Here at LiveMom, we love meeting new moms (and dads) doing interesting things around town. Our monthly features give us an excuse to learn more about these hardworking Austinites.
I was taking a “quick” break from work one day, browsing on Facebook — as you do — and ran across an interesting post on my neighborhood Facebook group. It turns out that a woman in my neighborhood started a business with her husband to take the stress out of getting dinner on the table for busy families. It’s called Dinner Elf.
I don’t know about you, but I remember those days when I actually used to enjoy cooking. I was (and still am) an avid recipe hoarder, and filled my trusty red binder with new recipes. I made a meal plan. I made my weekly grocery trip. I felt satisfied at the end of the day.
Somehow along the way, the joy of planning and shopping for our meals and cooking them disappeared. I do still plan meals, and most weeks I make it to the grocery store without incident, but I’m sad to say it’s turned into a more thankless job. Even working part-time, I find dinners more of a chore than a pleasant part of my day, so I often find myself baffled at how full-time parents make it happen. So, I was intrigued by the business Nicole Vickey cooked up (pun intended) in which a background-checked “elf” arrives at your door with ingredients to make meals you have selected online, cooks and cleans up.
I reached out to Nicole to see if she was willing to answer a few questions from us and found out that Nicole and her husband are behind several start-ups, that their family is new to the area and that they have had their eye on Austin for quite some time as a place to raise their children. Read on to learn more about Nicole and Dinner Elf and enter to win a gift certificate so you can try out the service for your family!
LiveMom: How long have you lived in Austin? What brought you here?
Nicole: I moved to Austin with the husband, Jesse, and our two kids in August 2013. Yes, we are some of those droves of people moving to your lovely city! Austin had been in our sights for a while as a beautiful place to raise a family, but also as a great city to start a company. This is a city of entrepreneurs that go out of their way to support each other.
LiveMom: How many kids do you have, and what are their ages?
Nicole: I have a boy and a girl, one in 4th grade and one in Kindergarten. One of the reasons we were attracted to Austin was that it is still a city where you can affordably live close to downtown, and the public schools are outstanding. My kids have embraced Texas life – bluebonnets, longhorns and all.
LiveMom: What led you to launch Dinner Elf? Do you fall into to the category of someone who likes to cook, or are you someone who would take advantage of a Dinner Elf coming to your house to prepare the meals?
Nicole: Dinner Elf matches busy families with affordable, in-home cooks. You pick dinners off our menu. Your Elf goes to the grocery store and shops, and then comes to your home to cook and clean up. You come home to dinner that’s ready to go.
The company was born out of my own lack of time to gather my little family for healthy, home-cooked dinners during the work week. I love to cook. On weekends, you will always find me in the kitchen with my kids. We love to experiment with recipes or cook up something from our little garden. Both my husband and I work, and weekdays are where we used to have the hardest time accomplishing a healthy and not harried family meal.
I have two kids, but somehow they have become two gymnasts, one runner, one equestrian, one soccer player and a girl scout. Their after-school interests and my work mean we usually get home after 5pm. My husband makes the commitment to be home by 6pm for dinner. Those two hours between 6pm and 8pm are our time together as a family. After the kids are in bed, one of us is usually back to work. We wanted to make the most of those short hours. For us, that means having wholesome food prepared ahead of time by our Dinner Elf, so that during the work week we can sit down to a relaxed and healthy meal and maybe even fit in some basketball or a family walk after we eat.
LiveMom: What are a few of your favorite meals on the Dinner Elf menu?
Nicole: My kids love the English Muffin French Toast. Breakfast for dinner is always a hit in our house, and I like that it is served with a healthy side of roasted blueberries and apples. I top mine with the fruit instead of using syrup. It’s sweet without feeling like an indulgence. Another hit with all of us is the Veggie Burger Sliders. My daughter is a vegetarian, but my son is a meat lover. The veggie burgers are made from scratch with black beans and pass the test with my beef-loving son every time. They are served on King’s Hawaiian rolls, and come with a huge side of my daughter’s favorite veggie: roasted baby carrots.
Our kids take their job as the Dinner Elf taste-testers very seriously. We want our menu to be healthy AND full of kid-friendly choices. My infamously picky 5-year-old ends each meal by telling me whether the dinner earned “exclamation points”. You can thank him for the lack of Brussels sprouts on our menu. On the upside of all their feedback, my kids think it is their professional responsibility to taste new vegetables. If you are reading this and like that idea, I can definitely arrange for your child to join our “official” team of taste-testers.
LiveMom: It looks like you and your husband have co-founded two startups. What has it been like to be in the middle of two small businesses and to work with your spouse so closely?
Nicole: Yes, we started our first company together shortly after we married, back in 2001. We now work on that, as well as on Dinner Elf, together. A lot of people hear that I work with my husband and ask if we’ve hired an in-house marriage counselor! It’s not always easy, but it works for us and we love it. When our kids came along, we found ourselves rarely getting to finish sentences with each other at home. Work is our time to intellectually connect. Jesse might argue it was his tennis game that reeled me in, but I’ve always loved the way his brain works. Dinner Elf is like another baby to us – it does it’s fair share of keeping us up at night, but it such a source of joy and collaboration for us.
LiveMom: If you could plan the perfect “Austin day” with your family, what would you do?
Nicole: We’d start with a walk of the dog around our neighborhood. We live in Northwest Hills, and every morning brings a whole community of dogs and deer out to enjoy the sunrise. We live on a block with a ton of kids, and many of our dog walks turn into impromptu block parties. I love our ‘hood for its strong “front yard” community. We’d head down to Kerbey Lane for a pancake brunch. My picky eater will eat anything in the shape of a pancake. We go to Kerbey Lane once a week. Walking in there feels like an episode of Cheers, with less beer and more pancakes. Then, it’d be on to creek swimming. After an early childhood spent in Florida, my children were delighted to discover that there are no alligators in Austin. You can jump in the creeks and not get eaten! They will jump into Bull Creek, fully clothed, in any season. We’d end the day with a movie at Alamo Drafthouse. Our whole family loves to go early and watch their creatively curated pre-show. There’s nothing better at the end of a hot Austin day than watching a great film over a great beer.
LiveMom: What do you like best about Austin? What would you change, if you could?
Nicole: The thing about Austin that has delighted me the most is how supportive the start-up scene is here. It is a community of extremely creative, wildly intelligent people who go out of their way to share resources with other entrepreneurs. The general sense in this town is that if you help another company succeed, you help Austin succeed and we all win. Customers value local businesses, and go out of their way to support them. It’s a delight to be a local business in this town.
If I could change anything, it would be the summer heat. I grew up in the northeast. While the rest of you are complaining about the ice and cold, I am secretly relishing getting to wear my favorite wool sweater from college.
LiveMom: What might we be surprised to learn about you?
Nicole: I am still not over the fact that we parents have to work over the summer. My parent’s were both school teachers. They had off when we had off. We spent every summer camping and road tripping and barbecuing with neighbors. My version of summer camp was an informal group of kids in our cul-de-sac with a kickball and some popsicles. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but it honestly wasn’t until my two kids got to school-age and I went back to work that it finally sunk in that my little family wouldn’t have the same kind of summer vacations.
LiveMom: What piece of unsolicited advice would you give to a new parent?
Nicole: Be gentle with yourself. The first few years of parenthood are exhausting, emotionally and physically. Babies do eventually sleep. Toddlers do eventually walk without risk of falling over every second. Preschoolers eventually like going to school. The big kids will eventually willingly eat vegetables. If you are in one of those trying and stretched-thin seasons of child-rearing, know it is a season that will pass.
Find tiny little pockets of time for yourself. A ten minute break with cup of tea and a tabloid magazine can do wonders.
Seek the community of other parents, especially ones with children a few years older than yours. They will say annoying things about how you should treasure the stage you are in, but there is wisdom to be gleaned from people who stare wistfully at your sticky baby. As one of those baby-staring people whose kids are getting too big to pick up and snuggle, we would really like to hold your baby for a few minutes while you drink tea and restore yourself reading about the latest antics of Justin Bieber. Sharing the stage you are in helps us treasure the one we are in.
LiveMom: What else might we want to know about Dinner Elf?
Nicole: One of our big company values is to keep Dinner Elf an affordable service. We’re not a fancy, personal chef service. We’re not a service just for working moms. We’re lucky enough to get to cook for lots of brand new parents, thanks to the popularity of our gift certificates as baby shower gifts. We also cook for a ton of amazing stay-at-home moms who have their hands full with little ones (shout out to the mamas of multiples!) and community-changing volunteer work. Whatever the reason, if you need more time in your day, Dinner Elf is a way to skip the grocery shopping, cooking and clean up….and still gather your family for a home cooked family dinner. You can learn more, and use code VIP20 to save $20 of your first order, at www.DinnerElf.com. To be the first to know about specials, coupons and more, you can follow us on Facebook here.
Giveaway: Would you like to win a $50 gift certificate to Dinner Elf? All you have to do is leave a comment or fill out the form below by 9:00 a.m. CST on Wednesday, May 6, 2015 to be entered to win.
Thanks to everyone who entered. The giveaway is now closed, and we have contacted the lucky winner.
The lucky winner must respond to an email to claim this prize within 24 hours or another winner will be chosen. Official rules