Fancy food

Alumna Kate Collier takes Charlottesville beyond sliced American.

By Leslie Atchley (English '05)
Collier and Gertner.

Collier and Gertner.
Photo by Jack Mellott.

It’s easy enough to measure the success of a business in terms of sales, profits and losses. But how can an entrepreneur really gauge the impact on the culture of the community?

Kate Collier (History ’94), founder and co-owner of Feast!, got her answer when a 4-year-old walked up to the cheese counter and said, “I want Manchego and Piave, Daddy!”

Feast!, located in Charlottesville’s Main Street Market, is a gourmet grocer and deli specializing in artisan-made cheeses, cured and fresh meats and pates. Opened in February 2002, it began as a cheese, wine and gift shop but has expanded its offerings to include a café serving grilled sandwiches, soups and salads, prepared foods like homemade spreads and take-home salads, and a wider selection of everyday essentials like organic dairy products and local produce.

Though Feast! has only been open a few years, Collier has worked in the Charlottesville food industry for more than a decade. The daughter of a bakery owner and a restaurateur, she was a cook at Northern Exposure and a waitress at Main Street Grill as a student and managed Foodworks on the Downtown Mall after graduation.

“I used to hang out at Foods of All Nations a lot to check out the new items and get inspired,” says Collier. “I was a history major and pre-law but was more interested in branding, packaging and what was new on the market.”

After two post-graduation years in Charlottesville, she moved to San Francisco and spent the next several years working for two small cheese-importing companies. She was the sales representative for Ulysses Foods in the San Francisco/Napa territory, a job that connected her to many fellow food lovers who taught her about the industry.

“It was a great way to meet people,” says Collier. “My clients were mostly chefs, so that got me into a lot of great restaurants. I would bring cheese and they would bring wine and we’d do tastings. That’s how I learned.” She also expanded her knowledge of imported and hard-to-find cheeses when she opened a West Coast distribution warehouse in Berkeley for the East Coast company Cheese Works, which has 6,000 specialty food items on its price list.

Doing business with cheese makers from Europe piqued Collier’s curiosity about the actual production process, so she and a chef friend — Sarah Mastracco (Psychology ’93) — took a trip through France, Spain and Italy to see it for themselves. “We saw cheese makers, wine makers, prosciutto curers and olive growers,” she says. “It was great to see how things are made and why, [to learn] who these people are and why they do it.”

Collier returned to the states and moved back home to Fauquier County. On a trip to Charlottesville to visit friends, she happened to meet Gabe Silverman, who was beginning to develop Main Street Market. From there things moved very quickly — they met for coffee, he made her an offer on the spot, and she signed the lease.

As she began planning and preparations for Feast!, Collier met her future husband, Eric Gertner, who was working for a local computer company that went under two days after they met. He became the CFO of Feast! and put his carpentry background to use by building all the fixtures for the store. They opened the store as co-owners, and despite careful planning overlooked a fairly important detail on opening day.

“We’d never had a business before, and so we opened and the first customer came in — we hit the cash register button and realized we didn’t have any change!” Collier recalls with a laugh. They worked out the kinks, got some change for the drawer and began getting tons of business. Within six months, they expanded their physical space and their product offerings. Feast! grew again in the fall of 2004 by adding the café and a catering business.

Feast! is committed to selling products that are family- or artisan-made in small-batch production. The owners also feel strongly about supporting Virginia cheese makers and offer as many small-farm-produced, American-made varieties as they can.

Collier says the current focus is promoting Feast! catering around Charlottesville. She especially hopes to tap into crowds that might not be familiar with the store, such as alumni in town for sporting events and in need of tasty tailgating food (she suggests the Virginia Country Ham Biscuits). And as for future expansion, she says, “If we can get things running like a fine-tuned machine, we’d love to open a couple more.”