If you start a food business, most would assume that you want it to become the biggest, most-talked about thing going, but not for Hetty McKinnon. The Australian-born chef came to food late in her career and wasn’t looking to takeover the industry; instead, she wanted to put the people of her community at the heart of what she created.
“We were living in a beautiful inner-city neighbourhood in Sydney and I just fell in love with the community,” says Hetty. “I really wanted to give something back. I knew I liked cooking, but I’m not a trained chef and I didn’t have much experience other than cooking for my family. But I thought, if I can make delicious food at home, I can put it in some boxes and deliver them around the neighbourhood.”
And so her salad delivery service, Arthur Street Kitchen, was born. The idea wasn’t to be the leading salad supplier in Sydney. For Hetty, it was about creating connections and sharing something she loved with people face-to-face.
Her biggest challenge was keeping the business small. “I made a conscious decision not to promote the business. I didn’t want press, I just wanted people to really love the food and service, and to come to me because of that.” But despite her best efforts, soon, Hetty was turning down around 100 orders a day.
“I remember there was a new customer and she tried to order a couple of times, but she’d always be too late. Sometimes the orders would sell out in 10 minutes! It was all via email. There was no app, the menu was sent out manually to an email list every Wednesday and I would personally sit and write down all the orders. When the lady finally got her order placed fast enough and I delivered it to her, she told me she didn’t understand why I didn’t just hire more people. I explained that wasn’t something I wanted to do and after two or three weeks, she finally told me that she understood why I did it. She said it was different and special. She realised the smallness was the special part of the business.”
After growing to capacity, on some days, Hetty would load up her bicycle and hand-deliver as many as 80 salads around the neighbourhood, all cooked in her home kitchen, making sure to stop-in on each customer. “People became friends, dear friends, and some of them would even call me mum! There was such a deep connection because you nurture someone when you cook for them. My deliveries took such a long time, because I would chat with everyone. We’d talk about life and love and careers, all over the exchange of food.”
The difference Hetty was making to her community became apparent when she interviewed Matt, one of her first customers, for her self-published, best-selling recipe book, Community. “We became very good friends and I had no idea about his story until he told it for the book. His mother had passed away not long before my business started, and the salad deliveries meant so much to him because he was getting home-cooked food again. It’s stories like that that made me realise how important what I was doing was.”
After three years delivering salads and making great friends in Sydney, Hetty and her husband, along with their three children, decided to move to Brooklyn. “My husband is a lawyer and he was offered the opportunity to move. I’d always wanted to live in New York and almost because of the success of the business in Sydney – it was getting out of control! – the timing felt right. I saw moving as an opportunity to run away and start it all again.”
But bringing the business to Brooklyn came with its challenges. “There were big cultural differences. People in Australia appreciate smallness and a direct chain with the cook, whereas in America, people are impressed by bigness, by change. When I was doing deliveries in Brooklyn, people didn’t accept the food themselves. They would ask me to give it to their cleaner or leave it on the doorstep. I never had that in Australia; people would always come to the door, take the food from you, and have a chat – it was a much more of a personal exchange.”
That’s when Hetty started Neighbourhood Studio, a communal cooking, dining and photography space in Brooklyn, alongside her friend, chef and food stylist, Jodi Moreno. “The sentiment is the same,” says Hetty. “We host dinners, events and pop-ups to bring people together who have a shared love of nourishing food and making connections. I do miss that exchange of the salad box, but from a personal point of view, I always like to feel very satisfied with what I’m doing, and I didn’t feel that delivering salads in Brooklyn. We set up Neighbourhood Studio and I’ve never looked back!”
Before setting up the studio, Hetty followed up her first recipe book, Community, with Neighbourhood, which documents Hetty’s journey through the world, in salads. “When I first moved to Brooklyn, not knowing anybody, whenever people asked me to do something I’d say yes, and I’d invite them to my house to share a meal. There’s something about eating at someone’s dining table; instantly you feel more connected, you feel like you know a person after you’ve been in their home. I can remember almost every single thing that I’ve cooked each of those people because they were such important meals for me.”
Earlier this year, Hetty released her third and most recent recipe book, Family. “This book is also a reaction to moving to a new place in the world. Being in Brooklyn, being far away from my mum and family, being far away from the culture that I grew up in, I found myself reaching more for nostalgic food and flavours, so this book is filled with them. It’s ‘vegetable-driven’, but it’s presented in a way that’s very comforting, which is what family food is at the end of the day.”
So what can we learn from Hetty about making friends and the importance of community? “I discovered this first-hand,” says Hetty. “I didn’t go out thinking I could make friends through food – particularly salads! But food is a great common denominator; everybody is equal when it comes to food. You can come from disparate cultures; you don’t have to understand where people are from, but if you have a conversation around food you can really understand one another.”
For more foodie inspiration follow Hetty on Instagram @hettymckinnon