Hero Photo by Shelly Mosman
Chowgirls owners Heidi Andermack and Amy Brown opened Solar Arts by Chowgirls in the winter of 2014 as a nod to the neighborhood they love and their decades long commitment to sustainability. What began in 2004 as a two-woman catering start-up has grown into a business family of over 100 employees and countless partners, a new cookbook, and an event venue at the Solar Arts Building in the heart of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District.
We recently talked with Maari Cedar James, the director of sales and events at Chowgirls, about the building’s unique characteristics and how they’ve integrated sustainable practices into every aspect of their business.
Pollen: Sustainability is part of Chowgirls’ DNA—from being the city’s first low-waste caterer to using locally sourced foods to the 100 plus solar panels on top of the Solar Arts Building. How did you bake sustainability into your entire operation, and what challenges, if any, are there in running a company with this level of commitment to sustainability?
Maari: Chowgirls is the caterer that has been green from the get-go. In fact, we received our first-ever award from Minnesota Bride magazine in the category of “Best Green Caterer” in 2008. The category didn’t exist and was created to honor our commitment to the environment and community.
Over the years, we’ve developed guidelines to help our company and staff understand what we do to be sustainable and why we do it. We’ve integrated these sustainable practices in everything we do, from our food values and use of local, organic, and fair trade ingredients, to our hard work to reduce waste through recycling and composting.
The result is a business that practices what we preach, and higher quality, fresh, and locally sourced food, crafted with respect for the environment.
There are of course challenges that go with this commitment to sustainability, including helping clients to understand the value of what they are paying for when they pay for sustainable catering goods and services. We focus on seasonal ingredients that are fresh and relevant to what our local vendors and farmers produce. As such, our menu reflects tastes of the season that are true to our values and Midwest regional roots. This comes with seasonal menu limitations, but we believe in handcrafted, authentic fare and you can taste the difference in our catering. We enjoy the creative culinary challenges this presents, and will engage with our clients to meet their needs, while staying true to ingredients that we believe will deliver the best dishes and dining experience.
Pollen: What prompted you to open Solar Arts by Chowgirls?
Maari: Chowgirls has always had a close connection to the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District. We started our business by hosting events for artists and creatives. It was a natural fit to run and manage the Solar Arts space, the top floor of a century-old building, in a neighborhood that we treasure. Plus, the building is self-sustaining; a perfect fit with our core values.
In addition, we had a desire to work with our clients on all aspects of their events, bringing both fine detail and impeccable service to a beautiful space filled with warmth and character.
Pollen: In the 12 years you’ve been in business, you’ve developed countless partnerships with various associations, food and beverage providers, farms, designers, etc. How do you approach partnerships and what benefits are most important to you?
Maari: Chowgirls Catering partners naturally with vendors who inspire us, feed us literally and creatively, and are effortless to work with. Our close relationships have developed through mutual appreciation of good, handcrafted food. We enjoy partnerships with those who hold our same values and commitment to sustainability, culture, beauty, and food. And we believe in giving back! We love to support those business partners, so that they see growth and success too.
Pollen: Solar Arts by Chowgirls serves as a venue for weddings, receptions, and corporate meetings. What are some of your favorite ways clients have used the space?
Maari: We’ve had a wealth of fun, creative, and beautiful events in the Solar Arts by Chowgirls space. A masterpiece of exposed brick, wood beams, hardwood floors, and natural light, the space plays well with intimate weddings and social events, as well as large business parties and public events. Some of our favorites include:
- Design Replace 20th Anniversary Party – MN Invents book launch and Nerf Wars!
- Pop-Up Shops – Northern Grade, Art-A-Whirl, Northeast Farmers Market Winter Market
- Chef Tastings – Beez Kneez Dandelion Honey Pastry Chef Challenge, Minneapolis Public Schools True Food Chef Council, North Coast Nosh
- Adobe Creative Jam – featuring collaborations with local designers
Pollen: With your aesthetic and culinary expertise, clients must often ask for your recommendations as well. What tips do you have for how people can use the space for events, parties, meetings, etc.?
Maari: Utilize the corners of the room! Add elements of whimsy and fun to your event experience, including photo booths, activity tables, and seating vignettes. Solar Arts is warm and open, perfect for creating smaller, more intimate nooks and spaces. We love the low ceiling, a unique find in a warehouse space. This gives the venue a feeling of intimacy and coziness to create truly memorable experiences.
In addition, we highly recommend the integration of food stations at any event, but especially at Solar Arts. These create a delicious and fun activity that is interactive and engaging. Plus, the chefs love showing off their talents!