Cindy Pierce: Abbondanza!
Her Career in Cooking is Successfully Panning Out
Cindy Pierce always enjoyed cooking.
She fondly remembers taking part in the preparation of lavish Sunday dinners orchestrated by her Italian grandmother and great aunt.
“They were like master chefs,” she said of her older relatives, noting that they took pride in making their own sauces and breads and turning meal preparation into an event. “I think that’s now somewhat of a lost art; these days, more and more people are saying, ‘what I can I slap together quickly?’”
Despite her fondness for the stove — Pierce experimented with French cooking in her teens, won ribbons for her baking at 4-H fairs, and financed her college education by working in various restaurants — she never imagined she could ever make a living from it. It wasn’t until nearly 20 years after she graduated from college — and after assorted career stops in fields ranging from broadcast journalism to software development — that she realized she could.
It was while in that software industry phase of her career that she started working long hours, getting home late, and, after discussing dinner options with her partner, often resorted to take-out food.
“That was the epiphany for me,” she said. “While trying to decide between Dominos or Chinese, we would say how we wished there was a person, an elf, that would magically make us dinner.”
Soon, she would learn that many colleagues and friends had similar wishes, and this eventually led her to revisit her youth and juxtapose her culinary skills with her career situation. “I said, ‘wait … I like to cook, I’m not happy at work; I could be that person who magically cooks dinner.”
Using the kitchen at the Polish American Club in South Hadley (a facility she rents for a few hours a day), and not magic, she is doing just that under the corporate name Abbondanza! LLC, which, in Italian, means abundance. That term would not accurately describe the size of her client list, but she’s getting there through a service largely unique to this region.
Rather than personal chef work, which is where Pierce started and involves an individual coming to one’s home and cooking meals to their specifications, Abbondanza! delivers up to a week’s worth of meals to clients who range from a young couple struggling with 70-hour work weeks to an elderly woman suffering from a bad back.
Pierce currently prepares and delivers several dozen meals a week, and expects to grow her client list through word-of-mouth referrals and societal dynamics that will keep her products and service in demand — and more-so as the Baby Boom generation heads into retirement.
“These are people who realize that they need some help and value their time,” she explained. “They’re willing to make a trade-off — spending a little more, perhaps, but gaining some precious time and eating meals that will serve them far better than most take-out.”
Her Bread and Butter
Braised chicken with dried fruit. Pan-seared whitefish and potatoes. Curried couscous with broccoli and feta. Turkey cutlets with cider and thyme sauce. And something called ‘Caribbean stew.’
These are just a sampling of the offerings Pierce has put on the menu for the past few weeks; she says she has roughly eight months’ worth of different offerings. The stew, by the way, is described on the menu as a tropical blend of sweet potatoes, tomatoes, greens, and other vegetables. It’s served over brown rice with cornbread, and, like other dishes, comes in regular (usually 8 ounces) and spa (4 ounces) portions, and blends taste with nutrition and affordability. The stew is $13, while most entrees are a few dollars more.
“And it comes right to your door,” said Pierce, noting that convenience, above everything else, is the factor that will take this business where she wants it to go.
The business card says ‘Chef Cindy Pierce.’
That’s not something the Tewksbury native could have imagined while attending the University of South Carolina and working toward a degree in broadcast journalism. She took that diploma and went to work for WSBA, a small CBS affiliate in Spartanburg, S.C. There, she worked in the production department for the 6 and 11 nightly news broadcasts, starting as a studio camera person and working her way up to lighting chief and assistant director, eventually working on a number of projects including an American Bandstand-like program called Sound Effects.
She eventually segued out of TV and into freelance video and production work. Soon, however, she realized this was a field with limited income potential, and thus sought something with better opportunities.
She found it in the technology sector which was booming at that time, the late ’90s, and place, the Route 128 corridor in Eastern Mass. She worked first for Reading-based Addison Wesley Longman, a textbook publisher, and was part of the team that created its InterAct math tutorial program. Later, she became a Lotus Notes developer for Lexington-based IBS America Inc.
She enjoyed the work, but the long hours and lengthy commute brought her home late — too late on many occasions to do anything but order out, a practice that wasn’t good for her health or her wallet.
These experiences ultimately led to some soul-searching and a decision to start over — in a big way. She would embark on a new career, as business owner and personal chef, and do so in Western Mass. (specifically Holyoke), where the cost of living, and especially real estate prices, were and still are far lower than in Eastern Mass.
Before launching Abbondanza! Personal Chef, however, she did considerable research, talking with a number of people who have chosen that profession in this market and outside it.
“When I Googled ‘personal chef,’ I found all kinds of information,” she said, adding that she eventually communicated with a personal chefs organization, which offered direction on how to get started. “What I kept hearing was that this is a viable field to go into. People can make it work; they just have to do it right.”
Stirring Things Up
Pierce enjoyed some initial success as a personal chef, and still works in that capacity for a few clients, but eventually came to the realization that there was a bigger, better market for a different kind of service, one where the meals are cooked off-site and then delivered to the home.
“That’s what this market seemed to want,” she explained. “I was getting a lot of calls from people who wanted meals, but they didn’t want me coming to their house; they were saying, ‘we just want the food.’”
The nature and volume of those comments brought a new name and direction to her venture.
Pierce now spends Mondays and Tuesdays preparing meals (ordered by noon the preceding Friday) at the Polish American Club, which has the requisite licensed kitchen as well as long stretches during most days when those facilities aren’t being used. Deliveries are made on Wednesdays to Southern Hampden County, and on Thursdays to Chicopee, Holyoke, and the Northampton area. They are accompanied by advice on which entrees will freeze better or should be eaten first.
Since shifting to delivery of meals, Pierce said she has seen the venture take off. She has a group of what she calls “regulars” — whom she described as individuals or couples who can’t cook for themselves for mostly physical reasons, or can but don’t have the time to do so or would prefer to put that time to other uses — and some who use the service on occasion.
To grow those numbers, Pierce is relying on word-of-mouth referrals, some marketing, mostly through a Web site (www.abbondanzachef.com) that includes everything from menus to reviews, and some extensive networking. She’s a member of the Women Business Owners Alliance (WBOA), the networking group BNI, and other organizations, and is involved with the Northampton Chamber of Commerce.
Her immediate goals include expanding the array of offerings to include meals that would fit in with many of the more popular diet plans, while longer-term she hopes to add volume to the point where she can hire staff and perhaps drop delivery duties from her job description. For now, though, she enjoys that assignment, because it keeps her in touch with the client base, providing important feedback on the menu.
Pierce acknowledges that she has considerable competition in the form of individual restaurants and companies that will bring meals from a wide list of area restaurants to one’s door. But she believes she has something unique, something more personal, that has strong growth potential.
“I think I go beyond what restaurants can offer,” she said, listing everything from the variety of the menu to the local produce she uses (when it’s in season) to the give and take she has with clients about ways to deliver what they want. “It’s a more personal approach that people like.”
Bringing Home the Bacon
Pierce says recipes for meals ranging from lasagna to “Nuts4Nuts Crusted Pork Chops” — with seasoning that comes from another WBOA member enjoying success — arrive from a number of sources. They include cookbooks, magazines, acquaintances, the cooking shows she catches on rare occasions, and her own imagination.
Her specialty? She thought for a moment and summoned pan-roasted eggplant Parmesan — and her in-demand morning glory muffins.
They represent both part of her desire to revive some of that lost art mastered by grandmother and great aunt, and her broad goal to forge a career that brings the many different kinds of rewards she’s seeking.
Time will tell just how popular this venture becomes, but for now, its certainly panning out the way she’d hoped.
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]