Every day aspiring chefs and restaurateurs are thinking small, opening food carts and stands to dip their toes in the small business waters. For Kristy Hammond and Sheree Walters, owners of Eugene’s vegan Cornbread Café, a food cart was just the beginning.
The two met on the internet, when Hammond responded to a posting from Walters titled “Vegan Entrepreneur.” They hit it off and a few short months later, the Cornbread Café food cart was open for business. “We looked at a couple of restaurant spaces and realized it wasn’t particularly feasible, and that it was less than it about being feasible – more about it being scary. I mean, there’s an 80 percent attrition rate when it comes to restaurants, they just seem to fall by the wayside within a year, so the food cart seemed like the most viable way to see if her recipes, her food, her ideas were as good as I thought they were,” says Hammond.
As it turns out, Hammond wasn’t the only one intrigued by the idea of vegan soul food. In under a year, the cart began selling product wholesale to the New Frontier Market, and the cart attracted a large following. “We did everything in our trailer. That was our kitchen; we didn’t use our home kitchens or any other space. It became quickly apparent that we were running out of room and that just from a storage standpoint that we were sort of capped,” says Hammond.
When it became time to renew their lease agreement with the cart, Hammond and Walters faced a decision. After a year in the cart, it was clear they had a proven product. Their wholesale business had potential to grow, and their loyal customer base begged for longer hours. It became clear; they needed a restaurant space.
So where does the “cornbread” come in? Well, in addition to serving up moist, yummy slices of it (including a gluten-free version), the duo finally settled on Cornbread Café after deliberating on several different business names. Hammond says, “I liked the simplicity of the word cornbread. We had thrown around a bunch of names, but once I said “cornbread,” that was it.”
The food cart closed December 31, 2010. Hammond and Walters took the time to build their wholesale business, sharing a commissary kitchen with a local catering company in downtown Eugene. They searched around the area for a new home, finding one at the old Deb’s Diner at the corner of Polk and Seventh Streets.
They hosted a successful grand opening early in the summer of 2011, and have continued to grow claiming small victories here and there. “Last week I had a customer say “One of my favorite things about coming here is the diversity that you have,” says Hammond. Their attention to detail, hand-crafted menu, and welcoming atmosphere (alongside items like their popular fried tofu “Eugenewich”) has been creating a buzz and attracting vegans and meat eaters alike.
Hammond and Walters now provide items to four area markets and are at their ‘50s style diner five days a week. “The food cart was a great learning experience in many, many ways. It’s nice to go from little to big,” says Hammond.
Jackie Varriano is a Eugene-based writer thinking of making Cornbread’s Mac-un-cheese part of her daily diet. Keep up with her at seejackwrite.tumblr.com.