When COVID-19 hit Nashville in March, the STF Events and Catering calendar went from packed to blank. With large gatherings restricted to help slow the pandemic’s spread, clients of the Murfreesboro-based business quickly started cancelling their graduation celebrations, wedding receptions, conferences and corporate events.
Over the next several months, area restaurants tentatively rebounded with ramped up carryout and delivery options, but STF chef/owners Eleni Vavouris and Joelle Upton remained stuck on pause.
“The impact was pretty much immediate and early on,” said Upton, who counted Vanderbilt University among her corporate clientele. “In mid-March, one client cancelled, and literally within the next 24 hours 17 more cancelled. We lost 95 percent of our business, and it’s not coming back any time soon.”
In June, Governor Bill Lee rolled out the $200 million Tennessee Small Business Relief Fund, designed to provide financial relief for small businesses, including many minority-owned businesses. Upton applied but was turned down.
“It’s been super frustrating,” Upton said. “The state relief program included a lot of people like barbers and musicians, but they didn’t include caterers. People seem to understand what COVID has done to restaurants, bars and servers, but catering is not really being involved much in the conversation.”
Upton and Vavouris launched Savor the Flavor in 2005, eventually rebranding it with shortened the name, STF. Together for almost 20 years, they are a study in contrasts. Upton, from East Tennessee, is an extravert who typically handles the day-to-day logistics, bookings and client interactions. Vavouris, from a large Greek family in West Tennessee, is an introverted executive chef with an eye for the big picture. The two met while attending Opryland Hotel’s Culinary Apprenticeship program. They married in 2017.
“Eleni and I enjoy feeding people; we love the hospitality side of things,” Upton said. “We work well together and we also have been a good balance for each other during the pandemic. The fact that we are sane and still like each other is testament to our years together.”
During this forced recess, the chefs are focused on their other business, EVO (Eleni Vavouris Originals), a line of small batch sauces and salsas made with fresh, whole ingredients. The line includes salsas in Original, Spicy Roja, Nashville Hot and Smoky Bourbon, as well as a signature Greek Marinade and Chipotle Peach sauce. The products are available online and at a few local retailers, but the chefs hope to take EVO to the masses. They also have other creative ideas on the back burner.
“We have days when we think the catering and events side will come back in 2021 and it will be fine, but then there are other days and it’s like, ‘Let’s sell it all for parts, move somewhere and do something else,’” Upton said with a smile. “Who knows–Eleni has always wanted to make bourbon. Right now, anything is on the table.”