The pandemic has altered the professional lives of nearly everyone working in the restaurant industry.
Take Alex Dayton and Matt Kappra. Between them, they probably have more than 20 years of experience in restaurant kitchens. Heck, they even met in a restaurant kitchen (Cocina del Barrio, in Edina) and after striking up a friendship, they became brothers-in-law; their wives — Katelyn Dayton and Megan Sheridan — are sisters.
Now they're business partners, and their spouses are contributing their management and marketing smarts. Dayton and Kappra are leasing space in a restaurant — Kieran's Kitchen Northeast in Minneapolis — but they're not following the traditional restaurant model. And that's by design.
"I'm not saying anything new when I say that the restaurant model is tough," said Kappra. "It was tough before the pandemic, and it's become even more difficult."
The two had long talked about going into business together, and decided to use the pandemic-related upheaval as an opportunity to do just that — and to improve their work-life balance. That's often an elusive goal in the stressful, demanding and physically exhausting restaurant world.
Pasta, sold directly to consumers, would be the key. Specifically, fresh pasta, crafted using top-shelf ingredients that are sourced locally and treated with reverence. They christened their enterprise with a spot-on name: Aliment.
"It means, 'to nourish,' " said Dayton. "We just love to cook for people, and make people happy. And we want to be nourished, as well."
Evolution is a major component of the Aliment business plan. When it debuted in July, the company embraced the CSA model, with customers paying upfront for monthly installments. It was a way to raise some much-needed working capital while smoothing out any production kinks.
"We weren't gangbusters-busy right off the bat, but it was enough to get us going," said Kappra. "We're allowing ourselves to constantly reassess and reevaluate without going down a specific path."
From there, they moved to selling pasta by the pound and developing twice-a-week dinner kits, which were available at a few pickup locations and via delivery.
"The only problem was that when we were making deliveries, we weren't making pasta," said Dayton.
Their latest innovation is offering both by-the-pound sales and dinner kits, five days a week, with same-day ordering, from a single, easy-to-manage pickup location. So far, so good.
Dinner in a flash
It helps that their dinner kits are marvels of ingenuity and technical know-how.
The phrase "restaurant-quality experience" has become so widely applied that its meaning has diluted into generic marketing-speak. But not here. Because Aliment's dinner kits are packed with think-like-a-chef touches, they define the "restaurant-quality" benchmark.
One example: For their spot-on cacio e pepe, Dayton and Kappra include a secret weapon. It's a small container of whey — a byproduct of all of the ricotta they produce — and it adds a dash of creaminess and acidity to the classic pepper-and-cheese dish.
But those chef secrets pop up everywhere. That whey also enriches a spectacular Bolognese sauce, its pork and beef essence carefully nurtured for hours on the stove. And Parmesan, shredded and baked to a crackerlike crispiness, becomes a pitch-perfect finishing flourish.
Other pluses? Once the water is boiling, a masterful dinner comes together in about five minutes. The uncomplicated process is made even easier by concise directions, exactly the kind of tutorial that helps get dinner on the table, pronto.
Getting its message out is one of Team Aliment's next tasks. In non-pandemic days, the duo would have set up a stand at a farmers market and offered samples. Social media has helped, as has word of mouth.
"We've learned a lot, moving from the restaurant world into the production and manufacturing world," said Kappra. "The hardest part is getting people to try the product without having a physical space where they sit down and eat."
Crossing the river
Aliment got its start in the workrooms of the former Market House Collaborative in St. Paul's Lowertown. In December, the company relocated to the Food Building in northeast Minneapolis, a hotbed of culinary creativity. The delicious synergies were instantaneous.
"Pasta is the vehicle that can use everything that the Food Building encompasses," said Dayton, rattling off the cheeses, pork products and flours that they tap from fellow tenants Alemar Cheese Co., Red Table Meat Co. and Baker's Field Flour & Bread, respectively. "It's cool to have them right down the hall. It's a fun place to collaborate."
Their most significant partnership is with Baker's Field, which mills heritage grains into flours on a small-batch basis. Dayton and Kappra are reveling in their proximity to such a premium product.
"There can be variations just within one 50-pound bag of flour," said Kappra. "Those nuances open us up to an endless world of possibilities. This super-deep dive into pasta making is really challenging and rewarding, and it's helped us differentiate ourselves in the market."
It also helps that the pasta, which is produced all day long in 6-pound increments, is exceptional: crafted with obvious skill, lovely to look at (thanks in no small part to an earthy color palette) and a joy to devour.
The varieties fall into two categories: extruded and filled. The former include a ribbed rigatoni with a nubby, terrycloth-like finish, ideal for grabbing that robust Bolognese; perky, corkscrew-shaped fusilli, with curvy ridges for capturing a lively ragu; and bigoli, thick, spaghetti-like ropes for the cacio e pepe, its serrated texture designed to hold onto as much peppery cheese sauce as possible.
Unlike the extruded pastas, which are refrigerated, their delicate filled counterparts (ravioli, brimming with spinach and that squeaky-fresh ricotta, and agnolotti, stuffed with ricotta and bacon) are frozen, which helps to maintain their shape.
In the future, Dayton and Kappra hope to add dry pastas to the Aliment repertoire, but that time-consuming process involves investing in equipment and square footage, and they're taking a cautious approach to growth.
"This incubation period has taught us to be patient," said Kappra. "We want to be slow and incremental. The biggest mistake would be to scale too quickly."
Still, they're looking to add revenue streams. One possible avenue is local restaurants.
"Instead of having them spend labor on housemade pasta, they can buy it from us," said Kappra. "We love working with restaurants — we just don't want to work in one anymore."
Aliment Pasta Co.
Fresh pasta by the pound ($12.50 to $20, with a gluten-free option), dinner boxes ($40 serves two, $75 serves four) and lasagna ($35 serves two) are available for same-day pickup at Kieran's Kitchen Northeast, 117 NE. 14th Av., Mpls., alimentpasta.co. Order by noon for pickup between 2 and 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Extruded pasta is also available at Wise Acre Eatery, 5401 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., wiseacreeatery.com.