A Pot of Jambalaya Became an Unlikely Catering Company
When Emily Torgrimson was featured in a 2014 Oprah Magazine “Live Your Best Life” column, she was living in a trailer, near the river, making about $10,000 a year.
“I thought really? Am I living my best life?” she says.
The trailer, which was affectionately named “Trey Trey” was a “broken down” vehicle she and two co-pilots (and Emily’s pup Tripper) purchased to get them around the country where they’d raise money for various charities by throwing community dinners. Trey Trey and the U.S. tour were part of an early plan for Eat For Equity, the nonprofit-owned, benefit-corporation catering company that Torgrimson now runs out of a commercial kitchen in Uptown. Which was never part of the plan.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August of 2005, Torgrimson was living in a collective house at Boston University, where she paid less than $300 for both rent and food in one of America’s most expensive cities. To keep expenses low, residents took turns cooking for the entire house during each semester.
In the spirit of the collective, and with a friend’s new cookbook in hand, she came across a Jambalaya recipe and asked out loud if the housemates would be willing to throw in a few bucks each to raise money for Katrina victims. They did, and she cooked that Jambalaya, and a hundred people showed up to eat and to help. It went so swimmingly, that soon they were cooking every weekend, with ever-increasing numbers of crowds storming homes, and donating time and money to charitable causes.
As word spread, other hosts began throwing Eat for Equity-modeled dinners, first in Boston, and then beyond. Torgrimson moved to Minnesota to pursue a career in public radio but kept up the cooking and the charitable giving. She remembers an early dinner where she and a friend made scratch apple pie and freshly made buns for a hundred people. With a single baking pan and a bottle of wine for a rolling pin, they somehow did it. “Buns were all over the house, on the piano, on top of every flat surface,” she says.
But as the numbers grew, and the hosts grew, and the events grew, it became time to make some decisions. It was either grow the thing, or walk it back. So what do you think she did? Incorporate as a nonprofit, and begin keeping 10 percent of the suggested donation proceeds (they always operated under a “give what you can” model) to pay herself and other expenses related to the growing organization, like insurance, and bookkeeping software and now a commercial kitchen space so the buns wouldn’t have to proof on top of the piano.
And since grassroots organizers around the country were encountering similar growth issues, E4E HQ wanted to be able to support them with the sorts of infrastructure roots they had put down at home. And that is where Trey Trey comes in.
“We had to renovate this broken-down trailer we brought. . . It was a beautiful thing, but a really hard thing,” she says.
The plan was to drive Trey around the country, meeting organizers, throwing pop-ups, and raising money to ultimately fund E4E branches. But Trey remained in Torgrimson’s parent’s yard for a winter, while friends came by and spent many volunteer hours general contracting the heap, which included installing a kitchen.
“Like, people came over for the weekend and had my mom’s lasagna,” she says incredulously of the spirit of generosity that went into the effort. Eventually, they got Trey on the road.
From Minneapolis to Madison, Chicago, Springfield, Massachusetts; New Orleans, Bonaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee; and Stanford, Connecticut, plus many dinners, adventures and misadventures later, Torgrimson came to a conclusion.
She wouldn’t be able to support a branch model of E4E.
“People were supporting us by cooking, washing dishes, playing music and opening their homes,” she says.
In other words, revenue was not exactly piling up sky high. With this realization, they nixed the West Coast leg of the tour, and Torgrimson moved back to Minnesota, and lived in Trey, somewhere near the river.
Meanwhile, she considered ways to continue running E4E Minnesota full time, while allowing the model to continue running in a grassroots way around the country. Catering came up as one of the options for revenue building. She catered her first wedding at the Minnetonka Yacht Club, only accessible pontoon. Many mishaps later, including a plan to cook chicken on the bone over an open fire—she slowly, but surely had a catering business on her hands.
These days, it’ not uncommon for Eat for Equity to cater to many hundreds of guests weekly. The events tend to be an eclectic mix of farm weddings, fundraisers, overnight camping dinners, and other ambitious events that the average caterer may not touch. For instance, with the help of many volunteer hours, E4E recently fed about 400 people on the newly re-opened 38th Street Bridge, with a menu that included hundreds of scratch-made, hand-scooped ice cream sandwiches, plus vegan, gluten-free and halal options for anyone who needed them.
The spirit of E4E still resonates through the company, while full-and part-time staff busy themselves with the typical details of catering work like renting hot boxes, the endless game of van Jenga, and how many cocktail napkins is enough (answer: never enough.)
And yet, it’s also very much not typical. Ten percent of every job’s profits goes to the client’s charity of choice. Since she started that model, they’ve collectively donated tens of thousands to local and international nonprofit causes, while the community feast numbers have reached over a hundred thousand.
A signature of an E4E event is an eclectic collection of colorful dishes, silver and glassware, most of it donated, and available gratis to their clientele. In the further spirit of sharing, they even waive their dishwashing fee.
Recipes remain simple, vegetable forward, often from local farms like Hmong American Farmer’s Association, and accessible to all. If one guest at a 175-person event happens to be on a low sodium diet, E4E will accommodate that individual.
“Equitable and sustainable food sourcing, and conscious and inclusive food choices” are their value statements.
Torgrimson isn’t living in Trey down by the river anymore, but that doesn’t mean she’s lost the grit that got E4E where it is now. She recently camped out at a rural groom’s dinner so she could prepare breakfast in the morning, and the whole staff hauled out to Bonaroo, just as they do every year, to prepare dinner for 150 people at a communal table. It was a volunteer effort that not only supports small farmers in the Tennessee area, it fosters community building, and while it may sound lofty, a global consciousness.
“We never did this to make money for ourselves,” Torgrimson succinctly sums things up. “I never thought this would be a job.”
But what could be a bigger job than saving the world, one canapé at a time?