176 Royal Palm Drive, Marco
Who would’ve thought that a Marco Island family’s craving for a meat loaf dinner (the “you call and we deliver” kind) would ultimately find expression (of course) in a quirky venture called, The Chef’s Express, presided over by Chef Annie Feinman.
Of course, it didn’t happen overnight. There were issues to be addressed (many), decisions (sign lease and invest in equipment) and commitments to be made, not only by Annie but also by Rick (Annie’s husband) and Lauren (their daughter) to be equal partners in order to make the Chef’s Express concept work, explained Annie.
“I didn’t want to cook and the only option was pizza or Chinese take-out and we started working on a concept,” she said.
However there were other factors at work like, for instance, the Feinmans are true Marco Island natives, having settled on the island back in ’74, she explained.
“I quit real estate in ’95 and actually coasted because my husband was an executive for a national company. Then my daughter Lauren graduated Lely and we moved her up to Orlando to start college at Valencia — she only lasted there two months because she truly missed living here with us on the island — that was four years ago!”
Fast forward past the meatloaf to pick up on Chef Feinman mentioning how her organizational mentality helped her keep focused on concept when she asked daughter Lauren, “What kind of business can you do? We’ll start a business with you and for you. I’ll cook — dad will provide the business know-how.”
The operative concept there was “cook” coupled with Chef Feinman’s affinity for creating her own twist on food she enjoyed eating out.
“We’ve always enjoyed good food, and I liked to fool around in the kitchen weekends and create new dishes — that was something I always had, that passion and curiosity. We’d go out to eat and I’d be trying to figure out the flavors,” she explained, “So I could come home and make it better.”
Everything fell in place, literally, when they learned that this little store was available in a collection of shops along Royal Palm Drive.
“We rented and we were open for business in three months!” Chef Feinman said, smiling as she describes how they opened as a take-out and delivery and expanded into catering, and the smile grows into a proud grin when she added, “This past September I cooked and catered a wedding reception for 80 people here in the courtyard.”
She related how the parents brought 40 orchid plants to decorate the outdoor courtyard and attached colorful little petal windmills, in a yellow, orange, pink, violet, blue and green color palette to the trees and walls. That color wheel inspired the Feinmans to redecorate and paint the outside walls of the shops clustered around a former church and transform the former bland whitewashed Shops of Old Marco and the courtyard into a sea of color.
“We brought it back to life and it’s (Chef’s Express) exploding like a Fourth of July firecracker,” Rick said in answer to our comment about the bustling activity there, and waves a hand toward the vibrant courtyard that evokes images of Key West’s Bahama Village and the venerable (yet campy) La de Da on upper Duval Street.
The team effort paid off, and earlier they acquired an adjoining shop when it became empty and expanded outside.
“Breakfast took off,” said Lauren. “We evolved beyond what we realized.”
The new kitchen was the original rental space and this reporter had been eying all the state-of-the-art food prep equipment while waiting for Chef Feinman to come out from the kitchen into the adjoining space (now occupied by Chef’s Express). The space now boasted wireless Internet connections available to anyone seated at either table flanking the entrance door into the shop. The space also houses a counter with a cash register and telephone for call-ins and a recent acquisition — a large, glass fronted deli case in an area that once held a few more tables and chairs.
“Everyone wants to sit outside to eat breakfast and lunch,” said Chef Feinman, rosy-cheeked and wiping moisture from her forehead after cooking a call-in order for one of her signature dishes, Lobster Eggs Benedict — two poached eggs on a split toasted English muffin with divided 7-ounce lobster tail topped with Hollandaise and served with breakfast potatoes and fruit (copied from the extensive menu.)
What the menu doesn’t say is that the Hollandaise is one of Chef Feinman’s unique creations; Rick Feinman told us earlier when we inquired about the deli case.
“It’s inspired by a sauce she tasted when we had dinner at Camille’s on Duval in Key West.”
He says and adds that she meticulously writes down her recipes “so that everything tastes as good as the first time you ate it.”
Your reporter is trying to stay focused, but there’s so much going on here, yet so well-organized and efficient. Especially the professional equipment, a small electric appliance freak would cheerfully kill for?
“The kitchen was the original rental space, but now it’s modeled on an idea of what I wanted — every week I found there was something — food prep technology — that was more efficient and I included it,” Chef Feinman stated, and pointed the shiny stainless steel table that held a digital espresso machine, two commercial Bunn drip coffee makers and a large, currently empty soup and chowder warming appliance.
“The espresso machine can be operated with one hand — finger actually — that punches the various pads that tell the machine to grind the beans for one cup or several and can make several espresso-based variations and even cappuccino made with steamed non-fat milk — it’s foolproof!” she said triumphantly.
Certainly, Chef Feinman needs foolproof and more to sustain her, albeit the support she’s given whole-heartedly and affectionately provided by her two team members, Rick and Lauren, in addition to Joaquin, the all-around kitchen helper. Her day begins at 4 a.m. when she goes online at home.
“I determine my specials and then businesses that order food daily or a few times a week go on our website to see what our soups are — they don’t just buy a bowl, they order quarts.” (P.S. Customers cover the spectrum from seasonal residents to the mega-yacht set and corporate jets that fly into Marco’s airport.)
Chef Feinman then heads to the Chef’s Express location at 176 Royal Palm Drive, to start cooking for the day and breakfast when Rick and Laura and Rick open for breakfast at 7 a.m. and stay open until 3 p.m. on Monday — Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“I used to be open until 8 but it got to be too much,” she said with a straight face. “If you don’t have a hand on it you lose. I don‘t do much dinner on the premises — usually people call-in ahead of time and take-out or have dinner delivered by 3 p.m.”
The Chef’s Express menu offers customers a list of beverages Starbucks wishes they had. Lunch combos based on the different four or five (in season) soups and chowders she creates from scratch daily, myriad dressing (home-made of course) to go with the cornucopia of salads available, as well as numerous wraps and sandwiches including several signature ones, for instance Chef Feinman’s twist on the Monte Cristo: Ham, turkey, Swiss cheese on sautéed French toast sprinkled with powdered sugar and a side of “Very Berry Jam” that she cooks herself and ladles into little, covered cups and is only served as a special side with breakfasts.
Oops! I didn’t open the six-section menu all the way — inside there’s eight unique eggy selections (no, I’m not listing them, go eat there some morning) A Griddle Works with pancakes, waffles and Oh mi-gawd! a concoction called Crunch Delight. Trust me, it’s to die for! Grandma Lil’s favorites are redeemed by some lovely and elegant Chef’s Selections (including the awesome, aforementioned Lobster Benedict). Sides and Fresh Starts round out the choices menu.
Everything is cooked by Chef Feinman: Fresh starts offerings include the only baked item on the menu that Chef Feinman personally bakes and serves.
“I’m a cook, not a baker,” she confessed and said frugality forced her into creating a recipe to use up the bananas destined for drinks and menu items.
That’s also the reason for the unique and colorful assortment of fruits and vegetables on display in the courtyard area just in front of the shop.
“I only use and cook with fresh fruits and produce, but we have order a box of anything delivered from Immokalee or four times a week — I use what I need in the kitchen and sell the rest — it’s a win-win situation.”