Dana and Aaron VanDecker have worked in the food industry for nearly 20 years, but would have never predicted the challenges 2020 would bring to their business. The owners of the Little Food Inn, with locations in Bayonne and Pompton Plains, the VanDeckers did their best to support those getting hit the hardest during the pandemic.
In working with charities like Habitat for Humanity and smaller, more local groups, like the town cheerleading squad, the Little Food Inn provided healthy, individual meals to hospital and healthcare workers. With a loyal following, including customers that order every day, the Little Food Inn shifted their focus to curbside pickup and delivery to ensure their devoted customers still got their favorite meals.
“We totally adapted during the last six months. Whatever we needed to be, we could be,” said Dana VanDecker. “We’re like chameleons. Whatever anybody wants, I can make.”
We caught up with VanDecker to ask about how she provided those meals, what her plans are to reopen indoor dining, and how her business has changed since the onset of Covid-19.
Table Hopping: What is your background in the food industry?
Dana VanDecker: My husband’s family is from the Jersey City/Bayonne area. Our first location was in Bayonne and that was 17 years ago. Then we opened up the Pompton Plains location in 2008.
TH: Do you still have the Bayonne location?
DV: Yes, our Bayonne store is more of pickup and delivery, whereas Pompton Plains is more of a sit down type of place. My sister-in-law and mother-in-law run the Bayonne location. It’s great working with family and really collaborating on ideas.
TH: Did you keep your outdoor dining open when you were given the okay to do so?
DV: Our clientele is older, it’s a lot of people with families that really aren’t that comfortable going out yet. In Pompton Plains, we’ve actually been way busier with takeout. We’ve had to adapt in trying to do as little contact as possible. But, we do take reservations at night and do a 5 o’clock seating, a 6:30, and an 8 o’clock.
TH: What are plans now that it was announced indoor dining can resume?
DV: It’s going to be hard to adapt to having people back in the restaurant because for six months we haven’t. We have to see how it’s gonna go. I’m gonna keep it curbside so nobody’s waiting in line for pickup. As [few] bodies as I can have inside is what we want, right? You’ve just gotta take every precaution. Twenty-five percent capacity is still only six tables inside and that’s not a lot, but we’ll take whatever we can get.
TH: So you’ve really adapted from sit down to delivery and pickup.
DV: Our main thing has been the curbside delivery. I started doing Sunday Supper Plans and Picnic Boxes. It’s a little bit more gourmet than your regular hamburger and hot dog. And everything is prepped for them.
TH: So these boxes were something new you started during the pandemic?
DV: We started that even before we could have the outside seating. Like, for Mother’s Day weekend we did a lobster roll kill. We were super busy Memorial Day Weekend, Fourth of July, and we did a Cinco de Mayo kit, so you could get carnitas pork, chorizo, ground chicken. And now we started making premium mixes that all you have to do is just add your alcohol to it.
TH: During the peak of Covid-19 in New Jersey, you donated a lot of meals to local hospitals, right?
DV: Charities contacted me and we wanted to contribute our part also. So if they ordered lunch for 50 people, I would try to match them and I’d contribute another 50 free meals to go to the hospital workers. Whatever we could do, we did and I was grateful and appreciative that people were thinking of us. At one point, six, seven days a week I was doing about four orders a day of 200 plus in each delivery.
TH: What kind of meals did you provide?
DV: Me and my husband were like, We don’t want to send trays of food because I felt like it was just so unsanitary, sitting out. They also don’t want to eat pizza every day. Most people are pretty health conscious in healthcare. I changed everything around from being like all comfort to doing a little more healthy, prepared food.
We started making things like coconut rice, and pad Thai with chicken, mahi mahi. It’s been a little bit creative for us cooking wise. It made things fun in a trying time when we were creating new stuff.
TH: Do you think you’ll keep the new stuff as a permanent part of your menu?
DV: Oh, absolutely. We’ve been doing it now. We were very, like, all comfort food and hearty food. Now we’ve been trying to focus more on healthier things.
TH: Can your customers look forward to any more menu changes this fall?
DV: Our next thing we’re planning to do is healthier meal plans. Everybody’s gonna be so busy with homeschooling and working from home, so we can provide either, three meals a day, five days a week or three days a week. Sunday, I would post the menu, and then I’d get submissions through our website and deliver Monday or Wednesday. You can pick them out and have different varieties, and all meals come with instructions.