words: Marla Cantrell
images:courtesy Perky Pantry Girls
It’s one o’clock on Sunday afternoon, and Jessica Irgens, Sarah Sawyer, and Jeremy Martin have already put in a day’s work. The three make up Perky Pantry Girls, a Fort Smith, Arkansas business that’s designed to make healthy eating easy.
A big part of their services includes what’s going on today. They’ve taken over Patrick’s Butcher Boy Burgers on Rogers Avenue, which is closed on Sunday, and all morning they’ve been preparing ready-to-cook meals for their clients, which will either be picked up or delivered a bit later.
But even before this team showed up for work, Jeremy, the chef in the trio, was at the market doing serious harm to the produce section. “They’ve gotten to know me at Walmart,” Jeremy says. “I’ll come in with my list, and they’ll say, ‘Let me see it,’ and they’ll go in the back and get everything they can. Before they did that, I was emptying their shelves in produce.”
Jessica says, “I had a friend who said, ‘I don’t understand why I can’t find cilantro at Walmart anymore.’ And I said, ‘Are you shopping on Sunday?’ When she said she was, I told her she had to get to the store before Jeremy or she didn’t stand a chance.”
While the story is funny, it also shows how successful Perky Pantry Girls has become since it opened in June 2016. Jessica and Sarah started the business and brought in Jeremy two months later.
“I was teaching a weight loss class, and Jeremy was the chef,” Jessica says. “People would say, ‘Can I just take you home with me? Could you just cook for me? I wish you could shop for me.’ I’d done counseling for eight years and I knew what people wanted and needed. I felt like people knew what they needed too but they were getting bogged down in the planning and the actual doing.
“Think about celebrities. They have people who cook for them, who plan their meals, and when you look at them, you think, I could do that if I had the kind of support they do. That’s what we’re doing. We’re giving you your own dietitian, your own chef. Only we’re much more affordable.”
Sarah, a wizard at marketing who has a Nutrition degree, says, “We started out with this idea of how to help the community, to help them be conscious of their eating and give them that convenience factor. We wanted to keep them from going through the drive-thru.”
They knew there was a market for meal delivery services like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, both national companies with huge followings. With the expertise they had, they believed people in the area would support them. Now, they have loyal customers who rely on them for healthy, fresh food.
One of their top sellers is the Veggie Burrito Bowl. “When we first put it out, we didn’t know if people would be excited,” Sarah says, “because it was a vegetarian dish. But from the first time we offered it, people loved it.”
Each week, they offer a different menu. With dishes like Baja Chicken with Avocado Salsa and Cilantro Lime Rice; Flank Steak with Chimichurri, Herbed Gold Potatoes, and Green Beans; and Chicken and Cashews with Curry Rice Pilaf, everyone is happy. They even offer crock-pot meals. Every detail is taken care of, down to chopping the vegetables. All customers have to do is cook the meal using the simple recipes that are included.
As for the cost, their meals average eleven dollars for each person.
One of the nicest compliments they’ve gotten was from a customer who had a picky five-year-old daughter. “She told me her daughter was only eating chicken nuggets until they started using Perky Pantry Girls, and now she’s cooking with her, eating everything on her plate and asking for seconds,” Jessica says.
“We started out with this idea of how to help the community, to help them be conscious of their eating and give them that convenience factor. We wanted to keep them from going through the drive-thru.”
“A lot of thought goes into the meals. Everything’s fresh, it’s balanced, all the macro-nutrients are there, and it’s rich in fiber and minerals,” Sarah says. “Calories are usually between 350-450 calories, and for the most part, you can prepare a meal in around thirty minutes, unless baking is involved.”
Perky Pantry Girls offers several other services. Jessica works with clients on written meal plans. She’ll conduct consultations, discuss their goals, and talk to them about how to get there. Once she has that information, she’ll gather recipes, and Jeremy will tweak them. If the clients need support, Jessica is available.
If clients don’t have time to get to the market, Perky Pantry Girls will even do the grocery shopping.
Jeremy, who trained at Oklahoma State Culinary School in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and has cooked for Tiger Woods, and the Cleveland Browns, will come to your house to cook a meal. “I collaborate with the host on the menu, and then I’ll either teach you how to cook or I’ll do the cooking and serve you,” Jeremy says. “For the cooking classes, I’ve worked with all levels, from those who can’t turn on an oven to those who make their own pasta. It’s just a whole lot of fun.
“It’s a great learning experience. For example, if we’re making risotto I can show them how to make the one they’ve chosen, but I can also tell them how to make Wild Mushroom Risotto or Southwest Crab Risotto.”
Jessica says, “We’ve done the cooking classes for birthday parties, and for friends.” And then she laughs. “Once, my husband singed his hair.”
“Yeah,” Jeremy says, “it smelled a little like burnt hair for a while.”
Sarah pats Jeremy on the shoulder. “People love Jeremy. I’ll get texts the day after he’s been to someone’s house to make dinner, and they’ll say, ‘That was the best time ever.’”
Jeremy smiles. Growing up, his mom was a busy woman and while she was a killer baker, she, like most of us, would often turn to mixes and frozen foods to get a meal on the table. “I tell her I grew up on Stouffer’s,” Jeremy jokes. But when he went to visit his grandparents in Pennsylvania and Ohio, they’d make things like pork loin with sauerkraut. “I couldn’t ask enough questions. ‘What is this flavor?’ I’d ask. When I thought about college, I knew I either wanted to be a chef or teach in elementary school.
“So now, I’ve gotten to combine what I love: cooking and teaching. I have a client right now who wants to cook with his two kids, and I’m working on that class. I couldn’t be happier.”
The Perky Pantry Girls’ slogan is, “Healthy just got easy.” Jeremy says, “Yeah, they shot down my idea, which was: Punching obesity in the face one calorie at a time.”
They laugh then, these three happy ambassadors of good health.
Sarah says, “We have lofty goals, which we’re going to meet. We started with just one client, and we watched the business grow. In November, we saw a big increase, and it’s just continued. It hasn’t even been a year, and people are responding so well.”
One of those goals is finding a permanent place. They want their own kitchen, one where Jeremy can schedule cooking classes. “My goal is to see people cooking at home again, getting their kids involved, loving it. I kind of want it to be like fifty years ago when cooking at home was what you did.”
The three believe life can be like that again. Each time they meet a new customer, they feel like they’re working toward that dream. And that, to the Perky Pantry Girls, is the best part of this company they love so much.