Backyard pandemic cookouts inspire successful catering business
During the pandemic, while many restaurants were going out of business, a tight-knit band of Black men led by Tommy McNeal and certified chef Darren Hayes began to host backyard cookouts as a way to socially distance and still maintain relationships. These cookouts transformed into Flame Mobile Kitchen, a successful catering business that works out of a mobile trailer kitchen, bringing smoked and grilled favorites to events across the Twin Cities metro area.
McNeal and Hayes are furthering an innovative dining experience that centers around customer experience. They do this by prioritizing community through food—physically going to the customer and catering to their needs.
McNeal, founder and co-owner of Flame Mobile Kitchen, stated, “During the height of the pandemic, we [found] ourselves rotating each other’s houses on the back patio with a social distancing environment, but breaking bread together, and having a sense of community.
“And so during that time, my business partner Darren Hayes, who’s our GM and executive chef, really started honing his craft… And we knew that if we were having this level of entertainment and fun building a community, others would also want to do it in a very safe and socially distanced environment.”
He continued, “So we established a mobile kitchen to meet customers, our people in our community, where they are, so that they don’t have to necessarily subject themselves to sitting in a confined diner or restaurant.
“We can meet them out in public, in a socially distant environment where they can enjoy the unique kind of cuisine and dining experience that we’re offering.”
Some fan favorites from Flame Mobile Kitchen are the grilled salmon and the smoked chicken wings. When ordering catering, customers can customize and work with Chef Hayes to build a menu that will best serve their guests. Recently, Flame Mobile Kitchen was spotted catering for Hopkins School District’s Employee Appreciation Day.
McNeal explained how catering is the lifeblood of the business: “I like to always say we’re not a typical food truck. You won’t find us on the main streets along with the other food trucks. We are a mobile kitchen that’s primarily geared around catering and personal chef, as well as special events.
“So we’re really exclusive, and that has been more of an attraction to the community because they are offered something that is not common that we provide that is unique to them—maybe the food selection that we provide and the customer experience that we provide. As a result of that, our business is starting to expand.”
Asked about some of the challenges in starting a business, McNeal detailed the lengthy yet intentional process that comes in building a business’s strong foundation. “One of the things about our community that we are limited to…there’s not a lot of us that are exposed to the backend process of registering—gathering and getting inspected and bringing in those resources to stand up a small business.
“So, I found myself doing quite a bit of research,” he continued, “communicating with like-minded individuals, those that have had some experiences of starting their businesses in the past, researching through the internet, as well as through some business partners on how to proficiently start this business.”
That process took a bit of a toll, McNeal explained: “It was a six-month process to get to purchase all the necessary equipment, register with the state, get inspected to ensure that it’s up to code.
“Now,” he added, “we’re into our sophomore year for Flame Mobile Kitchen. And what we found is [that] with the growth of the business throughout the first year, we didn’t anticipate the interest that the community would have in what we provide.”
Yet, McNeal emphasized the strong foundation and community interest has been crucial for the growth of the business. “We, as a people, typically don’t look at size and scale and scope, because a lot of us haven’t been in a position with experience in this area.
“[It’s] really kind of hitting the ground running 100 miles, but really for [Flame Mobile Kitchen] it’s all about pace. It’s all about us really looking at what our three-to-five-year plan is versus living day to day. And so, we’re forecasting based on how we’re performing today, and where the business and industry are going.
“Sometimes, [new business owners] limit ourselves when we are moving faster than the resources are providing.”
The dedication and success of Flame Mobile Kitchen go to show that the passion for community-minded business is still alive and well in the Twin Cities.
Flame Mobile Kitchen has small pop-ups at the Lakeview Terrence Farmers market in Robbinsdale on Saturdays in the summer from 8 am to noon. Learn more by following their social media sites: @flame_mobile_kitchen on Instagram and Facebook or going to their website: flamemobilekitchen.com.
Angela Rose Myers is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.