What could be more fun and exciting than gathering friends to enjoy a few cocktails and the thrill of axe throwing? Well, that’s exactly what over 100 Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce members enjoyed at the April Brewing Up Business right here in Nashville! They met at member-owned BATL, the first organization in the world to offer an urban venue for indoor axe throwing. The event was a huge success, as members mingled, made new business connections, took their turns axe throwing, and enjoyed an array of delicious appetizers and desserts provided by long-time Chamber member STF Events & Catering.
STF Events & Catering co-owners, and spouses, Joelle Upton and Eleni Vavouris, marvel at how the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce has grown and matured since its early days. Chamber membership has grown tremendously, it’s established scholarships for educational opportunities for our members, has over 30 LGBT certified business enterprises, and influenced corporate practices and state legislation that impact the LGBT community.
Upton says their business has grown and matured over the years, as well, as they’ve branched out from their successful catering company to producing a collection of salsas and marinades for folks to enjoy with their own cooking. The two women founded STF Events & Catering in 2005, but their relationship with each other goes back a few more years, and their love for food and cooking go back to early childhood.
Upton says her grandparents shared their enthusiasm for locally-sourced food before it was cool! They had several acres of farmland and fruit trees, and Upton spent her summers planting and picking fruits and vegetables, canning goods, and learning to cook them with her grandparents. She carried that love for food and cooking to college, earning a degree in Food Service Management.
Vavouris also developed a passion for food and cooking in her early years, watching and learning from her older relatives on both sides of her family. Her father came from a large Greek family, and they all lived in a Greek community in Memphis, so her paternal grandparents taught her to prepare and enjoy the food of their shared heritage. On her mother’s side, the family’s Southern roots influenced the flavors and techniques of the comfort food Vavouris learned to cook with her Maw Maw.
While her love for food and cooking was unmistakable, Vavouris pursued a degree in Human Environmental Science and planned to enjoy cooking as a hobby. But later, as she expressed frustration with her plan, a sorority sister encouraged Vavouris to pursue her passion for cooking and food and make it her career.
Vavouris and Upton met at Gaylord Opryland Hotel, where they were each pursuing a 3-year culinary apprenticeship. The experience was amazing, but short-lived. The hotel ended the program after their first year, and they both had to make other plans. Upton and Vavouris both moved to Kentucky to pursue degrees in Culinary Arts and Professional Catering from nationally recognized Sullivan University, where they honed their skills cooking as classically trained chefs.
With STF, their goal has always been to combine approachable, comforting, delicious food prepared meticulously and presented beautifully. In fact, clients are so taken by the unique flavors that Vavouris creates that they have repeatedly asked her for recipes. Well, a great chef never shares those recipes, but Vavouris was intrigued by the idea of enabling her clients to enjoy her famous flavors in their own cooking at home. So, in 2017 she launched Eleni Vavouris Originals (EVO).
Vavouris knew that she needed to engage a co-packer, so she could focus on the catering day-to-day, and she was as particular in choosing them as she was choosing the ingredients for her creations. After several test runs together, the team perfected 4 recipes: Original Salsa, Spicy Roja Salsa, Chipotle Peach Sauce, and Greek Marinade. This summer they released two new flavors in their Craft Series: Smokey Bourbon Salsa & Nashville Hot Salsa.
Of course, EVO is a completely different business model than the catering business. In addition to selling the salsas and marinades through local vendors, Vavouris saw an opportunity to sell her products in larger quantities to restaurants and hotels. Upton and Vavouris realized that National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) LGBT Business Enterprise (LGBTBE) certification could provide them an advantage when competing for business with these larger franchises that reserve a share of their contracts for minority-owned vendors.
Former CEO Lisa Howe had been encouraging them for years to certify STF Events & Catering, but the incentive for EVO was far greater. Around the time the NFL Draft came to Nashville, they went through the process and are just awaiting a site visit to finalize their certification and compete for large contracts to propel their business ventures to the next level.
Upton says it was the decision to pursue NGLCC certification that prompted them to be more intentional about attending meetings, networking with other members, and of course catering for the recent Brewing Up Business.
“I’m terrible at networking,” Upton said with a laugh. “I enjoy meeting new people and talking to folks, but somehow the networking label can make it feel weird and forced. But as you get older, you become more comfortable in who you are and what you do. I know our food and service is great and I’m always happy to talk about it.”
Upton and Vavouris are happy to see that Chamber meetings are now more diverse, with women and people of color and transgender people in attendance. Upton said, “I’m also really happy to see and talk to so many people doing their thing in and around the city. Certification is the next step in our EVOlution with EVO and STF. We hope we can help others navigate not only the process of being certified, but also feel welcome and relaxed at Chamber networking events.”
To secure STF Events & Catering for your next wedding or corporate event, please reach out to [email protected] To find a list of retailers offering EVO products, please visit evoriginals.com/where-to-buy.