Kate Meier was getting tired of dark alleys.
“Chefs were eager for me to make deliveries, but it had to be after their shifts were over,” she said. “I remember having to use the alley to get to Benedict’s kitchen door for a delivery to chef Mike Rakun. He was waiting with a couple other chefs, and they were all calling dibs on which ones they wanted.”
What the chefs were awaiting so eagerly was one of the BA Craftmade professional chefs’ aprons from Meier, which are becoming the new must-have garb for many restaurants throughout the Twin Cities and beyond.
For the past few months, Meier, of Minnetonka, was selling her aprons through word of mouth — the kind that travels fast among chefs and other restaurant professionals, for whom knives and aprons are essential tools. After many late-night deliveries like the one to Rakun, Meier decided it was time to make an official business out of what had been, up to then, an at-home project that was outgrowing its humble beginnings.
She teamed up with Trent Taher, whose day job is as vice president of purchasing at his family’s contract food service management company, Taher Inc. He had seen the aprons for sale at Lowry Hills Meats in Minneapolis (owner Erik Sather was an early fan) and contacted Meier to learn more, eventually becoming her business partner. They describe themselves as “teammates.” Meier adds, “He’s my cheerleader.”
BA Craftmade Aprons launched a website in June, started shipping products in July and is maintaining an active social media presence. The aprons start at $50 and are available at Lowry Hills Meats or online at bacraftmadeaprons.squarespace.com.
If you’re thinking that, like a rose, an apron is an apron is an apron, then you haven’t yet talked to one of Meier’s rabid fans. Case in point: Thomas Boemer. After Meier left a gift apron at his Revival restaurant, he contacted her to order more. (“My son Corey is a big fan of Thomas, and he urged me to do it,” Meier admitted.)
“It’s all about the apron,” Boemer said in an interview. “Nobody wears a chef’s coat anymore. It’s the apron that’s the modern chef’s uniform. I have other aprons, but Kate has solved a lot of problems with this one.”
One of her solutions to common chef problems is cross-back strapping that reduces the neck-tug of traditional aprons.
“I’ve worked in kitchens for 20 years, and I used to have to take off my apron all the time to pull down my shirt to readjust it,” Boemer said. “There’s also the size issue. I’m 6-foot-3, and I’m a big guy, so other aprons are like miniskirts on me. Having Kate’s apron has definitely improved my work life.”
During an interview at his new restaurant In Bloom at the Keg & Case Market in St. Paul, Boemer modeled his custom-made leather apron.
“Look at this!” he said as he demonstrated squatting, lifting and turning in a circle. “It stays put!” he said. Boemer loves Meier’s aprons so much that he’s outfitted the In Bloom staff with distinctive yellow organic cotton designs.
Meier’s new business began with a request.
“All my three sons are chefs, and one of them asked me to sew him a better apron than the ones he was wearing, ” she said. In addition to sons Corey, Blake and Luke, she and her husband, Chris, have a daughter, Emmalene, a student at the University of Minnesota, who pitched in with her mom’s new business by building the website and running the Instagram account.
Creating that better apron required research on Meier’s part.
“I spent a lot of time in the kitchens where my sons work, to figure out how to get it right,” she said. “The aprons they were wearing were not cheap, but they were uncomfortable, didn’t move with them, stained easily and had poorly placed pockets that caught crumbs too easily.”
She found military-grade fabric that was durable, stretchable, stain-resistant and water-resistant.
“My sons were happy, because they could go from working at a fryer, covered with oil, to a station where they were working with flour, and still be able to wipe the apron clean,” she said.
Her observations in restaurant kitchens also led her to develop a model for female chefs, the Lady Cut, that includes pleats at the top straps, for comfort and coverage.
Meier named her business BA Craftmade as a nod to her grandfather, Frank Boerboon, who had been a butcher.
“Boerboon Aprons — BA — sounded cool to me,” she said.
Other chefs began to notice her sons’ new aprons and asked for their own custom versions.
Ann Ahmed outfitted the staff of her new Lat14 Asian Eatery in Golden Valley in Meier’s designs.
Yia Vang, co-founder of Union Kitchen, asked for a black apron with red straps and a front pocket that could hold a Sharpie and a pocket knife. The design proved so popular that it’s now known as the “Yia.”
Meier seems to thrive on the creative challenge presented by special requests. When Anderson Witherell of the Fish Guys requested an oyster-shucking apron to wear while working at the Meritage Oysterfest, Meier stayed up all night to create it and deliver it just in time. It has an inside front pocket to keep a phone dry, a back clip (front ties would get wet), a loop to hold an oyster knife/carabiner and a lower half made of a water-repellent fabric called Nomex.
“It’s fire-resistant, too,” Meier explained, “but Anderson got very nervous when I took a lighter to his apron to demonstrate.”
Word is spreading. Chefs in Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Naples, Fla., and West Virginia are wearing her designs, as well as chefs in Canada and Ireland.
When Tim McKee of Octo Fishbar in St. Paul asked for a custom-made apron, he drew in chalk on the back of an existing apron to show Meier where he wanted his pockets to be. After he wore the apron during a television appearance and posted a photo on Instagram, more inquiries rolled in.
“The problems we have now are good ones,” says Taher, who points to the current waiting list as a chief concern. He and Meier are exploring ways to ensure that her high-quality products can be produced in enough quantity to meet demand.
“We’re trying to be transparent, but we want to make sure we take the time to maintain our standards,” he said.
Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter: @KendrickWorks.