If you are looking for Neat Eats while driving down Thompson Bridge Road, don’t blink — if you do, you’ll probably miss it.
The half-baked drive-through is a small — really small — building that essentially sits in the parking lot between Northside Bottle Shop and Animal Medical Care.
But business owner Nicole Kempker said it’s the perfect spot, and exactly what she needed six years ago when she first saw the little building that now serves scratch-made, oven-ready meals, soups, sides, dips and desserts to anybody who wants a fresh meal throughout the week. Holidays are the busiest, so Dec. 19 is the deadline to pre-order meals for Christmas.
“It was really just brainstorming how to move to the next level from just doing catering,” said Kempker. “We were just driving around, looking at different spots to rent and we saw the ‘for sale’ sign — this used to be a little coffee shop — and my husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘That’s where we need to do it.’”
She had gotten out of a 12-year career in insurance after having twins, but still wanted to do something she enjoyed that allowed her time to be with her children. She knew she loved cooking, so she began catering and eventually had the idea to start a little drive-through spot after friends told her they wanted her to cater all their meals.
“I found that there was a definite niche for this,” Kempker said. “People don’t have enough time in their day to do cooking, and make scratch-made food, but they still want to provide that for their family or for themselves, and you don’t always want to go through a drive-through, fast-food, or sit at a restaurant with your small children. You want to sit around your kitchen table, and I feel like I’m definitely providing something that is definitely needed in the community.”
But the change wasn’t easy.
“Going from corporate world to being a business owner with twins. It was a scary, scary jump, but this area has been super supportive, right from the get-go,” Kempner said. “I’ve had clients and customers who have come in and supported me since day one and I’ve never looked back.”
The shop is so small, she can’t cook there. The cooking is done at her home, where she built a professional kitchen off of her basement. It’s full of commercial ovens, stoves and prep tables.
“I always wondered, ‘How does she do all this?” said Katlan Arnold, who works at the shop. “It’s a lot.”
“In order to be able to do this and at this level, that is what I had to do,” Kempker said. “Go big or go home, right?”
So that’s what she’s done. Kempker said she’s put everything into the business over the past six years. She feels so close to Neat Eats that it’s still just her who does all the cooking.
“It’s hard for me to relinquish the control with everything,” Kempker said.
But Kempker is only in control of half of her recipes — as a “half-baked” shop, she sells recipes that are almost ready to eat. The last stretch relies on her customers.
Luckily for them, Kempker has made it easy by putting everything in oven-safe containers and writing directions on the top. All of her meals are ready in an hour or less.
Some of her most popular dishes are shrimp and grits, beef stew topped with mashed potatoes, creamy Tuscan chicken linguini with sun-dried tomatoes and spinach.
“My favorite is barbecue (macaroni and cheese),” Arnold said.
Kempker said all of the soups are hits and the meatloaf “flies off the shelf.”
Her knack for cooking came from growing up sitting around with family in the kitchen, cooking the same way and the same things she does today: comfort food-style.
“And my grandmother lived on a farm,” Kempker added, “so I would go spend summers there, and I just remember sitting on the little stool, snapping beans with her telling me how to do her German chocolate cake or whatever.”
That was in Tennessee, where she thinks she “got the ability to cook Southern-style food” after growing up in Illinois — why you might find some midwest cooking in her recipes from time to time.
She said making Neat Eats successful has been balancing act of being a mother, wife and business owner. Each night, she said, it feels like she gets one less hour of sleep. But she gets up every day because she loves what she does.
“It’s my business and it’s my love,” Kempker said. “It’s my everything. It’s like, ‘How do you not get up and feed your infant at 2 o’clock in the morning when they’re hungry?’ That’s what I’m here to do, and you just make it work.”