choices are chickpea and sweet potato soup and linguine with artichokes, with either salad or pumpkin scones — each Monday. Customers place their orders by Friday. Whitfield cooks all day Sunday and her husband drops the meals off Sunday night. (And, in the meantime, she works Monday through Friday at Best Buy, in digital analytics.)
Working two jobs and raising a family can be grueling, but Whitfield says she finds the extra weekend and evening work more than worthwhile. “I’m an entrepreneur at heart,” she says.
The recent appearance of new incubator kitchens has made it possible for tiny food businesses like Liv with Viv to get on their feet. Whitfield achieved her food manager certification and set up her business with the help of Kindred Kitchen and now cooks at Kitchen in the Market, alongside the folks from Dandelion Kitchen.
For the first six months, all of her customers were friends or friends of friends. Then she left a few business cards at Blooma, an Edina yoga studio focused on pregnant women and new mothers. Not surprisingly, new parents jumped at the chance to outsource some of the cooking. Some put meal delivery on their baby shower wishlists. Many of those customers have stayed on past the tiny-baby stage, and another audience has found Liv with Viv, as well.
“I get some sad calls,” Whitfield says. “‘My friend just got diagnosed,’ or ‘My friend’s child…’”
Amy Kundinger recently made a gift of meal deliveries to her friend, whose young son is undergoing chemotherapy. “As a mom, I know the value of saving time and having good food,” she says. Kundinger has been a weekly customer for a year. “Viv is the highlight of my week. Every Monday, I know there’s a fresh meal in the fridge.”
Homemade organic food delivered to your door isn’t cheap — two meals cost $32, four are $58, six are $84, and eight are $110 — but Kundinger says she’s added up what her family would have spent on that weekly “emergency” trip to Noodles & Company and figures she’s coming out ahead.
Originally from Johannesburg, Whitfield lived in Harare with her Zimbabwean mother for about 10 years before attending university in South Africa and moving to London to work. She eventually followed her Minnesota-native husband, Paul, to Richfield. Asked how she landed in Minnesota, Whitfield, no fan of cold weather, answers, “My husband lied to me.” (She later lets on that Midwesterners don’t always enjoy her extraordinarily deadpan sense of humor.)
She says her African heritage has helped make her “easygoing about a lot of things, but very picky about my food.”
As for where Liv with Viv will be a year or two or five from now, Whitfield says she has something of a “split personality.” She recently took on a couple of employees to help cook on Sundays so she can spend a little more time marketing.
“On the one hand, I started this a year ago, so why don’t I have 2,000 customers? On the other, I think, I know the majority of my customers now. When I see their names on the emails, I know right away who their kids are and what they like to eat. So, I love it enough that if it never got any bigger than it is, I’d be happy.”