Tiffany Williams | Exquisite Catering | Chicago, IL

GigRoots Podcast | Tiffany Williams Interview | Chicago, IL

Introduction:

Tiffany Williams runs her own catering company, Exquisite Catering. Like many entrepreneurs, Tiffany’s livelihood took a double hit this year. Once due to the pandemic. And then again due to civil unrest over the killing of George Floyd and others. But Tiffany’s got a lot going for her in spite of it all. For one thing, she’s professionally trained chef. Tiffany has sampled a world of culinary cuisine. She’s even toured providing meals for Beyonce and Jay-Z. Tiffany’s raising three kids in the Woodlawn community on Chicago’s south side, where her family has lived for generations. They’ve seen constant change, including many storefronts and businesses come and go. And so with all the investment happening in the adjacent community of Hyde park, the stakes are high.

GR: Tiffany, tell us about yourself.

TW: I’m a single mother of three. I have a 19 year old son, Jonathan, a 16 year old daughter, Dionne, who is now driving. It’s a stressful thing. She wants to drive somewhere and I’m like, “okay”. I’m getting a little bit more comfortable with it. That’s the chapter of life. And then I an 11 year old daughter, Julia, who keeps to herself often. And she learns a lot about the world and likes to sit in her closet and read.

GR: That’s a big dimension of who you are, obviously. And how does that intersect with ‘Tiffany the business owner’?

TW: A lot of my drive has come from my kids, honestly. You know, sustaining my home has been a drive to keep my business going. When I wanted to give up, honestly, it’s my kids that pressed me to keep going. They say, “Mom, you can do this. We’ve seen you do unbelievable things. Like, do you realize who you are?” So they keep me motivated. I mean, I would honestly say they drive me a lot to keep pushing forward.

GR: That’s a big deal for your kids to say that about you.

TW: It is. I mean, it’s almost like, if they could slap me in the face and say, “Wake up, come on, get back to it.”

GR: Right. And you’re kind of doing it solo. You’re raising a household with three kids, two of them, teenagers. As anybody with teenagers can tell you that’s a trial. You’re running the business full time. There’s a lot of different things going on in your life. So just tell everybody about your business and what it is you do.

TW: I’m the owner of Exquisite Catering & Events. We’re a full service catering company here from the South side of Chicago. I started the business after being in the industry for 20 years. I’ve worked in the industry from fast casual to fine dining, to catering, to backstage events. And I found that even though I got to travel and do a lot of things, I noticed that the South side had a lack of focus on international cuisine. We’ve lived in a food desert for quite some time.

We just got our first grocery store in our neighborhood after 20 years. And I’ve lived in this neighborhood for a long time in and out. So I know what food was available here compared to what we could have. And I wanted to bring something to the South side that focused on international cuisine. I focused on fresh home cooked meals and cooking from scratch. I started catered events. We are now focused more so on providing meals to purchase online. With COVID, we’re not doing catering on a full scale, but we’ve partnered with a lot of organizations now and we’re giving meals to these organizations who are feeding the community. So that’s a large focus for us right now.

GR: So you launched it in 2017, is that right? So what were you doing right before that?

TW: Right before that, I did an amazing job before that working as an executive chef, I worked doing backstage catering. I was on tours with artists and celebrities such as Beyonce and Jay Z, if you know them.

GR: I think people will know those folks!

TW: Working with them was very awesome. I got to do a lot of local tours here in Chicago. I was the head chef for Lollapalooza for two years in a row. So some pretty cool stuff, a lot of hard work. Now, this stuff comes with hard work, a lot of time and dedication, which was time away from my kids. They were so excited about it. They’re like, “Mom, go do it. Go back out, go on tour. We love it”. And then they get to come to the concert. So of course they loved their backstage treatment when I go.

GR: That kind of goes out the window for a minute during the pandemic, right?

TW: I was actually told to go out on tour with BTS before COVID. I wasn’t a huge K-pop fan before, but now they’re the biggest thing out there. That was bigger than Beyonce to me.

GR: I don’t know about K-pop, but we all know about BTS. What is it about international cuisine and the culinary arts that appeals to you? Why did you decide to take that path?

TW: Great question. I don’t get to tell this story a lot. I started off doing art at Gallery 37 here in Chicago. It was an after school program for teenagers who wanted to learn about art. I thought it was great because I was learning about art, but I was also getting paid for it. I took a few different programs there, like jewelry making. We were the first group that did the Halloween parade here in Chicago. And then I landed in culinary arts. As one of my last programs, I became a chef at that time. The head chef tells me “You’re really, really good at this. What are you doing after high school? I was pregnant at 17 as a teenager and I knew I couldn’t go away for school. I actually wanted to be a meteorologist if you can believe that

GR: That’s something new about you that I didn’t know. Wow!

TW: Yeah, I wanted to go to school in Florida, but I was pregnant. My mom actually wanted me to go but I didn’t know what to do. I’m 17. Pregnant. I don’t know what’s going on in the world. I decided to stay with the cooking teacher at the time. The pastry chef encouraged me to check out the culinary school so I did. That’s what landed me into culinary from there. It [incorporates] the art perspective and I loved that about it. It was about teaching others about different cultures through food. I found a love of learning about different cultures. I loved that.

I was able to teach about different cultures just from the foods that we eat every day, where it originated from. I learned why people eat what they eat, based on what’s prominent in their areas of the world. And I believe that when we’re at a table and we’re sitting and eating, we’re just enjoying our food. We don’t look at the person next to us and say, “Oh, this is a black man,” or “This is a white woman,” or “This person is Hispanic.” We just enjoy each other. We can have an open conversation. So I like to use food as an introduction to different cultures to kind of bridge a gap between disparities.

GR: That’s a really interesting point that you bring up. Food is a communal activity that brings people together very naturally. It’s kind of a neutral entry point for folks who might otherwise not come together. When we talk about race, that’s a very heated topic of discussion (right now, especially). So food can serve as a natural way of convening. How have you been able to convene others in the community as of late?

TW: I need to explore that more when I can. It’s pretty hard to do right now with so much going on with the coronavirus. It’s hard to get out and gather people. But prior to that, I was teaching classes and I’m still doing a couple of new ones. I’m starting to pick up a little bit more teaching cooking classes and every every other week. I held a class at a drug and alcohol rehab facility. And then I would do some with Blue Cross Blue Shield.

GR: I want to switch gears for a minute to talk about the community that you’re in. The community of Woodlawn on the South side of Chicago. Take me through the timeline from when the COVID pandemic first hit. Obviously that affected everyone, but then what happened following the events in Minneapolis. Between the police and Mr. George Floyd, this sparked a response across the country. From your vantage point, can you talk about the community response from that moment?

TW: When the coronavirus hit, I guess I would say around March. It was my birthday when we got the announcement that the city would be shutting down. We actually started getting calls about cancellations and people wanting refunds. People had been delaying their events earlier that week. By Wednesday, I was a hundred percent out of business. It was devastating. I was telling my staff we’re not getting any more calls for orders We don’t have any visits scheduled– there’s nothing going on. We had lost everything.

GR: What was your conversation with your kids at that point?

TW: My son was away at college still. So my mindset was that I have to go get him, we need to be together. He was in Mississippi at the time. I remember thinking, I don’t think Mississippi is prepared for what’s going to happen. I don’t want to wait and delay and he’s in school and there’s all this uncertainty. That Saturday we drove down, we did a 24 hour [turnaround] there and back and brought him back home. I had a conversation with my kids saying I didn’t know what we were going to do at that point. I started updating my resume. But then I thought, who’s hiring? Where are the jobs going to be?

GR: How did your family deal with that level of uncertainty?

TW: With this kind of uncertainty, we looked at this point in history and in time. I took a minute just to spend time with my family, something I hadn’t done for a long time. Because I was working for so long and working so many hours we needed to spend time together. We started making TikTok videos together. We developed a family page on Facebook. We were doing recipes together. After awhile, they got annoyed with me. A lot of friends convinced me to start cooking again, just for it’s own sake. Then I developed more e-commerce on our website. I developed menus and I wanted it to be affordable. I still knew of people that were working. Others didn’t have jobs at that point. We made meal kits for $10 and they were substantial meals.

GR: Did your kids help out?

TW: My kids came back into the kitchen to start cooking. You know, they were working with me. They were aggravated and tired. They didn’t want to show up for work, but I wasn’t able to pay anybody [else] at that point. I was thinking about sustainability in our home. We only had so much money to pay bills, we had to keep going. I haven’t talked to anybody about this publicly, but I had this really tough conversation with my children. I told them, “At this point, this is the most real thing I will tell you. I try to give you the best that I can give you. But at this point, this is not just mommy’s fun business anymore. This is real. We have no choice. This is for survival. I needed them to show up. I can’t afford to pay anybody to be here. This is to survive in our home. And at that point, I told them, “I’m giving 70%. There’s three of you guys and you’re giving 30% But I need you to give a little bit more. And I can either lay in a bed and be depressed or I could get up and make it happen. And at that point they realized we need to survive. We need to make it happen. And they were there for me.

GR: What about any government assistance? Any aid there?

TW: We put a lot of marketing behind it and we eventually got organizations to start ordering meals from us. I was also able to secure PPP, which allowed me to bring back my staff back. And from there we’ve just been going up and up in our numbers by partnering with the organizations. So we’ve been really stable as a business since then.

GR: That’s a lot to go through in a really short amount of time. There’s a lot going on there. What about your son? Will he go back to school?

GR: He’s a little lost right now. I’m also not happy about him going back to school in Mississippi. They seem very unprepared there for what’s going on right now. So he’ll figure it out. He’s also 19. I don’t expect him to figure out his entire life right now. And this is a pandemic. So I understand that– we’re all trying to figure some things out.

GR: We got somewhat off track but for some very good reasons. What about the response back in the community?

TW: I was going to say that we saw here firsthand in Woodlawn– because of George Floyd– we saw total devastation. I saw the video the night before while a lot of people saw it the next day. I’m like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this happened again.” It definitely prompted a conversation with my kids. I’m trying to explain with my youngest daughter, the reasons why. Jonathan’s older– he understands more. But it’s almost sad to say he understands because we’ve had the talk already with him about being a black male–but that’s reality.

GR: When did you first have that conversation with him? Do you remember how old he was?

TW: I remember he had started high school. I guess he was about 14 when he started taking the bus. At the time he said, “Mom I’ve already been harassed by the police.” I asked, “Wait, why didn’t you tell me?” He’s like, “I didn’t think it would make a difference.” It hurt my heart. I hated that we he went through that.

GR: As both a mom and as a business owner living on the South side of Chicago, What sort of response are you crafting as a business?

TW: I try to keep politics separate from business. I don’t want my personal beliefs to affect mingle with how I operate as a business. However, as a team we’re planning to go to March on Washington. We talked about it, and we’re closing down to take a road trip as the whole team. Everybody wants to be there because we’re a part of history changing. We want to be a part of the voices that change history.

GR: What does hope look like for the city of Chicago and for the south side?

TW: So I grew up in Woodlawn. It makes me think about my school that I grew up in– Andrew Carnegie. I went to that school. My kids went to that school. My mom went to that school. We have a long history. And to just see it now from when I went there. We went from barely having books or barely having enough teachers; now they’re one of the top schools over here. They’ve expanded and now have more gifted programs. And they’re now doing things across the city and the kids are flourishing there. I guess I would use that as a caption of hope. To be able to see things grow, to see things blossom– we really can see change in our neighborhood. Now that I’m more involved in understanding what’s going on through the internal [workings] of Woodlawn, I’m just wanting to play my role. I want to see what I could do to help it become a better community.

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