NC chef Vivian Howard’s latest venture sets out to change food

Quietly, a fridge dropped on Bald Head Island last month that may be a window into food’s future.

North Carolina chef Vivian Howard launched her latest project this past week, a refrigerator stocked with gourmet meals ready to reheat.

Named “Viv’s Fridge,” the new venture is born out of the pandemic and diners’ new relationship to dinner. Howard sees a third space opening up between restaurants and the home-cooked meal.

“Before, you either cooked or you went out,” Howard said. “Now I think we have a whole other way of eating, where restaurants pivoted to meal kits. Maybe we don’t want to make a full meal, but I think we understand how to put shortribs in the oven.”

The first Viv’s Fridge landed on Bald Head Island, set up at 6 Maritime Way. Friday, the second one went live, set up in front of Howard’s flagship restaurant in Kinston, the Chef & the Farmer. A third will be up and running later this month on Emerald Isle.

Each is stocked with dishes meant to feed four people, including sides for times when diners just need something to go with something off the grill, or entire meals. Prices range from $25 to $75. Dishes include tomato pies, beef short ribs, blueberry barbecue chicken enchiladas and a slow roasted pork shoulder taco kit.

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The first Viv’s Fridge launched on Bald Head Island in June. Baxter Miller

But Howard’s larger vision goes beyond her restaurant group.

If she adds more Viv’s Fridges with her own dishes, they won’t be set up outside of Eastern North Carolina. Instead she sees other chefs taking the model and making it their own. She mentioned Raleigh chef Cheetie Kumar will launch a fridge of her own.

“It’s a totally new paradigm,” Howard said. “It’s a fun idea, and I think it’s a really big idea.”

A chilled box accessible at all hours is technology that’s been around for a while, selling soft drinks and candy bars. This isn’t that, Howard said.

Comparing it to a vending machine would be like comparing a flip flop to a rocket ship. Each Viv’s Fridge holds about $5,000 worth of meals and sides. Customers swipe their credit card any time day or night, the door opens and scales inside the fridge detect which items are purchased.

“It’s definitely not a vending machine, it’s a smart fridge,” Howard said. “It operates like a giant mini-bar. …. It’s a way of putting more handmade, quality food in front of people.”

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.

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