By Meredith Radford
Every Monday and Tuesday, two best friends cook together in a rented-out kitchen, in an otherwise empty building, preparing fresh and locally sourced meals for their Chapel Hill customers.
Cordon McGee and Lizzie Jacobs started Goodness Cooks at the end of 2019, making healthy, feel-good food for customers to pick up and enjoy at home. They’ve known each other since 2014 and were nutritionists and holistic chefs for many years prior. A love for food, health and cooking brought them together.
“It’s quite a journey to go on as friends to create a business together, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it,” Jacobs said.
They are both self-taught, learning first from cooking for their families and helping heal their own health issues, like food allergies. After years of cooking separately, they decided to come together and start a business to spread their love of food to their customers.
“We’re passionate and driven in that way too because we know that the foods you eat affects everything – mental, physical, emotional health,” Jacobs said.
After starting in December 2019, their business was built during the pandemic. But they were perfect for it. They created their business around the idea of customers taking their food home and enjoying it on their own time, not in a traditional restaurant.
They started at Midway Community Kitchen, but after it closed they had to find a new, more permanent home. That brought them to Blue Dogwood Public Market in June.
A community of cooks
Blue Dogwood is a public market, meaning it rents out vendor and kitchen space to businesses. Prior to COVID-19 shutdowns, it was an indoor community space. After the pandemic began, it transitioned to takeout and outdoor dining only.
Doug Bright, a Blue Dogwood project manager, began working with the market in April. He said Blue Dogwood’s thoughtful pandemic plan made him feel confident working there, despite the general uncertainty as to how restaurants would operate safely at that time.
“The people that I live with are really kind of COVID conscious, so I wanted to make sure that I didn’t have to be in a place that was acting irresponsibly,” Bright said.
Although Blue Dogwood is historically an in-person marketplace, Bright said, COVID-19 caused it to shift to more of a commissary kitchen model, where it brings in businesses that are focused on takeout.
Piedmont Pennies is a new addition. Founded by Kenan-Flagler Business School MBA candidate Becca Jordan Wright, Piedmont Pennies launched in August and has been at Blue Dogwood since September, using their kitchen to bake the cheesy, straw-like snacks.
“I came across Blue Dogwood because it’s a convenient location and also I like the idea of being with other food vendors and food stalls and just learning from them and kind of having a community within the space,” Wright said.
Wright works in the kitchen at nights a couple of days a week, adding to the multifaceted nature of Blue Dogwood’s space. She said that although starting a business during the pandemic made her nervous, she knew that her Pennies could bring smiles to people during this uncertainty.
Similarly, Goodness Cooks doesn’t have a restaurant space – they only need the kitchen. This has helped them avoid the hardship of dealing with closings and capacity limitations due to the pandemic.
“We’re almost sort of like tunneling under all of that fluctuation,” McGee said. “In a way, we’re not as affected by it.”
The only change the business had to make was temporarily ending its Eco Program, which involves packaging customers’ food in reusable glass jars.
The health department has since let them bring the program back.
They also don’t have to worry much about food waste, like a normal restaurant might, because they only buy ingredients for the orders they have each week.
Their promise of gluten- and dairy-free meals and locally sourced, organic ingredients has attracted a loyal base of customers who rely on them for meals.
“And that’s what we want,” Jacobs said. “To see people resting back a little bit in the week knowing that, OK, I’ve got a really busy week ahead, but Goodness Cooks is going to come and nourish me for these three days, so I’ve got that covered.”
Intentional culinary creations
Every week, McGee and Jacobs think carefully about the menu items they put together for their customers. During the week of the election, they put extra thought toward comfort and familiarity.
“We’re starting with roasted potatoes and rosemary, just something like, so kind of comforting and grounding and homey,” Jacobs said. “Everyone loves roasted potatoes.”
They included the customer favorite oven-baked thyme, lemon and garlic chicken dish, easily-digestible soups and pumpkin bread. They always include one soup dish on their menu, but they added another after McGee got a text from her mom asking them to include something extra comforting for customers to reach for during a stressful time.
As another comfort, they added a chai latte to the menu, “spiked” with reishi mushroom, which Jacobs said helps with sleep.
For McGee and Jacobs, the act of cooking is a special part of the process. Hovering over each product as if it’s their child, the pair work carefully to make sure every dish they create is perfect.
“Every time that I cook or handle a vegetable, I am absolutely blown away by the power of taste and the variety of taste and how nourishment feels,” Jacobs said. “And that brings me a lot of joy, creating and knowing that the food is going to be reached to a wide variety of people, and they’re going to be nourished by these ingredients that comes from, a lot of it coming from North Carolina soil, and farmers that we know.”
Because Blue Dogwood is closed to the public on Mondays and Tuesdays, Goodness Cooks are the only ones there, leaving plenty of socially distanced space for them to prepare meals.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, one employee helps McGee and Jacobs cook while McGee’s mom helps package the meals. Then on Tuesday evenings, customers arrive in the parking lot for the best friend chefs to carefully place the meals in their trunks. Later, another employee helps clean up.
When McGee and Jacobs finish cooking, they compost their food scraps and take it to their friend, who has a large garden, every week.
“Knowing that all that waste, all that food waste, is going to be turned into a rich compost to then create more vegetables is such a wonderful feeling,” Jacobs said.
Edited by Anne Tate