Owner, Nala's Kitchen
Owner, Nala's Kitchen
Beca Tuinei, better known as Chef Beca, was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Throughout her childhood, her grandmother taught her the art of cooking, from handcrafted tamales to homemade salsas. Her family moved frequently, but she never lost her love of food, no matter what kitchen she was in.
After high school, she attended a recording and engineering school in Arizona. Over the next decade, her work took her to studios all over the country.
“I wasn't making a lot of money, but the artist would give the recording crew budgets for food and lodging while we were in town” Beca said.
Although she worked with Kayne West on his original album and was featured in the song “Hey Ya” by Outkast, Beca grew tired of the music industry and knew she needed a change. She flew to New Mexico to visit her grandmother, with the goal of both taking a much-needed break and gaining some clarity for her future. And that is exactly what she returned with.
“We were talking, just making food as usual, and my grandmother said to me, ‘Why don't you just start cooking; you love it, you always have.” Right then, she decided to enroll in culinary school and follow her passion for food.
Beca attended Le Cordon Bleu, starting at a campus in California. A mentor at the school suggested Beca move to Las Vegas, where a large new casino was opening and needed culinary talent. She switched campuses and immersed herself in opening up one of 12 new restaurants in the Wynn Casino.
“We did everything and built the restaurant from the ground up, from building the pantry shelves to streamlining inventory to creating the new recipes. I was a chameleon and learned as much as I could.”
When her two daughters approached school age, she wanted to move closer to family. Landing in the bustling town of West Hartford, Beca and her family settled into the community. She found work in the kitchen at Grant's in West Hartford, served as Executive Chef at a Bloomfield golf course, and secured a position at a food management corporation. But Beca’s trajectory in her field pivoted unexpectedly when she was seeking a new home to rent.
“I was wearing a chef coat and my soon-to-be landlord asked if I cooked for a living. When I said yes, he replied, ‘If you cook for me and make me some prepared meals to get me through the busy workweek, I’ll knock your rent down substantially.’ I didn't hesitate in saying yes.” She didn't know it yet, but that was the start of Nala’s Kitchen.
Her landlord brought the prepared meals to work, where they attracted attention. She was soon preparing meals for everyone in his office.
“We joke about how he was my original meal prep broker,” Beca said.
At the time, Chef Beca was still working 40 hours a week for another company and juggling the pressures of single motherhood. She contemplated the challenges of starting her own business. Beca decided to rent a kitchen and officially launched her business. The name ‘Nala’ Kitchen is a combination of her two daughters’ names, Nola and Nina. She decided that a meal preparation model allowed her to focus on creativity and quality, without the overhead, hours, or management responsibilities of a full-scale restaurant.
“I’m proud that I’ve been able to expand over the years without losing the original concept or brand I created. I didn’t water it down, I created more of a force behind it,” Beca said.
Sales declined slightly during the pandemic, as some of Nala’s Kitchen business customers shut down and suspended their orders. But she did garner new, local customers; people who were trying to limit their trips to the grocery store and appreciated Nala’s contact-free delivery. Beca knew the only way to grow the business was to redefine her approach and try strategic marketing.
She secured funding from a PPP loan, and in following other women-driven companies and focus groups, she stumbled upon the EMG Grant and decided to apply.
“I hadn’t worked with WBDC before the EMG grant, but I can tell you one thing - I won’t ever stop utilizing them from here on out. Whatever your background is, they truly have provided an education I couldn't have gotten elsewhere, in a way that wasn’t intimidating at all.”
Tuinei was able to utilize the grant to revamp her marketing campaigns and invest in a consultant who used out-of-the-box thinking to gain her new customers.
“I felt like I was in a hamster wheel, just focused on getting more business, and running the business. It didn’t give me time to really strategize. The EMG grant gave me the opportunity to bring in outside help and collaborate with professionals to elevate my overall marketing thought process,” Beca said.
Nala’s Kitchen offers meal packs, a la carte options, and other subscription-based meals plans, with top sellers being her Cauliflower Mac & Cheese and her new vegan Bolognese - although her favorite dish to make at home with her daughter is tamales! With the help of the EMG grant, Beca plans to take her business statewide in the years ahead.
Chef Beca has embraced the WBDC community, participating in mentorship programs and focus groups with other female entrepreneurs.
“It’s amazing to have someone relatable, someone who gets it. Sometimes you’re receiving advice or tips on how to have a better work-life balance, sometimes you're just hearing that other people share the same struggles. It’s like minds, coming together under the umbrella of a wonderful organization.”