Suspense welled up in Merryck Tann-Dickerson as she hunched over a slab of ribs, preparing to season them. Dickerson, a senior majoring in English, had started with her dad’s secret recipe and was adding her own twist — a few secret seasonings that were sure to be crowd pleasing. Back home in Los Angeles, the dish had always been a favorite at family barbecues, and she hoped the recipe wouldn’t fail her this time.
Dickerson had cooked many Sunday dinners for family and, later, for close friends at Mizzou. Those evenings were casual and always warm and cordial — a sort of emotional comfort food. But everything had to be perfect for this invitation-only event. She had transformed her apartment into a restaurant, renting tables and chairs, and setting out old wine bottles as flower vases. She even hired a videographer for the night. The guest list was strictly exclusive. Dickerson had invited athletes she met in South Hall, where she'd lived as a freshman; members of Greek Life; and prominent student makeup artists and hairstylists. Tonight was the night she would announce the launch of her catering business, College Kitchen, or CK, and she needed each diner’s help.
Once her guests had arrived and the food was ready, they all sat down, and she shared the news: “I’m starting a business, and I want you all to post about it on social media,” she said. Dickerson had CK-branded social accounts ready to go. If these well-connected students liked her food, they could send out the news to thousands of followers instantly.
With that, the business began on March 21, 2016. Once orders began pouring in, however, Dickerson realized she needed more help for the business to succeed.
Although Dickerson was reluctant to ask for assistance, two friends, communication majors Taylor Garner and Sierra McKie, stood out. Dickerson knew that McKie, a quiet fellow resident of her floor in South Hall freshman year, was a foodie, so she called on her. “I’d followed healthy-eating Instagram accounts and cooked what I saw,” Dickerson says. “Sierra would come over and eat it. I learned quickly that she will eat anything.”
Back when Dickerson was making Sunday dinners for her friends, McKie was eager to help out. After dinner, Dickerson was often exhausted, McKie says. “Merryck would leave this huge mess, and I’d be like, ‘Merryck you need help?’ And she’d say ‘Yeah girl.’ She’d be falling asleep on the couch, and I’d do everything — wash the dishes, clean the counters, sweep the floors.” McKie’s labor showed not only how hard she was willing to work but also how much she cared.
Now, McKie is CK’s head of operations. As dishes get dirty during meal preparation, she posts herself at the kitchen sink and scrubs away. At events, she’s the contact person for setup and cleanup. Also, as a fine baker, she is integral to CK’s dessert offerings. She jokes about the importance of her jack-of-all-trades role. “This place would be nothing without me!”
“Once I’m friends with you, you can’t get rid of me because I’m always inviting you to do stuff.”
Dickerson’s relationship with CK’s business manager, Taylor Garner, began gradually in an economics class. Initially, the pair didn’t know each other, but they sat together every day and eventually started studying together. “People always joke that, once I’m friends with you, you can’t get rid of me because I’m always inviting you to do stuff,” Dickerson says. “That’s how it was with Taylor.”
Garner began making regular appearances at Sunday dinner. As Dickerson prepared dinner, Garner was right by her side. That was a great fit for Dickerson, who asks for little help in the kitchen. It’s company she really wants.
Garner started as a sous chef and soon realized CK needed help with organization. Dickerson would do the hard work of finding new business and booking events but would forget to tell her colleagues so they could make plans. “We kept having these random events that we had to show up for, they weren’t on the calendar. We were all sick and tired,” Garner says.
These days, Garner sees to it that events run as smoothly as possible. She helps prepare the food, ensures the team has all the necessary materials, and courts potential catering clients. “I also make sure we’re being professional once an event has started.”
All three women also support themselves working two other jobs each while taking full course loads. When they started, every penny CK earned went back into the business to buy appliances, pots and pans, and lots of plastic utensils and to-go boxes.
It All Began with a Sunday Dinner
To a customer buying food, CK looks like a business. Look a little deeper, and you’ll find three friends enjoying each other through all the work. For Dickerson, food is more about human connection than anything else. She recalls her mother spending hours perfecting recipes at her shop, Bonnie B Bakery. Dickerson also remembers Sunday dinners, a staple in her extended family. “On Sundays, we always went to Auntie Sandy’s house,” she says. “She always had me in the kitchen with her, learning how to mince garlic, prep food,” she says. “As I got older. If there wasn’t any food in the house, I’d call Auntie Sandy and be like, ‘What should I make?’ She’d talk me through it over the phone. That’s how I learned to make different sauces from scratch.”
Sunday dinners were as much about connecting with family as they were about enjoying a delicious meal. Those meals and family moments were what she missed most when she stayed in Columbia for a summer. So, in lieu of her family’s traditional Sunday gatherings, she began hosting her friends. Every week, she’d try out family recipes as well as others she found on Instagram.
Among Dickerson’s network of friends, an invitation to Sunday dinner became a hot commodity. But with limited room for diners and dwindling funds for food, she couldn’t host everyone who wanted a seat at the table. So, she decided to spread the love by selling her popular plates.
The night she turned her apartment into a restaurant and invited her exclusive guest list to dine was more than just a launch party. It was a test of whether the Columbia community would embrace her idea.
Dickerson is a born promoter who thrives in the digital age. She understands that big news breaks on social media, and she used that knowledge to announce CK. Today, she polls her Twitter and Instagram followers asking what they want to eat each week, collects food orders and floats ideas for new entrées. “Your brand is everything. From our logo to our social media presence, we want it to feel like CK is for college students and by college students,” she says. “Everyone can have talent or a good product, but if you don’t post about it on social media people forget about it.”
A typical business cycle looks like this: On Mondays, CK posts a Twitter poll to ask followers what they’d like to eat on Sunday. By Wednesday, CK decides on a dish and begins taking orders. Some weeks they’ll have more than 30 to fill on Sunday. Other times they’ll have none, and that’s when they learn the most. “When we have weeks where we do no sales, we sit and think about why people didn’t buy it,” Garner says. “In a college town, you have to realize people don’t want the shrimp with risotto. No one wants to eat that.” Ribs and Cajun pasta are crowd favorites.
Growing, Growing, Gone
Since CK was first introduced to a select crowd a year ago, the business has grown in ways the women had hoped for. But they never imagined it would come so quickly.
- In March, Dickerson’s classmate Katie Harbinson asked CK to cater a private event for famous chef and Chopped judge Maneet Chauhan. Harbinson, a member of the Department of Student Activities events committee, arranged for Chauhan to come as part of the semester lineup of celebrities. “It was a dream come true,” Dickerson says.” The spread for the celebrity chef and her guests included balsamic chicken, steak crostini and a loaded mashed potato bar with Cajun shrimp, plus strawberry shortcake biscuits made by McKie. The night went off without a hitch. Chauhan loved the experience so much that she invited Dickerson to participate in an apprenticeship in the future.
- In March, Kelsey Meyer, the President and Co-Founder of Influence & Co., a content marketing agency where Dickerson is an intern, asked CK to cater an event for all their sponsors. “People were really impressed,” she says. “They didn’t believe that we made everything from scratch, our biscuits, our buttercream — everything.”
- In spring 2016, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. requested CK’s services to cater a 40-person dinner, where diners also learned table etiquette. The menu: lemon chicken piccata, Cajun pasta and a salad. “They didn’t go together at all, but people liked it. We were stressed, but we loved the fast-paced aspect of it all.”
The crew now caters two to three events a month, ranging from fashion shows to birthday dinners. They even hosted a Valentine’s Day singles buffet at Dickerson’s apartment.
Dickerson is scheduled to graduate in May 2017, but they don’t see that as the end of the road for CK. Once all three women graduate, they’d like to relocate to a city with foodies who will appreciate their creations. “Hopefully there will be an actual restaurant in the works,” Dickerson says. Garner agrees but would like to maintain roots in Columbia as well. “I’d love to see us go further in regards to opening restaurants in different locations,” she says. “But I want us to remain a large catering service here at Mizzou, too.”
Regardless of where CK takes the team, Dickerson is glad to be on the journey with her friends. “They stepped up to make the business what it is today,” she says. “Sometimes we argue. Sometimes we get frustrated. But at the end of the day, we're always so proud to see the finished product and proud to know that we did it together. CK would be nothing without them. That alone I'm thankful for.”
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