When the pandemic hit, Eve Studnicka and Alexis Thomas-Rice saw their dinner events and catering opportunities dry up. Studnicka had operated her Chicago-based underground dining series, Dinner at the Grotto, for approximately four years. It overlapped with her work in a local chocolate shop and at Finom Coffee (now closed).
Thomas-Rice had departed the same shop to pursue her Chicago event catering company, Black Cat Kitchen, full-time. But as the bottom dropped out for their individual businesses, Studnicka and Thomas-Rice joined forces, in a different kitchen. “We’d already cooked a lot together,” said Thomas-Rice.
Less than two years later their virtual restaurant, Funeral Potatoes, was nominated among best local virtual restaurants (offered for delivery only, and perhaps some pickup) in the Chicago Tribune’s Readers’ Choice awards.
And the ghost kitchen where they work is the perfect fit for their business. The rentable kitchen space makes operating Funeral Potatoes cheaper than signing a lease for a brick-and-mortar.
“The first night we cooked together, in the Finom kitchen, there was maybe 10-square feet of countertop,” Studnicka said. “Creating that volume of food was immediately daunting. But a couple of weeks into this project we found a commercial kitchen that was really close to both of our houses.
“It shaved so much time off of our day,” Thomas-Rice said. “Our kitchen is also a day-training center for people with intellectual disabilities. The kitchen rents space by the hour, and we can store all our stuff there.”
The business name, Funeral Potatoes, began as a bit of a joke. “We were both from really small towns and we grew up with neighbors sharing casseroles with people who were going through hard times,” Studnicka said.
This rich, Midwestern comfort food included “funeral potatoes,” with loads of cheese. And, about a year after they started, Studnicka and Thomas-Rice rebranded their company as Funeral Potatoes.
A good majority of dishes the pair offers are freezable. “These hearty dishes lend themselves to being frozen and thawed,” Thomas-Rice said. “We’re trying to fill the niche for people who don’t love cooking for themselves. We also do sandwiches, salads, and desserts that are not frozen.”
Studnicka said Thomas-Rice’s kimchi ranch funeral potatoes, featuring locally sourced kim chee, is a huge customer favorite. Her zucchini bread is a big seller too. Thomas-Rice said her business partner is, “an expert at biscuit-making, with wild boar or duck gravy. They always sell out.”
Additional dishes have included pepperoncini pimento mac and cheese spiked with Hatch chiles, creamy dill pickle soup, grilled mushroom pretzel strata, and Polish sausage gratin. Chipotle Corn Queso Dip, honey roasted beet and herbed barley salad, Gingery Tomato Paneer Pasta and plum and rose cheesecake have also ranked well, among customers. “People love carbs,” Studnicka said.
Photo credit: Eve Studnicka
Photo: Alexis's aged cheddar and dill pickle pasta salad tastes as good as it looks.
Thomas-Rice and Studnicka each create half of their menus. After choosing a new theme for the month, they collaboratively brainstorm about what dishes can speak to what parts of that theme.
“We’ve cooked together for so long at this point that we’re pretty good at filling in the gaps,” Thomas-Rice said. “We’re very much in charge of our own dishes but with a lot of crossovers.”
“We still want to express ourselves, as individuals,” Studnicka said. “I tend to get more creative blocks when it comes to vegetarian and vegan dishes, but Alexis is really good at making vegetables feel luxurious.”
Thomas-Rice said her husband is a pescatarian and was a vegetarian before that. “I wanted our menu to be full of things that he could eat and be a little more accessible,” she said.
Funeral Potatoes fans must plan ahead if they want to enjoy this delicious comfort food. That’s because Studnicka, Thomas-Rice, and two to three part-timers only cook once each week.
Funeral Potatoes accepts delivery orders beginning at 3 p.m. on Sunday, and on Monday. Deliveries take place on Thursday and Friday, between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. There’s a $10 minimum order required and a $5 delivery fee.
The pair likes operating differently from many traditional restaurants. “In recent years, I think the restaurant industry has experienced some toxic work culture, poor pay, etc.,” Studnicka said. “Our business model offers a lot of flexibility and a positive work environment.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for people who are creating businesses where different values are valid. We can thrive and do well without being compliant with only one way to do things in the industry.”
Their business name doesn’t hurt either. “I think we accidently fell into a really memorable name,” Thomas-Rice said. “It’s intriguing and our menus are quirky, fun, and interesting. We really try to keep things fun and not take ourselves too seriously.”
From the beginning of their partnership, Studnicka and Thomas-Rice wanted to benefit the community too. “We didn’t want people like us to not be able to afford our food,” Thomas-Rice said. “For as long as we can, we will give people food.”
Funeral Potatoes customers may access a pay-what-you-can option, by sending a message request via Instagram. In addition, during their first 11 months of operation, Funeral Potatoes raised $7,000 for 14 not-for-profit organizations. “We select [organizations] based on people we believe in, within our community, which align with our values,” Studnicka said.
Studnicka and Thomas-Rice are thrilled with the success of Funeral Potatoes and other unusual food purveyors.
“I think it’s been really awesome to see more grassroots people eking out their totally valid part of the food industry, with more niche ideas to contribute,” Thomas-Rice said.