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Serving Up Joy

By Tami Vigness

The familiar saying “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” is one of those adages that sound great on paper, but for many, is difficult to accomplish. Finding something that not only pays the bills, but brings meaning to our lives and feeds our souls, seems like a concept out of reach. Whether it’s the monotony of an 8-5 life, the inconsistency of shift work, or not having the flexibility to maintain a healthy work-life balance, too often people suffer through their workdays, counting down the hours until they can punch out.

But, there are a few lucky ones who have been fortunate enough to find their passion early on and know exactly what it is they want to do with their lives. Whether they go to college and major in their field of choice, land an amazing internship, or travel and immerse themselves in different cultures, learning new things or refining their passion.

For Heather Schneider, there has never been a doubt that the kitchen is where she belongs. Even as a young girl, Heather was never very far from the kitchen, watching her mother and grandmother make delicious homemade meals, rarely taking any shortcuts. “My mom is a from-scratch cook. She’d slice potatoes from her garden for homemade french fries and serve them with ketchup she canned herself,” Heather recalls. Being in the kitchen, even to just wash dishes, was always where she wanted to be.

Heather’s creativity and love for good food have taken her to restaurants all over the world. But it wasn’t always easy finding her home in the kitchen. After high school, Heather moved to Long Beach, California and worked part-time as a server at a local restaurant. “The chefs and other back-of-house staff were all male, and many didn’t want a female working with them,” Heather said. Determined to get her foot in the door of the kitchen, Heather would come in early for her shifts and beg to help the cooks prep for the day. Her perseverance paid off and she was allowed to help the chefs and kitchen staff prep for the day. During this time, she learned the inner workings of back-of-house operations, the fast-paced environment, new techniques, and cooking methods. She loved every minute of it.

When Heather’s husband’s career took them to Maine, Heather landed a job at the Five Fifty-Five, one of Portland’s trendiest and most upscale eateries. She worked alongside one of the city’s finest chefs and continued to hone her skills in the kitchen, constantly absorbing new things and refining the art of cooking. The restaurant focused on using high-quality, local, seasonal ingredients and heavily influenced Heather’s current style of cooking.

After years of living in different states and countries, the Schneiders returned home to Grand Forks. Heather set out to put the skills she’d acquired over the years to work, excited to share her experience and love for cooking. Armed with an impressive resume of work in restaurants in California, Maine, Toronto, and Germany, Heather accepted a position as the Kitchen Manager at Amazing Grains, the former local downtown food co-op, where she had spent many previous summers working.

With easy access to fresh produce, much of it grown locally, and other high-quality ingredients, Heather was able to create unique, fresh, and healthy lunch options for the co-op’s loyal clientele. There was a made-to-order sandwich and smoothie bar, fresh daily soup options, as well as a grab-and-go cooler that featured pre-made sandwiches and wraps, salads, hummus, and other savory dips to complement the freshly baked bread options like crescents and focaccia. Creativity and imagination were always fostered, and the small kitchen and eating space quickly became one of downtown’s favorite lunch spots.

After five years at Amazing Grains, Heather accepted a position as the Executive Chef at the North Dakota Museum of Art Café. In addition to the menu staples, she created unique daily specials featuring seasonal produce, inspiration from her travels, and time spent in other restaurants. The cozy café, situated in the lower level of the museum, quickly became the hot spot on campus for faculty, students, and anyone looking to enjoy a lunch different from the ordinary take-out or fast-food burger. In addition to serving the daily lunch crowd, Heather catered many on-campus events and planned full plated dinners for a variety of galas and fundraising events hosted at the North Dakota Museum of Art. She garnered a reputation for creating dishes that were unique and original, thoughtfully prepared, and gorgeously presented. She aimed to make the food one of the highlights of the event.

Finding Joy

Now the mother of two young boys, Heather found herself busier than ever, trying to successfully manage a good work-life balance. Though she loved creating delicious dishes for others to enjoy, the daily demands of managing a kitchen and catering early morning, evening, and weekend events were beginning to take their toll. While she briefly considered finding work outside of a kitchen, she knew she would never be satisfied. But as a chef, finding a job that would accommodate her schedule seemed almost impossible. It was then Heather decided to take matters into her own hands. She began thinking about others in similar situations, with busy lives and families of their own, also trying to juggle multiple activities and still find time to prepare and eat a healthy home-cooked meal. While there’s no shortage of online meal services to choose from that deliver ingredients right to your doorstep, Heather’s vision was different. She wanted to prepare the food herself, create and develop new recipes, use fresh, local produce from the farmers she had developed relationships with, and give people the opportunity to still enjoy fresh, healthy, homemade food, despite their busy schedules. She wanted to maintain the joy she felt working in the kitchen, providing others with high-quality, creative meals, while also enjoying a simpler schedule and more time with her family. Joy Full Foods was born out of not only a love for food, but also a genuine desire to share good food with others.

With the paperwork filed and commercial kitchen space secured, Heather was officially ready to roll out her prepared meal service. Between word-of-mouth and social media advertising, Heather quickly filled all of the spots to receive a weekly share of meals featuring entrees, grain bowls, soup and wellness shots. It was evident that she was providing the community something it had been missing. People loved the idea of getting healthy meals prepared for them, while also supporting a local small business. “I was overwhelmed, but encouraged by the response from the community,” Heather recalled. Joy Full Foods was an instant success. While Heather often incorporates new dishes and recipes, there are a few crowd favorites that make regular appearances in the weekly food shares. “I rely a lot on feedback from my clients,” Heather said. “They always let me know when something was a big hit.” Heather is also quick to recognize that her food and style of cooking isn’t always for everyone. She uses many ingredients that often aren’t found in the typical Midwest pantry. Heather uses many infused oils, multiple types of vinegar, and a variety of ethnic spices in many of her recipes. “Sometimes my food has too much spice or flavor that someone might not enjoy if they aren’t used to it,” Heather explained. But she’s okay with that. “I want to stay original and not get sucked into the mainstream.

How to Grow

Within months of launching Joy Full Foods – encouraged by her family, friends, customers, and a waiting list of people – Heather was already contemplating expanding her prepared meal service by hiring a staff, adding more clients, and offering more meal options.

However, the pandemic had different plans for her. With all of the unknowns surrounding COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines, Heather’s plans for expansion were put on hold. “It was hard,” Heather recalled. “I saw all these ways I could have expanded, but I had kids at home, daycare was closed, and we didn’t know if schools were going to stay open.” She continued to serve her current customers their weekly shares, but also began thinking about different ways to safely grow her business amidst a pandemic. It was during this time that Heather really turned her attention to recipe development. While all of the meals made for customers of Joy Full Foods are prepared in a licensed commercial kitchen, Heather conducts recipe testing in her kitchen at home. Like many good chefs, Heather keeps most recipes in her head. “I never slowed down enough to write things down and take notes,” she explained. With more time at home during the pandemic, Heather used the opportunity to start putting her recipes on paper, try new things, and perfect existing dishes.

Prior to starting Joy Full Foods, Heather had assisted local Food Network star, Molly Yeh, with recipe testing and development for her first cookbook. This experience also sparked a new interest in consulting with local companies and developing recipes featuring the products they produced. Heather’s love for cooking healthy, nutritious meals garnered the attention of local and regional associations like the Northarvest Bean Growers Association where she worked on the Beans for Life campaign, helping to raise awareness of the health and wellness benefits of consuming beans. She also worked with a local pasta company, Three Farm Daughters, to develop recipes featuring their locally grown and produced pasta varieties. Currently, she’s involved in an exciting new research project that she hopes will help influence people's food purchasing decisions and show how the benefits of clean, healthy eating can impact growth and development.

After 20 years in the same industry and nearly three years of owning her own business, Heather is one of those lucky few that genuinely enjoys what they do. She continues to focus on what she’s passionate about, because for her, food is more than just a necessity to survive, it’s truly a language of love. G

// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here

From Issue 1, 2022

PHOTOS By Manstrom Photography & Shawna Noel Schill Photography


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