As she adapts to COVID-19, entrepreneur Michelle Parrish ’01 stays true to her mission
Michelle Parrish’s grab-and-go brick-and-mortar food prep company has been marinating for a long time. Food has always been front and center for the class of 2001 Williston graduate.
In 2017, after she took a business class offered by the city of Richmond, Virginia, she started Soul N’ Vinegar as a catering company, the name a nod to her African-American and Korean heritage. The following June, with the help from two federal SEED grants, she converted a brick 500-square-foot former beauty salon in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond—a designated food desert—with the goal of selling affordable, healthy food to residents.
“I grew up poor,” she said from her sunny apartment in Richmond where her two COVID-19 cats, Tamari and Mirin, gazed out the windows. “I don’t think I realized how poor I was until I was an adult.” But poverty didn’t take away from what was on the table growing up in Chicopee, Massachusetts. “We always had good food. So, in my in mind, I’m definitely one of those people that feels like if you have good food, you’re living. What more can you ask for?”
Her food has been a hit. Eaters delight in healthy meals, often vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free, such as her gochujang glazed fried chicken sandwich and vegetable spring rolls with chili oil. “It’s part of my responsibility as a citizen of the planet to use my skills for good. And so, I’m the cook!”
Building on her success, in October of 2019, she opened a satellite in the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. It was only five months later that the museum—and the world—shut down because of the coronavirus.
Parrish adapted. She turned her tiny eatery in Church Hill back to a catering outpost, bringing the COVID-safe party to events around the city, and sold grab-and-go meals out the back door. “I don’t know if my business would have survived if it wasn’t in Richmond,” she said. “Richmond is a very welcoming city. It’s a very collaborative place.” The restaurant community there has organized pop-ups and special events, such as Vegan Week and Black Restaurant Week.
She also is in the process of moving to a new location, with more than twice the square footage, down the block in Church Hill. COVID-19 woes and world events have not made the transition easy. “We are not able to get the equipment we need because it’s stuck on a ship somewhere. And if we can get something it’s three times more than what we have the budget for.”
She’s hoping to open sometime in 2022. Meanwhile, she’s staying focused on her mission to bring nutritious food to a broad swath of people, a goal that has significant barriers. “A lot of people, when they hear healthy food, they think, ‘It’s not going to taste good. It’s going to be expensive.’ And the shop is in a neighborhood that is rapidly undergoing gentrification.”
Parrish wanted to make sure that potential customers “can walk in and they won’t be put off because I’ve put words on a menu that they don’t know,” she said. “Nobody should be intimidated by food, ever. There are so many other barriers already. So that’s our main thing: making sure that we are approachable.”