Emily Nathon, co-founder of Girl Friday Zeppole, does it all. From running full fledged farmers markets to starting her own business, she’s a lady that gets things done. We sat down with Emily to talk about her career with food, Girl Friday’s roots, and how amazing those little Italian donuts are.
Where did the idea for Girl Friday come from? Have you had previous experience making zeppole?
Girl Friday is the brainchild of my business partner, DanVy Vu. She is my older sister's best friend from growing up and operates a food truck called Streatery that mostly serves the East Bay. In late 2014, she shared with me that she wanted to expand but didn't want to just replicate her food truck. Instead, she had the idea of a side business dedicated to just zeppole.
DanVy serves a wide variety of what she calls "glorious peasant food" on her truck--basically simple, tasty, hearty dishes like oxtail & grits (her most popular item). Since the start the dessert offering has always been lemon ricotta doughnuts AKA zeppole. She started serving them because her husband's family is Italian and he grew up eating them. When she started playing around with recipes, the aim was to riff off of lemon ricotta pancake batter and make a moist yet dense zeppole with delicious flavor and a perfectly pillowy texture. Now Girl Friday has expanded on her original recipe to include a savory zeppole as well as dipping sauces and homemade sodas.
I'm happy to report that DanVy and I have really developed quite a harmonious business partnership. She handles most of the recipes and production and I work on applications for new markets, promotion, and the like. Basically she handles the back of house and I take the front of house, and we both can swing between each other's tasks every now and then too.
What inspired the name Girl Friday? Is it related to the corporate term?
We played around with a few different business names and thought about incorporating Streatery more into the name, but many of our customers are new and aren't as familiar with the food truck. Plus we are trying to break into a few new markets and establish the zeppole business so an independent off-shoot made the most sense.
I got real punny, as is my nature, and I started thinking about dough puns and fried food puns and things got pretty weird. A friend suggested simply calling the business Fryday, and then the term "Girl Friday" just popped into my head, and after that no other name felt right.
DanVy and I are two very scrappy DIYers, and whenever we can do something or make something ourselves we do. We kind of see ourselves as girl fridays, but instead of being an assistant to a boss (as the term historically has been used) we sort of repurposed it to empower ourselves as bosses. In other words, we are the bosses of this business, but we're also the girl fridays who work hard and hustle for everything we create. It's become kind of a mantra for us, and now every time we make something for much cheaper than we could have bought it for, we pat ourselves on the back and celebrate our collective tenacity.
How did you come up with zeppole recipes? Do they change based on season? Similarly, do you experiment with sauces and change them based on seasonality?
DanVy is sort of a wizard. That's why I wanted to go into business with her, because everything she's ever served me has been incredibly delicious. Back when I was a market manager, we would get people applying to be in the market, and they would talk my ear off trying to get me to let them in, and I'd just ask myself, "Yeah, but is the food any good?" If the food isn't good, that's a deal breaker. It sounds so simple but there are so many gimmicks out there these days, and I just knew that I wouldn't be able to sell DanVy's idea to people if I didn't believe in her food. With DanVy I didn't even know if we would be great business partners, but I knew that I believed in her food, and that was enough.
She's not a professionally-trained chef, but she’s just really good with flavors and textures. Growing up her parents rented out some rooms in her house for extra income and one of her chores was making dinner for their boarders every night, and that's how she learned to cook.
We haven't yet started doing seasonal zeppole, but we do have three dipping sauces and one changes seasonally. Right now we've got this brown butter rhubarb sauce that's pretty amazing. We have a lot of old school zeppole fans who know our product from Streatery and many of them don't even want the sauces. But I gotta tell you, they are really, really good. DanVy's a magician when it comes to sauces. We just got an email from someone today asking if he could buy our vanilla bean creme fraiche dipping sauce in bulk.
You have worked a lot previously with food, can you tell us a bit about your other experiences and how they inspired or prepared you for Girl Friday?
When I was 25 I left a non-profit desk job in Los Angeles, moved in with my parents in a small city in Washington State, and got a job at an organic artisan dairy called Samish Bay Cheese. I spent about two years with them, doing everything from managing their on-site cheese shop, to selling at farmer's markets, to managing wholesale accounts. I also got to do fun stuff like bottle-feed calves and chase pigs that had escaped their pen. I fell in love with the farm life and our products, and I learned that talking to people about our cheese and helping them experience it in new and interesting ways was something I really loved and was also pretty good at.
Seeking more experience but not entirely knowing what, I took off for San Francisco when my older sister offered me a few months of rent-free living while I got my life sorted out. I started volunteering with the Mission Community Market, which is this really awesome independent homegrown market in the Mission District, and when they needed a part-time market manager, I threw my hat in the ring and got hired. I also got a part-time job as a cheesemonger at Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building, and thus began the period of my life that will forever be lovingly referred to as "paying my dues." I worked 6, sometimes 7 days a week, making not very much money, but really feeling energized about what I was learning. While working at MCM, I grew more, hustled harder, and struggled more than I had in my entire life. But I loved it. Walking into the market every Thursday night felt like I was entering church, and my community of friends that I made there (including vendors, volunteers, coworkers, and neighbors) remains some of the strongest I've made in the City. It's a bit of a cliche these days, but bringing people together around food, and strategically figuring out the best ways to do that, has become more or less the goal of my entire career.
After parting ways with Mission Community Market professionally and seeking even more experience in some new areas, I took on a role managing catering and special events for 4505 Meats. I still maintain a part-time contract with them and love executing special events for their growing company. In many ways, working closely with Ryan inspired me and pushed me to feel that I could actually take the leap and start my own business. After having worked with so many small food entrepreneurs as a market manager (including 4505 Meats back when they were still very small), I realized that being a small business owner in the food world would be the best way to expand on that knowledge even more.
We love awesome ladies doing awesome things! Do you have any women that have really influenced you in terms of cooking and starting your own business?
They don't work in the food world, but my sisters and my mom are like this band of brigands that are always rooting for me in this crazy somewhat non-conventional career path I've chosen. Growing up the youngest of three girls, I always got a lot of attention and love and that's only continued on into my adulthood. My sister Kari has basically been backseat driving my entire career, by giving me a reason to move to San Francisco and suggesting I volunteer with MCM in the first place. If she hadn’t stayed in touch with DanVy after high school, she and I might not be working together on Girl Friday as we are now.
It's weird because having my own business was never really a dream of mine, until I took over market management responsibilities at MCM. For the first time in my life, I had to do pretty much everything to keep the organization moving. In one day I was the graphic designer, accountant, event planner, publicist, and janitor. And I liked it.
In the almost four years I've been in San Francisco I've been inspired by so many other badass small food entrepreneur ladies- Luisa of SOW, Sadie of Bread SRSLY, Sarah of Mission Cheese, Lenore and Anna of Three Babes...the list goes on. My dear friend Jen Kindell got her start selling gorgeous fruit and vegetable prints at MCM and since I've started my own business we have more to talk about than ever.