Affordable and healthy takeout fills niche at Walker and Elam

by Amy Kingsley

Hogan’s Groovy Gourmet occupies a slip of property bordered by a coffee shop and computer services company, across the street from bars and restaurants and a stone’s throw from some of Greensboro’s oldest residences.

Its location, at the corner of Elam and Walker avenues, places it at the heart of one of the quirkiest blocks in the region: a bustling entertainment district that rises mirage-like from a classy neighborhood. The idiosyncrasy of their location has, in part, informed the business model for Hogan’s Groovy Gourmet, a catering company that offers take-out sandwiches, heat-and-serve meals and frozen pies large enough for the whole family. The other variable that shaped this restaurant was, of course, necessity.

‘“We don’t own the building and the health department says you have to have two bathrooms if you want to do dine-in,’” said owner Nikki Dale-Oaster.

So, the health code honor students at Hogan’s (with a posted score of 101 at the time of this reporting) complied with structural restrictions by filling a niche for healthy take-out. To that end they offer a limited but diverse menu of healthy fare augmented by the herbs grown in their backyard garden.

‘“The full-service catering is what sustains us,’” Dale-Oaster says.

That part of the operation existed before Dale-Oaster bought the business from its previous owners five years ago. By the time she took over, the brother and sister preparing to hand over the keys had closed the take-out portion of the business to focus solely on catering. That year the shop closed is still affecting Dale-Oaster’s business.

‘“Almost every week I get someone who comes in from the neighborhood who says, ‘Oh, I thought you guys just did catering,”” she says. ‘“I’ve said for a while that I need some marketing genius to tell me the word I can put out there to let people know we do take-out.’”

Not only do they do take out, they do it affordably. Their frozen dinner pies come in 7- and 9-inch versions of vegetarian or meat favorites. A small version generally runs in the eight-dollar range and the larger pies cost anywhere from $12-14.

Casseroles include spinach veggie lasagna, beef-and-cheese lasagna, vegan shepherd pie, home-style meat loaf and something called Chicken Olivia. Their version of lasagna uses egg noodles instead of traditional pasta and a house-made marinara.

‘“It’s just good comfort, normal food that’s made fresh,’” she says. ‘“Nothing has MSG or preservatives.’”

The goal is to go completely organic someday and they already get some of their ingredients from local gardens. Vegetarians and meat-eaters alike can find food options on the Hogan’s menu.

Hogan’s makes their own veggie burgers, a patty of spinach, tofu, roasted walnuts and spices that’s baked then sautéed alongside a bun and topped with pesto mayo or Dijon and lettuce, tomato and onion. Unlike most garden-variety veggie burgers, the Hogan’s kind keeps the disparate ingredients intact, enabling both the hearty textures and flavors. The patty itself is also vegan, although it does contain a small amount of flour.

The black bean cakes served in a wrap, on top of a taco salad and over jasmine rice in a heat-and-serve meal are also vegan and available everyday. As much as possible, Dale-Oaster aims to make everything in-house, including soup stocks, hummus and condiments.

‘“My husband jokes that I don’t waste anything,’” Dale-Oaster says. ‘“We’re always improvising.’”

That philosophy manifests itself most in the rotating varieties of heat-and-serve meals. What goes up on the chalkboard menu often depends on a combination of leftovers and overstock. A pasta dish topped with spinach is a bit of a reincarnation of the previous day’s pasta with wintergreens.

Some of the standbys, according to the menu, are creamy crab tortellini, black bean enchiladas and spaghetti and meatballs. The prices for individual servings range from $4.95-$6.95.

‘“Many single people come in and get the heat-and-serve meals,’” Dale-Oaster says. ‘“The portions are really generous, so sometimes people will just grab an extra piece of bread and split it.’”

Dale-Oaster has labored in the food service industry since getting a front-of-house gig in college. She worked as a waitress at both Southern Lights and Bert’s Seafood before getting into the catering business.

‘“Most people think it’s strange that I didn’t go to culinary school, but I learned a lot by osmosis,’” she says.

At Bert’s Seafood and Southern Lights she had to learn the menus backwards and forwards. Some of that food knowledge clearly stuck.

Eventually the old owners of the catering business offered to sell it to her because she had always had good ideas. Since then, the catering business has sustained its strength, and her wraps can be found at Tate Street Coffee and Guilford College’s Greenleaf coffee cooperative.

And the name? Hogan was Dale-Oaster’s Great Dane, a beloved pet who has since passed on to doggie heaven. But his image at least, a serious and loyal face, still adorns the logo for this business aiming to provide convenient comfort here in our corner of the earth.

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