Imagine the fear and trepidation of opening a new business. Now multiply that ten-fold, and you might have an idea of what it was like to open a new business in the midst of a pandemic. But with a strong customer base and an ability to “give the people what they want,” Vaughan McGehee has the recipe for success.
You don’t have to spend much time around Vaughan to know that she smiles a lot. Her resting face is literally one that glows. But if you really want to see her get happy, start talking to her about food and the power it has to bring people joy. Fortunately for all of us, she now has the opportunity to bring that joy to many more people.
When Carey and Dan Thomasson, owners of dinner. closed their storefront prepared-meal business earlier this spring, it left a bit of a hole in the community. Customers had come to rely upon having a place to pop in and buy something delicious for dinner, at a moment’s notice. But as the saying goes, “When one door closes, another one opens,” and that has been more than true for this Church Street location that is now the home of Vaughan & Company.
Vaughan fell in love with all the ingredients required for this line of work studying restaurant hospitality at the University of Alabama. “I changed majors so many times,” she says. “First I thought I wanted to be an interior designer or go into fashion retailing. I got into classes where you had to know the ins-and-outs of thread count, and I just did not care about those things. My parents got a little frustrated and said, ‘You HAVE to find a major and stick to it.’ When I got into classes like food science and wine tasting, they were so much fun, and I really enjoyed the subject matter. I enjoyed that curriculum and all the teachers.”
After graduation, Vaughan moved into her parents’ Lake Martin home and began work with Chef Rob McDaniel at SpringHouse Restaurant. As a pastry chef in one of the most tranquil spots in the state, McGehee was finding her groove. “I never wanted to come home!” she notes. “But, my parents finally ‘encouraged’ me to leave the lake house and move back home with them. I got another job at Standard Bistro in Mt Laurel and learned a lot there too.”
But restaurant kitchens can be notoriously brutal, and she soon found she needed a break. “I nannied for families for six years—three sets of twins, from newborn to age two. I loved that but then, it was time to get back into the kitchen.” About that time, a dear friend of hers told her how much her parents were wanting easy, freshly prepared meals and wondered if Vaughan was interested in cooking for them.
From there she started doing five meals a week and then slowly added in catering events and desserts for friends and weddings before streamlining the process with a weekly menu. Vaughan is being modest here when she talks about that email list: more than 600 customers received that weekly email and were placing orders like crazy. The table had been set for the next stage.
When asked if she knew she wanted to open up shop in Crestline, the Mountain Brook native really lights up. “My dad is in commercial real estate, and we had been looking at various sites for about three years—The Shops at Montevallo, downtown, Avondale—but just to get in a space and do a build-out is really expensive. I always dreamed of having a space like this but never thought it would be possible!” She closed on the dinner. space on March 9, just days before the world ground to a halt with COVID-19 fears. After a brief period of angst, fear and more than a little bit of worry, Vaughan and her team set about converting the former dinner. spot into the home of Vaughan & Company. She papered the windows, and they gave the space a thorough cleaning. Other than that, everything else was already in place for her business.
With approval from the health inspector, Vaughan decided to make her Crestline debut at Easter and sent a menu to that coveted email list. “Easter was wild! It was all hands-on deck – my staff and my best friend and my parents,” she says. “I had all 62 orders ready to go for 6 o’clock pick up except for the pecan pies. So, I was out delivering pecan pies myself until midnight. I learned a lot that weekend and promised my staff I would never do that to them again!”
Day-to-day operations are much more even-keeled now. Customers can place dinner orders before 10 a.m. for a same day 5 p.m. pick-up or delivery. Other diners choose to pop in for a healthy salad at lunch and grab dinner at the same time. Her case stays full of favorites like fresh salads, chicken salad, pimiento cheese, and casserole-style family meal options that folks like to buy and freeze. Kids love her chicken and white bean enchiladas while grown-ups favor her beef tenderloin filet with caramelized onions, mushrooms and horseradish sauce.
Vaughan & Company still offers catering options too. “The catering business has really changed for me so much,” she says. “I was used to doing all these fun engagement parties and showers, full-service events with rentals and the whole shebang. And now it has gone to all COVID-friendly boxed meals. We do a lot of boxed breakfasts, lunches and dinners.” One thing that will never change is the need for great grab-and-go meal options, and luckily for the community Vaughan is filling that need here in Crestline.
Q&A with Vaughan
What is your favorite Mountain Brook eatery, when you are not at work?
Dyron’s Lowcountry, hands down. I live nearby, so I love being able to meet friends or family there for a bite.
Do you have a mentor?
My dad, Charles McGehee. He is a great sounding board for everything. In the food world, chefs Chris Hastings and Rob McDaniel have been great mentoring examples of how to operate— being consistent, training staff the way you want.
Who is the ‘and Company’ part of Vaughan & Co.?
In the kitchen, that would be Matt and Kisa—they are awesome. I have some great dishwasher help and my mom and dad (Vicki and Charles) assist with deliveries and packaging. I couldn’t do it without all of them!
Do customers come into the shop thinking it is still dinner.?
That happened some when I first opened; customers would ask if I could get Carey’s recipe for something particular that she used to make. My menu is different from hers, and people can always find something in the Vaughan & Co. case they’ll love.
Did you grow up cooking a lot?
Not really, but my grandmother was an amazing cook and taught me so much about figuring things out on my own. She lived in Elba, Alabama, and we would visit her on our way to the beach. It didn’t matter if we were just stopping in for a quick visit, she always put out a spread—fried okra, toad-in-the-hole, turkey, chicken, ham—everything we wanted. She never used a recipe, just cooked by taste and feel.
What desserts are you known for?
My chocolate chess squares fly out of the case. I also make cake balls that are really popular but are pretty time-consuming to make. Those usually happen on Tuesday nights, and I’ll stay up all night making them. It’s exhausting but worth it!