Look through the frozen foods case at your local grocery store and you’ll find any number of convenient, easy-to-prepare meal solutions from pot pies and frozen dumplings to frozen pizzas.
But what if those same convenient items were made with fresh local ingredients and – better yet – interesting flavor profiles?
That’s the goal of Hot Dish Pantry, a new restaurant-style concept that aims to offer a variety of creative meal options including homemade pierogi, calzones, hot dishes and useful pantry items, all of which can be purchased and stored in your freezer, refrigerator or pantry until you need them.
Behind the concept are industry veterans Nathan Heck and Laura Maigatter, a couple who met while working at Braise Restaurant, but whose collective resume showcases a combination of front and back of house positions at restaurants including the late Coquette Cafe, Le Reve and Eagle Park Brewing.
“Over the years, we’ve had so many ideas for businesses we could launch,” says Heck. “But we really honed in on the Hot Dish Pantry idea over the past year. Essentially, the idea is to create different items to stock folks’ freezers, refrigerators and pantries.”
“It’s nice having things on hand that are just a no brainer, things that you can just grab out of the freezer or fridge and prepare easily,” adds Maigatter. “So, why not offer people those options made with better ingredients in flavors you won’t find anywhere else?”
Big flavors in familiar packages
On their surface, Hot Dish Pantry’s offerings are comforting and familiar. Most people have eaten a pierog or enjoyed a calzone. And everyone has tasted pizza, an offering they plan to showcase at their second pop-up on Jan. 28.
“I remember having Hot Pockets and Totino’s pizza rolls as a kid,” says Heck. “And those are things that conjure a similar, familiar feeling. These are foods that most people like. We’re just playing around with the flavors.”
Maigatter, who regularly snuck away from her flexible service industry job to spend a few months each year traveling, says she’s been to more than 25 countries, exploring locales in China and Southeast Asia and the Middle East and even living abroad for a while, splitting time between Israel, Norway and Ireland.
“One of the things I began to recognize as I traveled was that there are so many similarities between foods in almost every country,” she says. “Every culture has a dumpling. Everyone has some take on the food we call pizza... there are so many commonalities that we don’t necessarily acknowledge, and that commonality highlights how truly versatile some of these foods really are.
“We’re approaching this by disregarding ‘the rules’ and really playing with flavors,” she says, noting that they’ve played with both pierogi and calzones with flavor profiles as Midwestern as bratwurst and cheese curds and as global as aloo chaat, crab rangoon and massaman curry.
Heck nods. “We sit at home at night and brainstorm and sometimes have these really long conversations over glasses of whiskey. We have like 1,000 cookbooks here, so we look at those for inspiration. And then, we experiment to see what works.”
Some flavor profiles are derived from family recipes, like the creamy spinach artichoke calzone, which Maigattor says was inspired by the spinach artichoke dip her family serves around the holidays each year. Others are simply the result of late night brainstorms.
Despite his tenure as a chef, Heck gives credit to Maigatter for perfecting the doughs they’re using for Hot Dish Pantry creations.
“Laura is like a savant at making pastas and doughs,” he says. “If I’m having trouble getting something to work, she has this second sense about it and can just come by and fix it. She just knows what to do to get it perfect.”
As for the name, it offers a liberal nod to the concept of the “hotdish,” a one-dish meal that could well be declared the official state dish of Minnesota.
“Neither of us have any connection to Minnesota,” Maigatter says with a smile. “But the idea of a hot dish is such a Midwestern concept. It was also a really fun name that was general enough to embrace all the things we wanted to do.”
Those things include weekly sales of refrigerated and frozen items, including pierogi, personal pan pizzas, creatively flavored stocks and a variety of snacks, including creatively flavored oyster crackers, another snack borrowed from childhood, which Heck and Maigatter have recreated in both dill and ranch form, as well as creative spins like Thai curry.
In addition to sourcing ingredients locally, from vendors including Avrom Farm, Heck says they also look forward to partnering with other local businesses, whether it be a brewery or food producer, to create unique collaborations. also carry and sell items like hot sauces made by Michael Arms of Pepperrich Farm.
Get a taste
The inaugural Hot Dish Pantry pop-ups will be held at Hawthorne Coffee Roasters, 4177 S. Howell Ave., on Jan. 21 and Jan. 28 from 5 to 7 p.m., are meant to serve as an introduction to Hot Dish Pantry’s food, which will be available to order weekly in frozen form starting in February.
Dishes at the pop-up will be served hot and ready to eat. So, customers can stop in, place their order and take the items home (maybe along with a Hawthorne cocktail kit) or stay and enjoy a meal in Hawthorne’s large socially distanced dining area, accompanied by a coffee beverage or house cocktail.
For the pop-up on Jan. 21, guests can place a contactless order through the CashDrop app during the event. The menu will include a variety of snacks (seasoned oyster crackers in flavors like smokey and spicy, dill and ranch or Thai; and chai tea flavored puppy chow); pierogi (with fillings including loaded baked potato; prosciutto and leek; mushroom and kraut; and crab rangoon); calzones (with fillings like creamy spinach artichoke; pepperoni and sopressata; mushroom, chevre and rosemary; and beef curry); and soups (roasted chicken broth with vegetables; mushroom broth with roasted vegetables; or Tom Yum chicken and shrimp broth with chicken and shrimp meatballs).
Both pre-orders and walk-ins will be accepted for the Jan. 28 pop-up. Interested customers can pre-order items (including their pre-order only featured hot dish) through CashDrop Jan. 22 through Jan. 25 for pick-up on the 28th.
Stock your pantry
Following the pop-ups, Hot Dish Pantry will roll out weekly menus of refrigerated, frozen and pantry items (including pierogi, calzones, rotating hot dishes, personal pan pizzas and pantry items including snacks, stocks and condiments), each of which will come with preparation instructions, as well as ideas for using the items in more creative ways.
Menus will be released every Friday, starting Jan. 29, with pre-orders open on CashDrop Friday through Monday each week and pick-up on the following Wednesday. Their first official pick-up will take place Wednesday, Feb. 3 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Oak Creek Community Center, 8580 S. Howell Ave.
Moving forward, Heck and Maigatter hope to expand their pick-up locations, potentially hosting a second pick-up day each week in a location like Bay View.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.