“Keep pushing.” That’s the advice Chef Raquel Ervin says she’s been given all her life, and she did exactly that when COVID-19 pushed her to pivot her business plans.
Raquel Ervin is the executive chef and owner of Eat at Panoptic, which began as a catering company in 2014. Last year she appeared on two television network cooking competitions: Food Network’s “Family Food Showdown” and Cooking Channel’s “Snack Attack.” And this year, the Mobile, AL, native had plans to open her own restaurant. Then the coronavirus forced restaurants across the country to close their dining rooms or shutter permanently. Instead of abandoning her plans to expand, Raquel decided to “keep pushing,” and this summer, she debuted the Eat at Panoptic food truck.
We’re excited to introduce our newest FACE of Birmingham, Chef Raquel Ervin.
After COVID-19 forced you to change your plans to open a restaurant this year, how did you decide that a food truck would be the best way to go?
I always had a food truck in the business plan. My idea was to do brick and mortar first, get the new concept out there, get people acclimated with it, and then it would be easy to just branch out with the food truck because it would be familiar. I thought it would be harder to jump out with a brand new truck and expect the same energy you would get with a brick and mortar. Birmingham really has moved toward a foodie city with entertainment districts and things like that. But with COVID and everything shutting down from the dining room to the restaurant itself, it just didn’t make sense to sign that lease. It made sense to go back to the drawing board. So, I thought, why not go on and launch the food truck?
What makes your food truck stand out from others around the city?
The food truck has specialty sliders and gourmet sides. I’m most known for soul food with a Cajun flair, but that doesn’t work on a food truck. You’re not in there making mac and cheese on a truck. Everything has to be 10 minutes or less, fast service and quick. So, I took popular items from my catering menu and picked what would work on a food truck.
What inspired you to start your catering business?
I started working in the restaurant business at 12 years old. My sister owned two restaurants. So, I’ve always been in the kitchen. Later I did corporate restaurant management and learned the ropes. I decided after many years of working for someone else that I’m pretty good at this. I can do this on my own. I write everything down, so it makes it a lot easier to replicate. I’m a creature of habit. I do things in sequence. Catering made sense to me.
Last year, you appeared on two television network cooking competitions. How did that impact your culinary career?
It’s just surreal. I really can’t even explain how exciting the opportunity was. Initially, when I first got the call from Food Network, in my head I was like, “Who’s pranking me?” Until I received the email, I didn’t think it was real. The opportunity to meet other chefs and people who are in the same field that I am was so exciting — to see all different types of people who cook in totally different ways. With my Cooking Channel experience, I was really able to connect with the other chefs. We got a chance to really get to know each other and we keep in contact now.
Being afforded the opportunity to advance like I have and be able to appear on TV, compete and become a finalist is just amazing because that doesn’t happen all the time for homegrown chefs. That, to me, speaks volumes. It shows that you can do this without having to go to school if you’re really talented and gifted and if you’re passionate about it.
What are some of your favorite things to do and places to go in Birmingham?
I love to paint, so I enjoy going to Sips n Strokes. I like Topgolf. I enjoy playing golf because it’s very relaxing for somebody who works in a very hectic environment 24/7. I visit all of my friends’ food trucks and restaurants on a regular basis — K&J’s Elegant Pastries, Encore Rouge, Urban Smoke, Eugene’s Hot Chicken, Yo’ Mama’s and Aww Shucks.
What’s the best advice you have to give to someone interested in starting a business like yours?
Make sure you are passionate about it because everything you do reflects the energy give. Do your research. Make sure you understand the business side of it. There are a lot of people who cook, but can you operate a business? It’s more than just cooking. You have to have the business skills as well. I am never afraid to ask questions. I don’t act like I know it all. You have to lean on people who have done this before you. And what I’ve always been told my entire life is to keep pushing.
Name three things you can’t live without.
Sweet tea, vacation and Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn.
All images submitted by Chef Raquel Ervin.
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