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Front Page - Friday, September 8, 2017

Varnell impresses at 300 West preview

T’ Pass owner Amanda Varnell is intrigued by the magic that happens around food. “A conversation at the dinner table can change the world,” she says. - Photographs by David Laprad Dish

It’s the Thursday evening before Labor Day, and traffic is congesting the streets of downtown Chattanooga as people leave work. But inside 300 West, a new event space in the building adjacent to Chattanooga WorkSpace on Sixth Street, a few dozen people are in no hurry to exit the city.

Lured there by the promise of good food, their expectations have been exceeded. 300 West owner Amanda Varnell had spread the word on social media and through personal invitations that she would be previewing the space and the menu for her catering company’s new ready-made meals program that evening.

As guests entered 300 West, nudged inside by the hip hop beats of a deejay set up outside, the smell of rich foods greeted them at the door. The source of the aroma became apparent the moment they laid their eyes on the long table on which Varnell had laid a feast fit for Chattanooga foodies.

A large bowl of Butternut Bisque led the procession. Guests wasted no time pouring ladles of the sweet, nutty vegan soup into cups and taking a sip before moving on to fill their plates with chicken fajitas, portobello mushroom fajitas, herb roasted pork and Meaty Meaty Meaty Meatballs.

The latter consisted of a moist mixture of ground pork, ground beef and bacon and had just the right amount of crunch on the outside. Varnell stood nearby, urging people to jazz them up with her famous Sweet and Spicy Jezebel Sauce, a fruited mustard sauce made from an enchanted combination of jellies, horseradish and spicy brown mustard.

House-made chocolate chip cookies and miniature cupcakes brought up the rear and were going fast.

As more and more people arrived and consumed these delicacies, conversation and laughter flowed between them like a cool river. It was, as Varnell said, “the magic that happens around food.”

“You can take people from a multitude of backgrounds, and food will act as a unifier,” she said. “Some of our most important conversations take place over food. A conversation at the dinner table can change the world.”

As the evening ended, this magic lingered in the air like fading peals of thunder. Varnell’s event, which had also featured the debut of a private label by Riverside Wine & Spirits, had been a success.

But Varnell wasn’t slowing down. As the owner of Dish T’ Pass, the catering company that provided the food and under which 300 West operates, her work is never done.

Dish T’ Pass reboot

The following afternoon, Varnell is looking flush, either with the success of the previous evening or the pressure that comes with being the sole proprietor of a small business.

But as she takes a seat on a couch in her now empty event space, she talks enthusiastically about the new directions in which she’s steering the company.

Varnell and a friend, Sarah Hooper, launched Dish T’ Pass in 2012 as a catering company and recreational cooking school. They filled more catering orders than cooking class seats, though, so in time, they booted the latter and started offering corporate team building events and other group cooking classes instead.

Those are still available. “You can bring in a group for a ‘Chopped’ or ‘Restaurant Wars’ competition,” she says. “So instead of me posting a class on our calendar and hoping the seats sell, you come to me with a group of people who want to take a rustic Italian cooking class.”

As an entrepreneur, Varnell is always looking for ways to expand her business. But when one of the owners of Chattanooga WorkSpace, John Clark, approached her and Hooper in 2012 about doing something with the vacant space in the building adjacent to their kitchen, they said no.

“We had just launched Dish T’ Pass and needed to figure what we were doing,” Varnell points out.

Clark asked the ladies every six months or so if they had changed their minds. By the end of 2015, they had. The following June, they launched a grab-and-go café geared toward busy professionals.

Like the cooking classes, the venture could have done better. “We didn’t lose money but we didn’t make any, either,” Varnell acknowledges. “It was revenue neutral and taxing on the kitchen because we never knew how much food we needed to make.”

So, the pair pulled the plug on the concept. In addition, Hooper chose to move on to a new venture.

“I miss the Lucy and Ethel quality we had,” Varnell says. “At the same time, I feel comfortable taking the helm now.”

As Varnell took over operations, she began looking at new opportunities both with the space she’d leased and Dish T’ Pass.

“A small business is all about pivoting and knowing when to stop selling one product and launch another,” she explains.

Varnell conceived 300 West as both a venue for hosting events and a value-added component of her catering business. Companies and organizations can rent the space for meetings, networking events or lunch-and-learns, or meet the minimum required order for catering and get the space for free.

“Sometimes, boards don’t want to meet on site even if they have nice conference rooms,” Varnell says. “We can seat up to 30 people around a long rectangle table.”

Event 300 and Dish T’ Pass could also handle an all-day event, Vernell adds, the businessperson in her perking up at the thought.

“A group could come in, have muffins and fruit in the morning, conduct a meeting, enjoy boxed lunches or a hot buffet, transition to a team building exercise and then come back here for cocktails and nosh before heading home,” she says.

Varnell also hopes to establish relationships with businesses and other entities in the community that will use Event 300 as their go-to space. “We’d like to have a few networking groups use us for their breakfast or lunch meetings on a regular basis and lock us in for the catering.’’

While Event 300 and the catering business are focused on serving corporate clients, the ready-made meals program is taking Dish T’ Pass in a new direction that’s near and dear to Varnell’s heart: the family dinner table.

A mother of four, Varnell spent 20 years planning menus and preparing food on a budget. Even within that hectic environment, she focused on the magic of food and its ability to bring her family together at the end of the day.

Varnell says that period of her life inspired the ready-made-meals program, in which customers order heat-and-serve dishes and then refrigerate them until it’s time to eat.

Customers receive a menu via email on Monday, must place their order by Thursday and then pick up the freshly-prepared dishes the following Tuesday. Each meal comes with cooking instructions and everything needed for a complete meal.

While portions of the ready-made-meals menu will remain the same week to week, others items will vary. The first menu for the new program featured staples like chicken salad, pimento cheese, vegetables salads and more as well as selections that will be rotated with other items, including a Sweet Bourbon Salmon and flank steak.

The ready-made-meals program from Dish T’ Pass is currently in the pilot phase. Varnell expects it to launch it city-wide at the beginning of October.

Remembering the past

Although Varnell has always been a voracious and adventurous eater, she came to the kitchen somewhat late in life. As she began cooking for her family in her mid-20s, she began collecting cookbooks put together by churches and other small community organizations.

“A church cookbook will have someone’s best banana nut bread recipe,” she says. “They’re a treasure trove of great food.”

In 2006, Varnell started teaching cooking classes focused on the weeknight dinner table at community centers and churches. This led to teaching gigs at the Chattanooga Market, Earth Fare and Mia Cucina.

“I loved passing on the skills I’d learned from feeding my family,” she adds.

Hooper joined the venture in 2012 and the two decided to open a brick and mortar called Dish T’ Pass.

The name of the business is based on the concept of sharing a meal cooked from scratch and passed around a table.

“When you’re asked to bring a dish t’pass, you rummage through your collection of recipe cards and pull out your favorite one,” Varnell says. “You offer the best of who you are.”

Dish T’ Pass is housed in the former St. Barnabas Senior Center facility, where Chattanooga WorkSpace has created a haven for art-related businesses.

The kitchen operated by the catering business operates once fed 150 St. Barnabas residents three meals a day. Today, it produces the kind of magic that brings people of various backgrounds together on a Thursday night to enjoy a taste of the sacred in shared food.

“Years ago, we developed what we call the food love philosophy. It’s the warm, gracious way you invite people to join you and offer them food,” Varnell explains. “We want that philosophy to saturate everything we do.”