Rebeca Tuinei, Founder of NALA’s Kitchen, has always had a creative streak. She recently told Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about how her entrepreneurial journey brought her from the music studio to her home kitchen.
NAN PRICE: Your career started in the music industry. At what point did you realize you wanted to start a home delivery food service?
REBECA TUINEI: For me, music and food always combine with each other. It’s like how painting involves colors and textures. And, like food, if the frequencies in music don’t mesh well together they’re not going to make sense to you and they’re not going to make you feel a certain way.
I started the NALA’s Kitchen because I enjoy creating food. I love having the freedom to create different menus every week. NALA’s Kitchen allows me to be creative and showcase skills learned from my past mentors.
NP: With regard to your music career, can you share your “2 seconds of fame story?”
RT: Of course! In the Andre 3000 song “Hey Ya” when Andre says, “Hey ladies” and you hear “ya” that’s my voice. I was in the room when he needed a female to say “ya” so I did it—and I’m so thankful for that day.
NP: Let’s talk about your culinary background.
RT: I went to Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas over 20 years ago and earned Associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts. I helped open the Wynn Casino in Vegas—that’s where I really started to build my resume. I learned authentic rustic Italian, how to make real French pastries, and overall fine dining.
When I first moved here, I worked at Grants Restaurant and Bar. The owner, Billy Grant is a good person to work for. I still contact him now with questions. So he’s become somewhat of a mentor for me.
NP: Did you always have an entrepreneurial drive?
RT: I always wanted to own my own business.
RT: Officially it was July 5, 2017. I did a soft launch in April and just kept building. It was all word-of-mouth and the referrals kept pouring in.
I was a full-time chef plus cooking for NALA’s Kitchen. I thought: Something has to give. And I knew I’d rather be doing something I’m more passionate about. Someone told me you need to take the things out that drain your energy and keep the things that energize you. NALA’s Kitchen is what energizes me. I would be up to 2:00 a.m. making food, but was happy cooking my creation.
NP: How does the service work?
RT: I send out weekly menus on Thursdays and my clients tell me what they want by Saturday. They can choose meals for an entire week or just a couple days of the week. I’m very flexible.
NP: You’re managing a lot of moving pieces. How is that?
RT: It’s pretty easy. I’m used to running kitchens and I’m able to cost out food out and do all of the money management. I like being hands-on, so when I do expand I will be able to train my staff how I would like it done.
NP: Speaking of money, have you gotten any state funding?
RT: Not yet. A big portion of the funding was from the “Hey Ya” song. With the money I received, I was able to get everything I needed to do a full business launch.
NP: It seems like a big transition going from being a chef to being a business owner.
RT: It is. I’m in the process of trying to finalize all the business operations. Right now I’m looking into a kitchen space because I’m at my max in my home kitchen. I know I could cook 10 times faster if I had a real kitchen. I am looking to stay in West Hartford because it has a nice town feel.
NP: How are you marketing?
RT: I made an announcement on Facebook’s Friends and neighbors in West Hartford page. The word-of-mouth has helped tremendously.
I want to do a Yelp page, I think that could help a lot. I am actually doing fun challenges—if you take a picture of yourself with one of the meals prepared by me and post it on NALA’s Kitchen Facebook page you’ll get 20% off your entire next order. I’ve also been going to the local farmers markets and doing a demos on my cooking techniques. The marketing definitely taps into another realm of my brain.
NP: Do you have clientele already?
RT: I do. I cook for about 20 people right now. It keeps growing. One person went to five in April and from that five it keeps branching out. And this is with no advertising.
NP: You’re in West Hartford. Does location factor into what you’re doing? Are all of your clients fairly local?
RT: Yes. They’re all kind of in the same area in West Hartford. I’m trying to branch out from that and see who I can reach in the 20-mile radius.
NP: What do you foresee for the future? Do you plan to have employees? Open a storefront?
RT: Definitely. I think that’s always a dream in the food and beverage industry—to have an establishment that you can say is yours.
That’s what I wanted originally, to have a storefront for NALA’s kitchen. Right now I just want to focus on doing the home delivery and building up that clientele, and then eventually branch out to have a storefront.
I always wanted a restaurant but then I realized the amount of time that is needed to run that. I did all that. That’s why I kind of pulled back and found that I could do this on my own time and on my own terms, which is great for me because I love cooking—but I only want to cook what I want to cook! My motto is “GOOD food for busy LIVES.”
NP: This is a good way to test your business assumption—like you, said build a clientele and build slowly.
NP: Let’s talk about giving back. I understand you’re involved with some mentoring.
RT: Yes. I mentor high school students from Prince Technical High School in Hartford who are interested in the culinary field. We work side-by-side. I teach them about cooking, timing, plating food, and pairing flavors. For me the best way to show you have learned a skill is by teaching others. I will always share my knowledge; the catch is you have to ask me.
NP: Any advice for other people who are launching startups?
RT: I would say start slowly and then see what the feedback is. That’s why I decided to start with home delivery. It’s been a good way for me to test the market. That’s important, especially with the restaurant industry because the percentage of failure is very high.
NP: What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
RT: It means being your own boss. Taking that one idea you really love and seeing what goes into it to make it become not a dream but a reality.
Another reality for me is writing my autobiography. I feel like there’s a lot of male perspective from the kitchen. So that’s what I’m working on, kind of like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential from a female perspective.
NP: And when do you plan to publish this book?
RT: Hopefully soon. I’m on chapter one.
NP: You’re ambitious!