Nonprofit LAUNCH Chefs Learn While Helping Others

By Barry Courter
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) “LAUNCH” provides training, coaching, access to business and capital resources to entrepreneurs. The non-profit also has a focus on serving women-owned and minority-owned micro-businesses and residents of underserved communities.


Most business owners will tell you that running a company requires the wearing of many hats. Restaurant owners, for example, have to know more than just how to bake a pie, or cook a steak. There are planning, staffing, time management and accounting requirements.

They also have to learn how to adapt to unforeseen changes such as a global pandemic.

The Chattanooga-based nonprofit LAUNCH recently kicked off a pilot program and immediately had to rethink it’s original plan and retooled its new kitchen incubator plan to help reach communities in need of food as a result of the effects of COVID-19.

Five new businesses are part of that new initiative and they are taking advantage of the opportunity to help others while learning to run their own food service organization. The five are Pat Rowe, BBQ Rowe and Catering; Mark Holland, Belaire Catering; Christine Nguyen, Mama Crunk’s Pies; Mahogany Hudgins, Wings Top Tots; and Terrence Locke, Chef Express.

In addition to providing meals to at-risk seniors, LAUNCH has also been doing a popup lunch every Friday from 11 a.m. — 2 p.m. featuring items from each of the five.

“So far, I think we’ve provided 12,508 meals to seniors,” said Executive Director Hal Howling.

Nguyen went to culinary school and spent 10 years in the food service industry, so it’s probably not too surprising that she would one day own her own business. She even had the name, or the makings of one since college.

“Crunk music was big and my friends all called me Crunkstine. I just shortened it to Mama Crunk.”

What is perhaps surprising the Pies in the name Mama Crunk’s Pies since she didn’t even start baking the treats until she was home on maternity leave several years ago.

“I love cooking and wanted to have my own business, but I didn’t make a lot of pies. I’m Vietnamese and we don’t make a lot of pies.”

To fill the time while home with her child, she started baking, and she admits the first efforts weren’t that good.

“My first pies were terrible so I became interested in how to perfect it, and eventually decided to make it my niche.

The non-profit LAUNCH was started in 2011 and provides training, coaching, access to business and capital resources and is focused on serving women-owned and minority-owned micro-businesses and residents of underserved communities in Chattanooga.

Nguyen started her business four years ago and has been operating out of first her home, then a couple of shared kitchen spaces and she has been getting business counseling from the Small Business Development Center on Manufacturer’s Road.

She was set to open her own cafe on Brainerd Road near the tunnels when the pandemic hit. LAUNCH, she said provides her a place to practice her baking craft, but also to learn to run a business.

“All of the little things that you don’t even think about, like marketing and branding yourself and understanding what your brand is. You can’t be everything, but you have to play to the market. And, networking, too. I just want to bake, but you have to do so much more.”

She said having other chefs around helps to bounce ideas off of and to share experiences.

Stephanie Steiman is also working with LAUNCH to help grow her Chieman Tea business. Her’s is a fairly classic story. She used to make her chai tea for friends and family who all told her she could sell it.

A stay-at-home mother of four small children, she couldn’t imagine when, or how, she could make that happen. Things changed and she found herself in need of an income so she created Cheiman Tea and set up a booth two years ago at the Chattanooga Market.

Her then 14-year-old daughter, Erika, also a budding entrepreneur, helped by working in the background. After Steiman was diagnosed with Bells Palsy, the two switched roles. Today, Steiman makes a variety of seasonal teas and a decaf version as well and markets her product to some area cafes and shops.

She hopes to take it national in the coming years with the help of what she learns at LAUNCH.

“The first thing I learned from them was about me,” she said. “They helped restore my confidence. They also taught me about my customers. I thought it was all middle-aged moms. Turns out it’s everyone.”

Bowling said that as LAUNCH started looking at the needs of its clients a couple of years ago, food seemed to be a large area of interest for people and when the old Virginia College culinary space came available, a plan was hatched to open an incubator space in 2021.

The pandemic hurried things along as staff realized the space could be used by local chefs to serve meals to people in need and provide them with some income and experience. The 12,508 meals have been distributed to 1,000 seniors with the help of We Over Me and the Chattanooga Housing Authority.

“This was an opportunity to serve the community and it got us in the building,” Bowling said.

Bowling said funding for the incubator comes from grants, local foundations and some consulting his staff does for similar agencies around the country.

He said LAUNCH also works with other non-profits such as CO-Lab, CO-Starters and Proof to ensure that budding entrepreneurs get the help they need.

“We’re not territorial in that way. It’s about making connections in the 
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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