If you had asked 13-year-old Jalissa Horton what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would have told you she wanted to do exactly what she’s doing now. Jalissa has been cooking for people since turning her parents’ house into a make-shift restaurant as a middle schooler, and throughout her life she has consistently followed the path that led to her goal of becoming a self-employed chef.
Fifteen years down that path, in April 2019, 28-year-old Chef Jalissa started her own catering business, Boujee Food & Things
Every weekend for two years, young Jalissa hosted literally home cooked Supper Clubs where she says, “I would have my friends and family come eat. I made my mom be a server.” She attended the Puget Sound Skills Center during high school, which allowed her to spend half her time working at The Class Act Restaurant, a student-run restaurant in South King County. She then went to Johnson & Wales University where she studied culinary arts and studied abroad in Italy, beginning in Rome and going “all over Tuscany” before spending her last two months in Florence. “That was an experience, learning in Italy. There’s not 20 cooks in the back, it’s just one – not like here where it’s one person to a station. I learned about being disciplined and timely. It took 30 minutes by foot to get to class on time.”
Jalissa worked in the restaurant industry for ten years before going out on her own. “I was tired of working for other people. I always came to work on time, I would catch an Uber to come to work, even if it cost $100. I never wanted to let my team down.” She tried to arrange her work schedule so she could take classes through Business Impact NW to help her launch her own business. “I realized I gotta do this for myself.”
As a part of the Food Innovation Network (FIN), she was encouraged to take one-on-one business classes with Kerrie Carbary, a sustainable food business strategist and business coach working at Business Impact NW at the time. Jalissa participated in the Launch and Grow series as well, which she described as “informative,” adding, “it helped me get a general sense of what it takes to run a business, the necessary details that people gloss over while setting up their business.” Through this process, Jalissa learned, “there are attributes you must have in order to be an entrepreneur: confidence, compassion, commitment, dedication, a sense of urgency, and a willingness to learn what you don’t know.” She also appreciated the experience of the Washington Women’s Business Center’s annual event, Celebrating Dreams, where she was able to network with other women business owners.
Jalissa has found that she’s courageous for choosing to live her dreams. “You gotta be brave, gotta be courageous. If I didn’t have my mom’s support, I couldn’t have done it. It takes working hard; if I don’t, I’d have to go back to working for someone else.”
Jalissa’s mother, Shermoin Clardy, who adds Boujee Food & Things to her schedule of lecturing at University of Washington’s School of Social Work and working with UW’s Parent-Child Assistance Program, continues to support and assist Jalissa as much as she did during the early days of in-home Supper Clubs. “It’s just me cooking, and my mom has helped with everything.”
In addition to her mom, she has other long-term supporters: “I’ve had some people since the good old days. People been waiting on me to start.” Many of Boujee Food & Things’ clients find the catering business through markets, festivals, referrals, social media, or searching specifically for soul food. Jalissa reported, “I had to turn down five people in August…I wish they needed my catering now!” Jalissa’s favorite thing about her job is changing people’s perspective about how food should look and taste, hence her business’ motto: “Simple foods re-imagined.” “I love the reaction of my customers, the food is a surprise. When I grew up, I was exposed to a lot of different cultures: Cambodian, Ethiopian…not just soul food.” The chef infuses that kind of variety into her comfort food rooted in American southern tradition.
Now that market season is over until next spring, Jalissa and Shermoin are “focused on residual income.” In the winter, this residual income comes through catering, offering cooking classes, making prepared meals, and by selling merchandise such as mugs, shirts, and their “Ant Nan” baked goods and condiments line. Boujee Food & Things offers sides for Thanksgiving meals, as well.
Winter also means networking for spring, which helps build a stronger presence at the market and increases brand recognition. Jalissa and her mom are networking every chance they get, such as a recent FIN-sponsored pop-up fundraiser at Boon Boona Coffee in Renton on November 1st, and participating in a minority-owned businesses matchmaking/networking event at SeaTac. Though there are multiple classifications required to be a merchant at the airport, and competition against corporations like Sodexho, Jalissa hopes to open her own airport kiosk in the food-truck area by 2021.
As a woman of color, Jalissa says, “I want to support communities of color, but all walks of life are struggling. …In the next phase of our business, we want to hire formerly incarcerated people looking for a fresh start and who are not able to seek employment from other companies.” The chef and her social worker mother are also committed to supporting people navigating mental health issues, like Jalissa’s brother. “We want to create a legacy, make sure my brother has support if anything happens to me or my mom.”
Part of that legacy includes bringing back Lili’s Supper Club from Jalissa’s middle school days and creating a podcast to pair with it. The Supper Club podcast would have a segment called “What’s on the Agenda,” with themes such as mental health. “We would host meals, prepare foods with ingredients that benefit whatever the agenda is, like turmeric for anti-inflammation.” Guests on the Supper Club podcast will include a community of people talking about the natural ways they support themselves and their health, such as mental health practitioners, instructors from Bastyr University, and Shermoin Clardy herself. It seems like 13-year-old Jalissa already had all the ideas she would need for a lifetime.