On a Sunday in March 2019, chef Raquel Ervin gathered nearly 100 friends and family at Hoover Randle Home & Gardens knowing full well, at some point that evening, they would be disappointed.
They were there for a watch party – to see Ervin, her sister Regina and niece Alexandria compete on Food Network’s “Family Food Showdown” against two brothers and their dad.
Team Raquel did not win.
A brief moment of shocked dismay at the outcome ultimately did not spoil this party. In fact, the consensus in the room was that if those brothers hadn’t started crying – well, then, things would have turned out differently.
Ervin certainly didn’t cry.
This is a young woman who is more apt to raise up her church choir-trained voice in gratitude for her opportunities. This is a young woman who knows there’s always another challenge and, even if that challenge is a pandemic, she’s going to meet it head-on.
Ervin was just days away from signing a lease on a restaurant space when the state began to shut down businesses because of the coronavirus. She had two weddings scheduled that weekend, with another two prepped for the following week. She had a catering contract with the Southwestern Athletic Conference to feed players, coaches, officials and others during the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Birmingham.
Then everything stopped.
“My plan was to do the brick and mortar first, which would allow me to have a steady clientele,” she said. “Then I was adding the truck the next year. So, I basically just flipped it and said, ‘Let’s do the truck now because this is what makes the most sense. This is where the demand is. People are at home, take it to them.’”
And with that Ervin rebranded her business and kept it moving forward. Literally.
For days before this executive chef and owner took her Eat at Panoptic truck on the road, she teased her fans with mouthwatering, close-up photos of her gourmet sliders. One day it was the PB&J burger with smoked bacon, creamy peanut butter and a housemade blackberry-habanero jam. Another day, she showcased the 2 a.m. burger topped with hash browns and a fried egg.
Then it was the Porky Pig with layers of smoked bacon, country ham and Conecuh sausage. Her crabcake sliders are pan-seared to order and topped with a house remoulade. There’s a barbecue chicken slider with a savory Alabama white sauce and another chicken option with homemade pesto aioli.
By the time she debuted her 12-hour beef brisket, artfully layered onto a Martin’s potato roll and topped with melted American cheese and a tangy-sweet horseradish and brown sugar glaze, people were making plans to attend the July 3 ribbon-cutting.
They gathered in an Avondale parking lot for her food and an impromptu block party. They held umbrellas against the hot sun as they stood in a long, socially distanced line. They watched the news crews. They did the Dougie and the Wobble to music from the DJ set up in a parking space. At noon, Ervin welcomed the crowd, suddenly singing a few lines from “Way Maker” because she felt moved. Then she cut the ribbon and got to work.
She and her team served 584 meals that day – there were nearly 140 orders in the first hour.
Ervin, 34, started Panoptic Catering in 2014. Today, her full-service catering company handles corporate conferences, weddings, baby showers and more. At her very first event, an anniversary party at a church, she set up all the food, proud of her shiny, new chafing dishes, and suddenly realized she had forgotten to hire servers. So, she quickly and quietly asked friends to help. They all happened to be wearing black, so it was almost like it was meant to be, she said. Those friends – all guests – who stepped up to work that party still work with her today. She currently employs 11 people.
Ervin’s food, “Southern soul with Cajun flair,” is influenced by the dishes her grandmother and mother cooked when she was growing up in Mobile. “I had a lot of exposure at a young age to cooking,” she said. “My roots are Southern soul food.” Her catering menu features pulled chicken and pork barbecue, sautéed Cajun corn on the cob, seasoned collard greens, and shrimp and grits. But she also offers Tuscan pesto pasta salad, homemade Swedish meatballs, wonton spinach dip cups, Buffalo smoked wings, grilled chicken with an Italian cream sauce, Philly steak and cheese sliders, and mini Nashville-style chicken and Belgian waffles.
She credits working in her sister’s restaurants with pointing her toward a career in food. Ervin was 12 when she started and did everything there, “including quit several times.”
“My sister let us do anything we said we could do. If we said we wanted to try it, she’d let us do it. I learned ‘back of the house,’ how to prepare big quantities of cornbread and chicken, whatever she had on the menu. One of her favorite items was meatloaf and, you know, that’s work. So, she would let us stand on a stool. I was back there standing on a stool figuring it out.
“Then she would send me up front. Tell me, ‘You’ve got to fix the plate, ring the customer up.’ We were taught money, how to handle a customer, things like that. She’d send me out there to bus a table. … We literally could open the store, as teenagers, me and my niece, without her. I had to be no more than 16, and she was letting me run it.”
Time spent in corporate kitchens taught Ervin more about management and profit and loss. “I pulled little bits by little bits from each experience,” she said, “and took it and made it my own.”
Ervin has an innate sense of practicality. She knew that soul food was not feasible on a food truck, so she looked for a niche that was missing in the Birmingham market and decided on specialty sliders. She based the variety on what proved popular with her regular catering clients the past six years. The 12-hour brisket and the crab cakes are the most popular sliders on her truck.
“One of the things that would set my food apart is everything’s scratch – homemade,” she said. “I make all of the sauces from scratch. Everything on the catering side, my recipes are all scratch. I don’t have anything processed.”
Ervin has made Birmingham her own, even as she’s expanding her brand nationally. (In addition to “Family Food Showdown,” she competed on the debut episode of Cooking Channel’s “Snack Attack,” where she had to improvise with Moon Pies.)
Her five-cheese baked mac and cheese took first place at the Magic City Mac + Cheese Festival in 2018. She won “Best Bite” at the 2019 Taste of Pelham. She was one of the “sheroes” celebrated during the city of Birmingham’s StrongHER campaign launched by Mayor Randall Woodfin in 2019 for Women’s History Month. She participated in the inaugural Le Diner en Blanc International-Birmingham and judged Birmingham’s first nationally recognized Culinary Fight Club-Street Food Showdown. She’s a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, and is president of the Birmingham chapter of the American Culinary Federation.
Steering her business hasn’t always been easy, and she’s proud of overcoming obstacles. “Just being able to do that … having the tools and the skills and the willpower to just keep pushing,” she said. “It may be the competitive spirit, but I think it’s just drive. It’s my nature. My whole family’s wired like that. We’re a bunch of push-forward, maximum-drive individuals.”
She believes if you “stick to a plan, execute your plan and don’t give up along the way, no matter what comes in the middle of it, you’ll find the light if you just stay the path. A lot of times we give up because it’s not easy. If you really want to see things go a certain way, and you have that passion for it, you’ve got to stick to it.”
Even during a pandemic.
“In my life, I’ve noticed that everything that has happened to me or through me … I always see things come full circle. It never fails,” she said. “No matter how ugly stuff looks, it always comes back some kind of way. It may be a different way, but it’s the best way. … I live by that. This is clearly where I’m supposed to be.”
Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the Eat at Panoptic food truck will be parked at 2627 Crestwood Blvd. in Birmingham. Locations vary for dinners from 4-8 p.m. and Saturday lunches. Follow the truck on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for specific location information.
Access the food truck menu here: https://eatatpanoptic.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/TRUCKPAN_Menu.pdf
Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog. Susan is a founding member and current president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality whose members are among Birmingham’s top women in food.