Claire Calvin on Entrepreneurship

14 minute read

The bar area at Canteen Bistro and Market in downtown Winston-Salem

On the way home from school every day, Claire Calvin and her 13-year-old son pass by a building on West End Boulevard that used to house the Snob Shop before the consignment store relocated to Burke Street.

“That’s pretty smart,” Calvin’s son said on one after-school drive. “That whole building is now like a billboard for the other Snob Shop.”

When her son followed up his comment with a suggestion that Calvin could open up yet another business there, the entrepreneur behind local restaurants The Porch Kitchen and Cantina, Alma Mexicana, and the Canteen Market and Bistro laughs.

Calvin’s three children have learned to see possibilities by watching their mother start business after business. They’re not the only ones influenced by her entrepreneurial endeavors.

Calvin has become a leading voice on entrepreneurship in Winston-Salem, and, in 2018, her achievements were recognized when she was chosen to participate in the prestigious James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program, an entrepreneurship training program for women in the food industry.

But Calvin didn’t begin her career as an entrepreneur. In fact, she went to law school and started her career in international litigation at a New York City law firm. So how did Calvin get from lawyer to restaurateur? And, more importantly, why did she take up the mantle of entrepreneurship?

It’s a story that unfolds in three acts.

Act One: The Start

Claire Calvin

Calvin never stops thinking of ideas, and she’s not afraid to try them out. Sometimes innovation comes out of what she wants, sometimes it’s the byproduct of an identified need. Either way, she’s always enjoyed thinking up business ideas.

I started as a mom, as a practical cook.

Claire Calvin

“There have been a lot of them over the years that have been kind of funny,” she says.

Some of those ideas that never made it past idea-stage included a gym where dogs could exercise while their humans did and an event planning service for date nights.

Calvin’s first endeavor was, however, none of the above. Her first business, Dinners on the Porch, was born out of her experiences with her family—her husband, Matt Giegengack, and her three children: Finn, 16; Gus, 13; and Ruby, 10. She had learned to cook—a bit out of necessity—when the kids were little, and eating out was difficult.

“I really liked cooking, but not the part where you have to decide what you’re making and then go to the store and get all the ingredients—especially on a busy night,” Calvin says. “That’s a pain. No one likes to do that every night.”

Calvin wanted families to have good dinner options—even on a busy day. Every Tuesday, her Dinners on the Porch business delivered a delicious dinner to her clients’ porches in a cooler, ready to be put on the table in 30 minutes.

Claire, cooking with her children Finn and Ruby
Claire, cooking with her children Finn and Ruby
Claire in her kitchen
Claire in her kitchen

Cooking—in any form—is always about more than the food for Calvin. There’s a story or meaning behind her meals that enriches the dishes with more than just culinary flavor.

“I started as a mom, as a practical cook,” Calvin says. “I cared about what the food was doing in people’s lives, not just if it was tasty, though that was important. In the Dinners on the Porch context, the point was to have an experience for people, more than what their normal Tuesday might have been.”

Figuring out a new menu for every week was the fun part for Calvin. She would experiment, re-working recipes so that they could be delivered or re-creating meals that she experienced in restaurants. She would chronicle the inspirations for each meal on a blog that went along with her business.

So why did the idea for Dinners on the Porch stick, instead of some of the others that Calvin had over the years?

The internet, of course.

“There was a lot that I realized I could do on the internet for free, in terms of marketing and getting the word out about the business,” Calvin says.

And the word did. The first few weeks after opening her business, Calvin was delivering to 15 families. Soon the number expanded to 50 families. By the end of the first year, her weekly deliveries had risen to 80, and sometimes more.

The marvels of the internet aside, there were other reasons for Calvin’s dive into entrepreneurship. The business simply made sense.

People talk about risk like it’s a bad thing. They don’t want to take a big risk. But then, not doing things is a risk, too.

Claire Calvin

“At first, the business was only delivering meals once a week, so I thought it would work with my lifestyle and the confines of having kids at home,” she says.

In addition, the business model had a lot of flexibility and, best of all, there wasn’t a lot of overhead.

“I guess you could say there was a low barrier to entry,” Calvin says with a laugh. “I also started it a bit for fun. I thought it would be for friends and family, but it quickly became a business.”

And that business was not to be her last.

Act Two: The Leap

At the end of 2012, Calvin had a decision to make. Two-and-a-half years into Dinners on the Porch, her lease was running out on the commercial kitchen space that she had been using to cook on the scale demanded by the burgeoning business.

“I had a few options,” Calvin says. “Do I close and enter a new chapter of my life? Do I take over the lease and continue Dinners on the Porch? Or do I start something entirely new?”

That new thing was the possibility of abandoning delivering meals in favor of starting an honest-to-goodness brick-and-mortar restaurant.

“I’d worked as a server in restaurants before, but there was a lot about the restaurant business that I just didn’t know,” Calvin says.

As she pondered making the leap into full-fledged restaurateur, Calvin consulted one of the partners in the law firm she worked at before becoming a mom.

“He told me, ‘If this is what you want to do, you’re not going to feel more like doing it the longer you wait,’” Calvin says.

The restaurant was what Calvin wanted, so in 2014, she opened The Porch Kitchen and Cantina, a family-friendly Tex-Mex restaurant located in the West End Mill Works.

The Porch Kitchen and Cantina
The Porch Kitchen and Cantina

“People talk about risk like it’s a bad thing. They don’t want to take a big risk. But then, not doing things is a risk, too,” Calvin says, describing her perspective in taking the restaurant leap—for both The Porch and subsequent endeavors.

Though Calvin began her entrepreneurial career in Winston-Salem, she’s not originally from North Carolina. She grew up in Houston, Texas and moved to Winston-Salem when her husband finished his ophthalmology residency and took a position at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in 2007.

Growing up in Houston, Calvin’s definition of comfort food was Tex-Mex cuisine.

“Queso and tacos, those kinds of things,” she explains.

The idea for The Porch was to take the flavors of her childhood and combine them with Southern ideas of comfort food.

Claire Calvin cooking with her daughter Ruby

“Our food, to me, is a mix of high and low cuisine. It’s a lot of comfort food, but we use really good quality ingredients and mix in a lot of flavors.”

Some thought that experimentation wouldn’t be welcome in Winston-Salem, that Calvin’s patrons wouldn’t be adventurous enough to try the creative dishes she had in mind for her restaurant.

“I haven’t found that to be true,” Calvin says. “People really respond to this type of cuisine. It wasn’t too much for Winston-Salem.”

Though Calvin’s ideas for food worked for her patrons, starting her first restaurant was not without its challenges. One of the biggest hurdles was learning the basics of running a restaurant.

We found what worked for us after a lot of trial-and-error.

Claire Calvin

“I had no idea what happened when you sat down in a restaurant and ordered a hamburger,” Calvin says. “I had never thought through how it arrived at your plate 15 minutes later.”

Getting The Porch on its feet required learning a lot of the nuts and bolts of the business and experimenting with process.

“I didn’t realize all the behind-the-scenes of the restaurant world. It turns out that there are ways to do it and ways not to do it,” Calvin says with a laugh. “Since I didn’t know, we just had to try all the ways, and lots of them were unsuccessful, and some of them worked.”

Both Calvin and The Porch grew out of all the experimentation.

“If there was one right way to run a restaurant, nearly 50% of them wouldn’t fail,” Calvin says. “We found what worked for us after a lot of trial-and-error, and we ran with those.”

The Porch became a popular spot to dine in Winston-Salem. And it turns out that once Calvin got a taste for trying something new, she was all-in on the whole entrepreneurship thing.

Act Three: The Expansion

Claire in her kitchen washing vegetables.

While many people would have been content with one restaurant, Calvin had ideas for more. But expanding with more businesses is not a light decision.

“Once I opened The Porch—even though that seemed crazy in itself—growing seemed too risky,” Calvin says.

For her, being a restaurateur in addition to a mom of three was her biggest challenge.

“Juggling everything was difficult,” Calvin says. “I’m sure it would have been difficult practicing law or whatever kind of job I did, but being a mom and an entrepreneur—it’s a lot. You can’t just turn either side off.”

But Calvin’s ideas kept coming. She found inspiration in physical spaces and cultures and cuisines. She had visions for new experiences that she could bring to the city.

Claire Calvin looking on as her daughter Ruby tells her brother Finn a secret.

“Even though expansion seemed risky, adding more to what I was already juggling, I heard somewhere that not growing is also a risk,” Calvin says.

Calvin’s first expansion was to open Alma Mexicana, a restaurant with flavors pulled from Mexican cuisine, in the renovated Bailey Power Plant located in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

“Alma Mexicana was a project that I was interested in because of the building and location,” Calvin says. “I was pretty inspired by what was going to happen there.”

Her goal with the new restaurant was not to open The Porch 2.0. Instead of comfort food, she turned to other culinary experiences from home. When living in Houston, she traveled a lot to Mexico, even spending an entire summer there studying Spanish while in law school. For her new restaurant, Calvin pulled on the heart of some of the flavors she experienced there.

“I wanted to do something more interesting and focused on Mexico, something more culinarily adventurous,” Calvin says. “The culture of Mexico is so multi-faceted; it’s as multi-faceted as the United States.”

Alma Mexicana
Alma Mexicana

Calvin had a different experience in mind for Alma Mexicana. She wanted the restaurant to have the casual atmosphere of The Porch, but moved out of the family-friendly feel toward more of a night-out, drinks-with-friends experience.

“It took a bit to catch on that this was different from The Porch,” Calvin says. “But I think people understand now that this restaurant is its own thing.”

In the same year that Calvin opened Alma Mexicana, she also opened another restaurant—The Canteen Market and Bistro—located in the Commerce Plaza on Fourth Street in downtown Winston-Salem.

The Canteen was a completely different feel than her other food destinations. It brings together a host of elements—a deli, a bar, a market and a restaurant—in one space characterized by an urban aesthetic.

“Again, this project was really driven by the space,” Calvin says. “The building had been so many things over the years, and the owners were radically changing the feel. That drove a lot of the decisions for the restaurant.”

The Canteen Market and Bistro
The Canteen Market and Bistro

One of those decisions was to fulfill one of Calvin’s long-time ideas: a market element, a space where customers could not only get lunch now, but pick up items for dinner later in the same space.

“I had always wanted to have a market, a retail element,” Calvin says. “When we started The Porch, I had imagined a whole space for a market, where you’d have the prepared foods and gifts—but then we needed the space for customers.”

Created in partnership with Eric Swaim, co-owner of one of The Porch’s neighbors, Hoots Roller Bar, the Canteen offers a variety of eating and drinking options, from specialty items in the market and uncommon bottles of wine, to deli sandwiches and cook-at-home prepared meals.

“In a way, the diversity is what keeps things fun and interesting,” Calvin says. “I wouldn’t want to just cookie-cutter The Porch all over the place.”

In addition to her three restaurants, Calvin also runs a catering business and sells prepared foods out of The Porch. She finds that the diversity of businesses adds some benefits that are worth the juggling. While keeping her life interesting, the diverse enterprises helps her manage the risks associated with being an entrepreneur.

“We try to grow different areas of our business so that we have better balance,” Calvin says.

Businesses like restaurants are affected by slow seasons, inclement weather and unforeseen circumstances. The past year offered many of those obstacles to doing good business.

“There was a lot of bad weather—from the hurricane and snow—and The Porch was out of power for several days because people kept running into telephone poles,” Calvin says.

“There are things you can’t control,” Calvin continues. “You can’t manage all the risks, but expansion helps us manage the risks that we can.”

Epilogue: The Community

The Porch Kitchen and Cantina

Calvin has found great value in collaborating with others throughout her journey of becoming a serial entrepreneur. Most notably, the James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program provided a week of education on everything from creativity and work/life balance to funding and managing staff.

“The training was valuable because so many people, especially in the restaurant business, have good ideas and get started, gain a little momentum and then, all of a sudden, you have a business to run,” Calvin says. “That’s a very different thing. It’s one thing to be an entrepreneur with a good idea that you can manage yourself and another to be running a business.”

The fellowship wasn’t the first time that Calvin has pulled from the knowledge of her community to improve her enterprises.

“I think, in some ways, women are more collaborative than men,” Calvin says. “I think women in business are looking for others to work with, which can help with the loneliness that can come with being an entrepreneur. You feel like you’re part of a community, not just of women, but of other entrepreneurs.”

The bar at Alma Mexicana
The Canteen Market and Bistro

Early on, Calvin drew from the amassed knowledge of women in her network to learn what she did not know about starting a restaurant.

“Over the years of doing Dinners on the Porch, I had a lot of people who were like me, who were moms who were not working while raising kids, but had plenty of expertise,” Calvin says. “A lot of those people were able to contribute in ways that I couldn’t have afforded hiring a big firm to do.”

Not knowing the ins-and-outs of a business has never stopped Calvin from attempting an enterprise because she has learned over the course of her many businesses that those collaborative relationships can make any business possible.

“I have around 100 employees, and, though they may come to me as a line-cook or server, they have a lot of other talents and assets,” Calvin says. “If we are trying to do something new—anything from a wine dinner to a whole new restaurant—I can look around and there are skills and abilities that I don’t have, but others do.”

“I think that’s my favorite thing about having a business,” Calvin adds. “Almost anything I can think of doing or creating, we can do because of the people around me.”

Claire Calvin gets a kiss on the cheek from her daughter, Ruby.