Holly Darnell is a dietitian, chef and owner of Golden Roots Nashville, which provides gluten-free and dairy-free meal kits using fresh ingredients sourced from local farms in Tennessee.
What do you do?
I’m a dietician and owner of Golden Roots Nashville. I do a variety of things with my business. I have a meal kit delivery service where I use local ingredients to cook gluten and dairy-free meals for those in Nashville and surrounding areas. I’m also a chef and I host events. I have a cooking class that I do once a month and I also do dinner parties. Sometimes I’m also hired out to do boutique catering, which is catering for a party of 30 people or less.
The beginning of the week is more focused on the meal delivery services. Sunday through Tuesday you can find me in the kitchen, prepping, making sure the orders are correct and then delivering those meals. Wednesdays through the early weekend are recipe development days and admin days, where I’ll take photos, answer emails or have meetings. I also try to have my cooking classes on Wednesdays or Thursdays. If I do an event, I tend to have those on Thursday nights.
I’ll develop the menu for my catering business for a month at a time. I’ll draft it up on Tuesdays and send it to subscribers on Wednesday mornings so they’ll know what they can order for the upcoming week.
What’s your favorite food or meal to prepare?
I could eat Mexican food every day. As far as my favorite thing to make, it depends on the season. I really love making sauces. For example, I make a Cashew Alfredo sauce. For these burgers I made recently, I did a take on a healthier Shake Shack sauce. I also did a Weeknight Bolognese sauce, using coconut milk. I really have fun playing around with sauces and tweaking recipes to make them healthier.
What path did you take to get started?
Growing up, I always loved cooking. I cooked for my family starting in middle school. That was where we spent time together, around the dinner table. I love my family, we’re super close. Spending time with my grandmother in the kitchen together led to me cooking for my family. Those conversations that happen at the dinner table are organic or fun and sometimes difficult, but necessary. Community is what has always happened when you gather around a dinner table, whether it’s with family, friends or people you don’t know.
After I ended my internship at Vanderbilt University, I had a desire to do something on my own, but I had no idea what that looked like. When I became a dietician, I worked at a clinic with women and children. I loved that job. I worked there for almost 6 years. Food has always been my passion. I love healthy eating and educating people on how to eat healthier, whether that’s cooking healthy or talking with them about where they are currently in their lives and what they want to work on to get them there.
While working at my clinic job, I started being a personal chef for people to fuel that creative side. I was looking at my life and thought, if I don’t do what I want to do now, when am I going to do it? Thirty years down the road I didn’t want to look back and ask, where would I be now if I at least tried? Fear can be a hindrance for people who want to start their own thing. I have really great people in my life who told me…this is what you’re passionate about, this is what you love doing. If you don’t do it now, when are you going to do it? So while I still had my full-time clinic job. I started doing dinner parties about once a month. Then I started preparing meal kits for people. I was doing this on the side the last 8 months of my clinic job.
With the meal kit delivery services, there are several out there, but I make gluten and dairy-free dishes and use local farms to get the city collectively to be healthier. I’m all for helping people be the healthiest that they can possibly be. I was working with people who had diseases that required them to be dairy and gluten-free. I also had a period in my life where I lost a lot of weight and I didn’t know what was happening. Come to find out, certain foods affect my body and caused me a lot of pain. I started to have to eat that way. That’s where the business developed from, too.
I wanted to eat tasty, delicious, healthy things. I wanted to make healthy food that wasn’t boring. It doesn’t have to be chicken and broccoli. I mean, I love chicken and broccoli, but you can elevate that and make fun, creative dishes that are fun.
What is your background?
I’m a self-taught chef. I actually entertained the idea of going to culinary school after my dietetic internship, but a couple of my friends in the food world said it wasn’t necessary for my path. I’ve just studied videos, taken online courses and practiced over time.
I did my undergrad at Mississippi State University and majored in Food and Nutrition. My internship at Vanderbilt was a 12-month program. There we had a food service rotation, but I got a very intensive, wonderful education on disease states and how to tailor and make specific meal plans for people. Not only can I create healthy food for people but I actually have the scientific background and knowledge to tailor it if they have diabetes, an autoimmune disease or cancer.
What has been a success within your business? What challenges have you faced?
I love how my business has grown organically. I’m a small business but it’s grown through word-of-mouth. I enjoy getting feedback from people who’ve gotten my meals or from dinner parties I’ve done saying how much they love the food and how much they appreciate me being there so that they can enjoy the evening. I love being able to be a part of people’s homes and the community. I love Nashville.
Building relationships has also been a success in my business. I’ve met people who I would have reached out to otherwise. I’ve made lovely friends and partnered really well with other businesses.
In terms of roadblocks, I feel that no matter how big your business gets, there are always things to be figured out. And that’s okay. Just knowing that things are going to happen and what matters is how you react to them. Knowing when to expand and what hiring looks like is stressful. I love what I do so much, but I also know that I need to start delegating some things to other people. I’ve realized you can’t always do everything by yourself and it’s absolutely okay to ask for help.
For example, I’ve been doing the deliveries. It’s something I just love doing. But, I had two flat tires in two days. And, I’ve had more order than I can get to. Just navigating growth has been challenging.
It’s okay to tweak and change your business. I started out doing a local Blue Apron; I was using ingredients from local farms, but customers would prepare it. I would still make sauces, but the customer who purchased the items would prepare them in their home. I had steady customers and I wanted to grow. I heard through feedback – which is really important – that they loved cooking, but they were so tired at the end of the day, or they only wanted to cook on the weekends. So, I made the move to the fully-prepared meals. I instantly doubled my clientele.
What resources would you recommend for others looking to do something similar?
I get inspired by Bon Appétit. That’s my favorite. Everything they make is beautiful and delicious. And, I can take their recipes and tweak them. I can use coconut milk or ghee instead of butter. Sometimes I make them vegan.
I also love Food52. It’s dreamy. Their recipes are stellar, fantastic. They have a bunch of 30-minute recipes if people want to cook something quick.
Martha Stewart has fantastic instructional videos. For example, how to cut an onion. It might sound silly, but if you need to chop about 40 onions it’s really helpful.
I would also check to see if your local community has knife skills classes. Not being classically trained, I was not the fastest when it came to chopping a tomato or cutting up an onion. Whole Foods and other places have classes, they’re not crazy expensive and it’s worth the money.
Gordon Ramsay also has a paid class. It was a really great tutorial to help you learn classic skills.
It’s good to attend seminars. I went to the FAB event with all of these stellar women who were entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry. It was 2 ½ days of seminars. I met women who had a passion for cooking and they wanted to open their own restaurant one day. I even met the women who own Revelator Coffee Company. It was an amazing experience.
Women entrepreneur groups and classes have been an encouraging part of my life. They helped catalyze me. There’s a group of women in Nashville called the Creative Souls Tribe; there are women entrepreneurs and also women who work a job and have a dream to do something else. Just a lot of creative women who are supportive. It’s a really safe space. Let’s say you have a question about accounting or billing, you can ask it to the group and they can give you a great contact that they’ve worked with. It’s so needed because in the entrepreneur world, people view things as a competition. This group views it as just helping everyone be successful and collaborative. I can lean on this group of women who have experienced what I’m going through.
Do you have any tips or insight to share with someone looking to get started?
I would have loved to have had a business mentor. It would be great to be partnered up with someone who’s solid in their business, who’s been where I am. My brain is all creative and science and food, and not so much the billing and accounting side of things.
To anyone who wants to start a venture, look into resources in your city for mentorship programs. If you see a business and you like what they do, reach out to them. I haven’t had anyone be rude or say that they don’t have time. Everyone has been so helpful and collaborative.
I’m the happiest that I’ve been in a long time. I love being able to create. I love being able to do what I want.
Is there anything else you’d like to share or elaborate on?
There are days that every entrepreneur asks, what did I get myself into? But then you have that small moment, in the grand scheme of things. I’m the happiest that I’ve been in a long time. I love being able to create. I love being able to do what I want. There are highs and lows, but I’m so glad that I’ve done this. It has challenged me in ways I would have never been challenged before. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. But I’m just so happy that I’m doing what l love.
Facebook: Golden Roots Nashville
Do what you love.
Don’t be hesitant to delegate, get feedback and make changes.
Collaborate with others.