She cooks so you don’t have to

Like many people, Fulton resident Jason Bowles has a busy life. He and his wife Carla used to cook at home often, but over time, their culinary exploits dwindled due to their packed schedules.

That led to a cycle of constant eating out - expensive and less healthy, Jason Bowles said.

So last summer, the Bowleses decided to try a personal chef, which Jason Bowles now calls the "best decision" and actually saves them money versus eating out.

The couple's personal chef lives a few blocks away in the Windom neighborhood. That's where chef Annie Wobbeking lives with husband Brian Wobbeking, the manager of their business, Annie's Cooking Tonight.

The Wobbekings have grown their chef/catering business over seven years, cooking so people like Jason and Carla Bowles don't have to.

Using Annie's Cooking Tonight

There are many different ways customers use the Wobbekings' services. While Annie Wobbeking will cook in someone's home, she said many customers prefer that the food be dropped off and frozen.

Brian Wobbeking said pricing for chef service is typically $200 for one week for one person, and goes up to more than $555 for two weeks for four people.

When cooking at a person's home, Annie Wobbeking said she carries large plastic tubs for her pots and pans, spices and ingredients. She said once there, she likes to be very organized before starting to cook; she'll wipe down the counters, lay out produce and set out the pots and pans.

She said a larger kitchen isn't always better for cooking, because it's harder to have necessary cooking items - such as her favorite Mac knife - close at hand.

Wobbeking has her own kitchen in Plymouth - the law prevents her from cooking in her own home - with a large commercial range and ovens. There, she can store the food for delivery or events.

Customers can choose dishes from the endless list on Annie's Web site (see link at bottom of the story) or bring their own recipes to try. The Wobbekings supplement their offerings with new recipes from trips to places such as New Orleans, Germany and Italy. They can accommodate specialty diets, too.

Some customers are on a weekly or monthly schedule with the personal chef service, for some it's a temporary thing - one client, when laid up with a broken leg, had the Wobbeking's cook for her family everyday for more than a week.

Annie also said that people have started to give gift certificates for her services to friends and family who are new moms or consumed with serious illnesses, like cancer.

But the personal chef service is just half of the business; they've also been successful as caterers, doing parties, events and weddings. For this, the couple has hired part-time help for food presentation and service.

Customer response

Their customers range in situation and reason for using the business. "We've had people on WIC [government assistance], and the [U.S.] Speaker of the House [Dennis Hastert]," Brian Wobbeking said.

The Wobbekings said some customers use the service, because they're busy and others because they don't like to cook. But customers such as Judy Murphy say they use Wobbekings' services because "the food is tasty."

Murphy, who splits time between Wisconsin and the East Calhoun neighborhood, said the food portions are generous, which helps when she has more guests than expected.

She said she's used the business for five years, for everything from breakfasts to first communion celebrations and events. Murphy said her favorite dishes are the chicken and pork meals, but she especially likes the blueberry cobbler.

Murphy said she appreciates and recommends the Wobbekings because they're friendly, accommodating by delivering and packing meals, and "they'll go the extra mile."

Bowles said he likes the menu Annie has created, so they typically stick to that. He said they've set up a schedule for the Wobbekings bring 10 meals every three weeks from the rotating menu. "We use them as our primary food source," he said.

Bowles, who said he's lactose intolerant, said he appreciates their attention to his diet restriction and the provision of healthier meals, which he wasn't getting eating out.

Bowles said they've referred friends to the service but recognize the business's elite-sounding nature.

"People think, when you say you have a personal chef, at first glance it sounds a little pretentious," he said. "But it's worth its weight in gold.

Cooking up a business

Annie Wobbeking got the idea for her business one day when she got fed up with the catering company she worked for. "They used to do big parties, and I wanted to do more intimate things," she said.

She had read a story in City Business (now the Twin Cities Business Journal) about a woman who'd become a personal chef, so Annie decided to give it a shot.

She said that, luckily, Brian had a good job at the time that gave her the flexibility to explore entrepreneurship and self-fund the business.

Annie said she started by hanging flyers about her services at coffee shops around Southwest and beyond. Brian's corporate job was subsequently downsized, and he decided to join the operation.

Although she said her mother is her cooking mentor, Annie admits she prefers to cook by herself and be more behind the scenes. Still, Brian said he lends a hand cooking meat in addition to handling the business operations - quickly adding, "97 percent of the cooking is done by Annie."

The Wobbekings said they've seen their client base grow from one customer every two to three weeks to five customers per week - and 10 to 12 end-of-the-year holiday weeks. The couple said customers must now book orders two weeks in advance.

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