Jennifer Johnson & Serafina Palandech are partners in life and business: the duo co-founded Hip Chick Farms, a small batch company that fills a real need: chicken fingers, meatballs and wings that are quick-frozen minus hormones and fillers. Johnson brings culinary experience to the mix and Palandech's background is in event planning. Anyone who’s ever felt guilty over the “I’m a busy parent, here’s another quesadilla” dinner routine may find relief and surprisingly good—even for adults--flavor in Hip Chick’s products. The company’s Kickstarter campaign says it well: “Our goal is to raise, process, and distribute our chicken products and manage the process from beginning to end. There are no preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, or filler in our products, and by freezing them, we can ensure their quality and purity. With your help, we can fulfill our goal of providing families with products kids will love that are lovingly made -- from the way the chicken is raised to the way we cook them.”
Chef Jen Johnson’s current full-time gig is cooking for the Getty family in San Francisco while Palandech manages many of the operational aspects of Hip Chick Farms. While it is a Bay Area start up, the couple are also gearing up for the next round of growth that may likely include funding from investors.
June is LGBT Pride Month and there is so much energy focused on equal rights for the LGBT community right now, especially in California. The Supreme Court is set to rule on Prop 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban this month as well as DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), the federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. Regarding employment, professions that have been slow to open the closet doors are gradually yielding to the pressure and challenging homophobia within their systems. With that in mind, I asked Johnson and Palandech about their experiences. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Bay Area Bites: Chef Jen recently met President Obama via her work as a private chef in San Francisco. What was that like?
Palandech: President Obama came to a fundraiser at the home Jen cooks at a couple of months ago. Jen was invited to meet the President and have her picture taken with him, and carefully considered what she wanted to say to him. We love the President and his family, and are happy that he supports pro-gay marriage. When she met him, she said “Mr. President, my wife and my daughter and I love you and your family.” She had her photo taken with him, and as she was leaving, he pulled her back in and said “Hey, you tell your wife and daughter, 'hi' from the President.” He got it!
Bay Area Bites: How did you two meet?
Palandech: Jen and I met at a fundraiser in San Francisco over five years ago. Three months prior to our meeting, my best friend came over to my house, and told me all about this amazing woman she had met the night before at the Lexington Club. My friend was convinced that this women was “the One” for me. At the time, I was in a relationship and was unwilling to hear anymore about it. A few months later, this same friend and I went to a fundraiser and met Jen. Jen and I immediately connected in an intense way. At the end of the night, my friend remembered where she had met Jen before -- and we realized that Jen was “the One” she had met months ago. My friend was right -- she was the One for me. I went home from that night, broke up with the person I was with, and we were engaged three months later.
We have been married for four years and had our daughter, Rubyrose, almost three years ago. After we moved from San Francisco to our lovely little farm in Sebastopol, we started Hip Chick Farms. We wanted to live our beliefs about sustainable food systems and make a line of products from Jen’s amazing recipes made with impeccable ingredients. We love working together. It is intense and amazing and really hard work. But we are really proud of what we have built together in the past year and a half.
Bay Area Bites: How do you support each other at home and in life?
Palandech: Gosh, I’m Jen’s biggest fan. I just think that she’s amazing and such a creative talented person and she works so hard. We have this shared vision of what we want our lives to be like and we’re taking this big risk together. It’s really stressful and we just try to support each other through this -- she’s commuting and working a full-time job while we have Hip Chick Farms. We try to take care of each others’ strengths and weaknesses. When I get stressed out, she calms me down and I do the same for her. Our ultimate goal is that we’re all together.
Bay Area Bites: You two are building a business together and recently traveled to tradeshows. What is it like to market and promote yourselves and your product?
Palandech: We really believe in transparency with our business. It’s important to us for people to know that we are a family business. It’s not like it’s a priority to be a "gay business" but it’s the truth that that’s what we are.
We’ve gotten really positive feedback. With Jen’s amazing background people are impressed. It’s important for them to know where the product is sourced. Having Hip Chick Farms has really been positive experience. For us, that’s been wonderful.
We went to the UNFI tradeshow in Portland for a major natural food distributor. People love it and get what we’re about there. The other show was for Tony’s Fine Foods, which was different and more mainstream, and interesting. People like that Hip Chick Farms has a natural product and seem to respond really well to the fact that there’s real people behind it. We haven’t really gotten anything negative around it -- and we’re promoting it as a family business.
Bay Area Bites: What is a typical week like for you with Hip Chick Farms?
Palandech: I work from home and for a typical week, I am managing the manufacturing and work really closely with the factory as well as the people providing the ingredients. There’s a lot of selling in my job: talking to stores, and doing product demos, which are a very important part of our business right now. We have to meet and educate our consumers and tell people our story. I’m doing sales calls, and on the manufacturing side, I’m working with our distributors.
Bay Area Bites: You two have a young daughter and are still building a business. What’s that like?
Palandech: I have a lot of meetings while I’m holding her in my lap. I’ve had potential investors come in since we’re trying to raise capital. As a startup, we’ve bootstrapped our financing to date so now we’re trying to generate investors. We place so much value on being together as a family. I think it’s hard to do it all and it’s really important to me for our daughter to be a part of this as much as possible. My mom was just here for a week visiting from up North. For the Tony show, my Mom stayed with Rubyrose, our biggest fan.
Bay Area Bites: What was it like for you coming out professionally? When did you do it? What was your job at the time? Have you noticed a change over time?
Johnson: I basically came out when I started working at Chez Panisse in 1991 at age 24. As you can imagine, I was met with open, loving arms at work. At home, coming out to my family was definitely more challenging and terrifying. I think working in the Bay Area and working with people who really believe in sustainable cooking and living -- they tend to be a lot more open-minded then maybe other restaurant cooks that are less about the food and more about the show...in more macho kitchens is where I saw a lot more homophobia. So, I basically knew in my gut to stay far away from those kitchens and restaurants. I truly feel that when chefs are connected to their food and where it was raised or grown they just naturally tend to be more open-minded and welcoming -- "family table," come one, come all. Since 1991, the changes have been mind-blowing and yet there still needs to be more change, more awareness, and more tolerance!
Bay Area Bites: What are your favorite places to eat and drink?
Johnson: We live In such a glorious bubble that I feel like most or all restaurants are very open and welcoming of all clientele. I tend to eat at the same places (which is not often): Zuni, Chez Panisse, Tosca for drinks, and Tomasso's. I also seek out hole-in-the-wall dive bars and am always trying to find the best pho and spring rolls in town!
My gorgeous wife and our adorable three-year-old daughter just celebrated Pride in Guerneville by walking in the parade with a bunch of queer families. I had to laugh and reminisce that prior to being a “wusband” and parent, gay Pride weekend was always a blast and ended with a pretty good hangover! I love my life and I love how I've been able to celebrate my life in so many different wonderful crazy ways. Professionally, me being present and being my authentic self is my way of celebrating my gay Pride every day!