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Meet Michelle Garcia and Aniedra Nichols of Heirloom Catering in Curtis Park

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michelle Garcia and Aniedra Nichols.

Michelle and Aniedra, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
The saying, “Colorado Proud” rings true with Heirloom Catering and One Box Project Founder and CEO Michelle Garcia. As a Denver native, she grew up on an urban farm and those childhood years framed her philosophy regarding food sourcing and supporting local food purveyors. Growing up the oldest of five, Michelle had a lot of responsibilities and started cooking with her mother and grandmother when in the second grade. She was her mother’s prep chef – peeling potatoes, chopping onions, mincing garlic, learning how to read recipes, scaling and basic baking skills. Michelle’s grandmother, Lala, was from Mora, New Mexico and taught her to make scratch-made tortillas, chilies, homemade pinto beans, Spanish rice, all the while Lala would sing in Spanish and they would dance their way across the kitchen. Lala was a singer at El Chapultepec, also lovingly known as “The Pec,” one of the oldest jazz bars in the country. Music, arts and food were the cornerstones of Michelle’s family culture.

From Home to Farm
Michelle began her career in greenhouses and managing crops on farms. It was here that Michelle learned about Heirloom plants, companion planting, and how seeds are passed down from generation to generation. Understanding the greater value of pollinators, Heirloom seeds are open-pollinators, meaning they rely on natural pollination from insects or wind. She fell in love with the beautiful vibrant colors, the racing strips and gorgeous blooms. This education grew her first passion for the culinary arts. After growing tomatoes and understanding the undeniable comparison to conventional grown tomatoes, there was no turning back! The obvious transition would be the culinary arts and where the company name came from. Michelle worked at Cook Street School of Culinary Arts and planned to attend their professional program; instead thought it was a more “adult decision” to study nutrition and become a registered dietitian. After studying nutrition at Metropolitan State University of Denver and working towards an internship to become a registered dietitian at Sky Ridge Medical Center, she realized that change does not occur on a grand governmental level.

A Recipe for Change
Public awareness has grown in recent years about the unethical conditions inherent in the American food system. Michelle set out to create a whole new way of educating and engaging people in food sustainability.  She sought to create change in our community by supporting local merchants, farmers, ranchers, and artisan food makers. Thus, following her dream of providing high-quality meals one dinner table at a time. Founded in January of 2014, Heirloom Catering specializes in healthy, flavorful and locally-sourced cuisine. The company’s mission is to purchase local products whenever possible. Heirloom Catering continues to cater small dinner parties, large weddings and celebrations, and corporate events.

Food has always been an integral part of Aniedra Nichols’ life. She has fond memories of cooking with her mom and grandma, rich with Scandinavian tradition. Holidays were about baking, cooking, eating, and enjoying life. One upside to having a military mom was being stationed in the Azores, a small archipelago off the coast of Portugal. This exposure to different food traditions and flavors stoked her curiosity for the culinary arts.

That curiosity carried through into her college years as she sought to decide her future. In her early 20s she found herself working at a Swiss luncheonette and bakery called Andre’s in Cherry Creek. As she would say, “There wasn’t a job in that restaurant that I didn’t do.” From baking to waiting tables, serving to managing staff, food prep, she cut her teeth in the food industry at Andre’s Confiserie Suisse. It was there that she decided she wanted to go further and hone her skills in the culinary field and chose to enroll at Johnson and Wales University.

Upon completion of her program, she worked at the notable Fourth Story restaurant in the old Tattered Cover building in Cherry Creek, followed by Mel’s and Bistro Vendome before settling in at Elway’s for the better part of the last decade. There she earned the title of Executive Chef and became one of Denver’s up-and-coming female chefs, demonstrated by her 2014 and 2015 participation in the “who’s who” of the culinary scene, The Denver Five. As well as receiving James Beard recognition for one of top 25 dishes of 2015 and cooking at the James Beard House in 2011, 2014 and 2015. Always looking to keep her interests high and finding new challenges, Aniedra parlayed her career into a few new ventures, leaving Elway’s to help establish two new eating spots in RINO, before settling in as the new Executive Chef for Heirloom Catering in Denver.

Why the sudden change from brick-and-mortar restaurants to the uncertain and ever-fluctuating landscape of catering? Simply put, “I can be more creative!” Without a set menu that has been memorized by heart, one is forced to dig deep into their own ideas and flavor palate to come up with something that the customer will truly enjoy.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
For any small business owner the word, “smooth,” is not how I would describe the journey. As one of my business mentors said in the early years of Heirloom Catering, “it’s a marathon and not a sprint.” When we hit road bumps, I have to remind myself of that.

Unfortunately, we have had crises we have had to deal with for the last several years: two surgeries within 90 days in 2016 and I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease last year. Both slowed our business for one quarter of the year. With that being said Aniedra stepped into a leadership role to help save Heirloom Catering. We still finished the year 3% higher than the year prior. Now in 2020, I don’t really need to go to deeply into this year’s crisis. We are all in it together in some way. We started the One Box Project to get us through this difficult and uncertain time.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Heirloom Catering – what should we know?
I am most proud of our relationships with local small businesses. Heirloom Catering specializes in two things. First, supporting farmers, ranchers and artisan food markers. Second, we specialize in being inclusive. What inclusivity means to us is, we create menus from the lense of the vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free guests and build from there. Inclusivity means that all the guests can enjoy the meal without feeling excluded. We are a minority owned and operated business and we also create a warm and welcoming environment for all our guests. From people of color to the LGBTQ+ community, all are welcomed with open arms. We are here to serve our community with pride! We are launching the Heirloom Café tomorrow June 11th, 2020! Please check out our Facebook Page for more details! Yay!

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
I often say that a person is not successful by walking the path alone. In the fall of 2013, I enrolled in the “BootCamp” program via The Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute. Through that program I truly began to understand what it means to have mentorship which generally turns into supporters, cheerleaders, advocates and clients. Through that community we gained Xcel Energy as a client. Over the years I have been overwhelmed by the continued support of our Denver community. In the early days, everything from showing up to load vehicles, doing dishes, financial advice, marketing, delivery, referrals and even our logo was created by a wonderful mentor. Honestly, the list is long and vast, I do have to thank one very special mentor. Her name is Beth Parish, and she has been a true champion of Heirloom Catering from day one!

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