A classic Madison location that for decades was associated with Rennebohm’s drug store is undergoing a transformation that will soon make it a hub of locally produced food.
Pasture & Plenty, 2433 University Ave., is a combination restaurant, market and home delivery service that provides ready-to-eat meals and meal kits, the latest entry into the farm-to-table food wave sweeping southern Wisconsin.
Christy McKenzie, who has years of experience as a cook and in curating recipes, believes the time is right for a new option aimed at those who want to eat well and have the money but don’t have the time or ability to properly cook. She’s also looking for customers who embrace community-supported agriculture and connecting with local growers but may be overwhelmed by the time it can take to make meals from scratch and the quantity of the items that arrive in each week’s box.
McKenzie and five other investors are so confident in the business plan they’ve spent $925,000 to purchase the 3,600-square-foot building that will be remodeled to hold her business, as well as a neighboring home that came with the property.
The plan calls for spending about $200,000 to remodel the commercial building both inside and out to give it a more prominent profile at the intersection it shares with Lombardino’s restaurant and Barrique’s coffee and wine shop. McKenzie plans to spend another $150,000 to $200,000 on the business that will ultimately employ eight to 10 people and have space for a basement production facility and room for other tenants with complementary businesses.
“I think more people are concerned about (food) connections and are more thoughtful about those connections as they make their economic decisions, but at the same time they’re buying from Amazon and looking for home deliveries,” said McKenzie, 36, who grew up near West High School and now lives in the Westmorland neighborhood. “They’re looking for things that add convenience and allow them to free up their mind and time to focus on other things.”
McKenzie is hoping to capitalize on the growing segment of meal-kit providers that in 2016 had $1.5 billion in sales and is expected to continue to grow, according to Packaged Facts, a market research publisher. The Food Marketing Institute reports that convenience food sales are outpacing other grocery departments, with prepared meals up 10 percent over 2015. The FMI also reported that 17 percent of consumers purchase fully prepared meals, while 40 percent purchase pre-cut vegetables and fruit.
Pasture & Plenty will initially be housed in the former Sushi Box location that closed in mid-July and will begin offering rotisserie chicken on Wednesday nights beginning Aug. 9. In early September, McKenzie will launch a pilot meal program for 50 customers followed by a pig roast on Sept. 10. The business plan also calls for a demonstration kitchen, walk-in grab-and-go items and other locally produced food products, wine tasting and food pairing events, special programs featuring food experts and a program that delivers lunch and offers catering services to businesses.
“The idea is to create immersive events,” McKenzie said. “I think the community is ready for this. We’re giving them many different ways to experience it beyond what is already here.”
Over the past few weeks, McKenzie has also had a food stand at Concerts on the Square, offering boxed dinners prepared at the FEED Kitchen on Madison’s North Side. Offerings have included chicken and salad, and a vegetarian barbecue sweet potato sandwich with shredded carrots and onions that some customers swear includes pork.
While at UW-Madison, where she studied rural sociology and community economic development and food systems, McKenzie worked as a server in local restaurants, spent time at a bed-and-breakfast and at Whole Foods, and was a pastry chef at L’Etoile and a demonstration chef at Sub-Zero and Wolf. McKenzie moved to Seattle in 2004 where she worked at Tully’s Coffee Corp. and later at Allrecipes, a food-focused social network, where she worked in international development and helped lead consumer research, marketing and sales operations for the launch of Allrecipes into 18 countries.
McKenzie, who is married with two young children, moved back to Madison in 2014 to join a start-up national consumer promotions company and is still working full-time as a director of account management. She has been planning to open her own food business since she was 14 years old.
“I started cooking at home and really was inspired by a neighbor who is probably one of the best home gourmets I’ve ever met. And her husband was a wine collector,” McKenzie said. “I really developed an affinity of being in the kitchen, and I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.”