How the Mom Founders of Hip Chick Farms Made Frozen Chicken Nuggets a Culinary Fave
BY ERIN QUINLAN for HEY MAMA
How this for winging it? Jennifer Johnson and Serafina Palandech bought a historic farmhouse in 2011 in hopes of a creating an idyllic life for their daughter, Ruby Rose. Sure enough, they scored lots of scenic beauty. But the Sebastopol, Calif., couple also ended up launching Hip Chick Farms, an organic, GMO-free frozen-chicken business that in five years has grown into a multimillion-dollar operation with nationwide distribution partners in Whole Foods, Walmart and Kroger supermarkets.
As if that weren’t enough, Jen (above right)—who honed her kitchen skills at Chez Panisse and served as executive chef for the billionaire Getty family—and Serafina (left), an events producer and LGBTQ community activist, recently opened The Kitchen, cheekily billed as “the world’s first organic chicken nugget tasting room.”
In between greenmarket runs and PTA meetings, Jen sat down with heymama to share the story of how Hip Chick Farms took off, the secret to splitting duties with her wife, and the restorative power of raising adorable animals.
HEYMAMA: It’s been a busy couple of years for Hip Chick Farms, but let’s start at the beginning. How did you and Serafina meet?
CHEF JENNIFER JOHNSON: Serafina’s friend, Maria, was my coworker back when I worked for the Getty family. Maria basically introduced us. Unbeknownst to Serafina, however, I had actually seen her around before. Maria has a great sixth sense when it comes to connecting couples. Sparks flew, and the next few months were magical.
After a few years of living in the Mission—in a part of Mission that’s almost at the end of San Francisco—our daughter, Ruby Rose, was born. Serafina and I got the itch to live in a house with more space, a home closer to nature. We picked out a lovely 1970s farm home in gorgeous Sebastopol, a quirky, green, sprawling, bohemian-type city in Sonoma County. It’s a cool, open, awesome community, full of former city slickers like us. During our first tour of the home, I had a vision of Serafina on the back porch, 30 years in the future, with her gray hair up in a bun, getting ready to feed the horses. That’s when I knew it was the home for us. We both fell in love with it immediately.
In the early years of your family’s farm life, you were also holding down a high-profile job as an executive chef.
That’s right. I started out as an intern—a baby chef!—for Alice Waters’ restaurant, Chez Panisse, which was a pioneer in the organic foods movement, really one of the first restaurants to be cooking in this new modern way. I left in 2001 to work for the wonderful Getty family and stayed with them for years.
In October 2016, we visited the White House to prepare a meal for President Obama and his staff of 200, which was such a huge honor. I would never have guessed when I was starting out in the food biz that I would be cooking at the actual White House!
Tell us more about that journey. What were your experiences as a woman in the food and restaurant business?
I was drawn to Chez Panisse because it had a reputation for being a safe environment for women chefs, particularly back then, when tough working conditions and even harassment were common for women in the industry. I had worked in some pretty challenging places and wanted a fresh start.
It’s kind of a funny story, how I ended up there. I walked in with a backpack on, this young kid from the sidewalk, looking like some random punk teenager. Point-blank I asked the person behind the counter, “Can I be an intern?” The person was like, “Are you kidding me?” I ran out so quickly that I left my backpack behind by accident. I went back with my cowboy boots—I remember those in particular—and tried again, basically begging for a gig. They finally said, “All right, all right, you’re in!”
True to its reputation, Chez Panisse was a super supportive environment, with lots of female energy. The vibe there was thoughtful, kind and positive. I never looked back.
That’s all very fancy! So what prompted you to start a chicken nugget company?
The “hatching” of the idea was really a fluke. It came about thanks to my kitchen creations and curated lunches. I often made chicken fingers and nuggets for BBQs, dinners for friends at our farm, and, of course, for Ruby Rose and her tiny friends, not to mention for the events I worked on.
Kids and adults always loved them, always asked for more. I couldn’t bake them fast enough. Neighbors, clients and friends of friends started asking for my secret nugget recipe. That’s how the nugget idea was hatched and how Hip Chick Farms was born.
At the same time, I was still commuting several hours every day back and forth from the city, and it started getting to me. My dream was to develop the family business and spend more time with my family. That’s when I decided to go full-time with Hip Chick Farms.
Not only are you and Serafina co-founders; you’re spouses. What are the challenges and advantages of that unique relationship? What strategies have you developed for working so closely together?
One reason we decided to open our new restaurant concept was to play up our strengths. I would oversee the menu, and Serafina would take care of the business side—she’s so good at that! Having clear divisions of labor makes the day-to-day management fairly smooth. We try to divide and conquer in business, and present a united front on parenting.
Being Serafina’s cheerleader and support system, watching her grow as a human and as a leader—I think it’s truly brought us closer. It’s a beautiful life, and we are so grateful.
Your products are handmade in small batches. What changes are you considering as your business grows?
One priority is growing with our co-packer to be able to fulfill the incredible and humbling customer demand. Another priority is scaling properly—finding a partner to follow my lead as chef at The Kitchen. We’re really excited about the coming year.
You’ve said your daughter Ruby Rose, now 7, is a big part of your business. How does she help out?
She’s our taste tester! If she approves of a product, it means it’s a winning recipe. She has an uncanny ability to pick out product winners. I think that’s one of the secrets of our success.
What’s a typical day like for your family?
At 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., I rise and shine and make breakfast, usually oatmeal and fresh-farm eggs from our backyard. Then I feed the animals: We have Bessie the cow, Red Fred the Mangalitsa pig, Willie the Kune Kune pig, two mama goats with their babies—3 boys and 1 girl—Lucy the wiener dachshund, and Speckles the kitten rescue.
After making sure make sure the animals are all set up for the day, I drop off Ruby Rose at school. I then forage for The Kitchen at farmer’s markets, specialty shops and grocery stores around the area. After that, I head The Kitchen and prep, support the cooks and make sure everything looks good. Throughout the day, I pop into the Hip Chick Farms office to see how Serafina is doing with all the business and marketing and PR stuff.
In addition to running a farm and packaged-food business, you now run a restaurant. What lessons have you drawn from your real-life interactions with customers?
I am an introvert and have a hard time being in the public eye. Though I love what we’ve created, it’s sometimes hard for me to get out of the kitchen and interact with folks. I’ve really had to get comfortable with putting myself out there—with customers and, of course, with the media. I had to do an ABC7 morning show once, and I was mortified! I am so much more comfortable behind the scenes. But you know what? It’s worth to see a customer really “get it,” when their face lights up as they look at the menu or they open up the freezer full of Hip Chick Farms boxes and take home an armful of boxes. That’s a great feeling.
How do you decompress from the pressures of running your businesses?
My safe haven is going to the cliffs in Bodega Bay. It’s where my dad and I used to spend time together. I love the crab shack, Spud Point Crab Company. I also ride my bike and head out to the water to get some positive ions going. Riding my bike almost feels meditative.
I also love being around our animals. Being out with them helps me get centered after a stressful day—their energy is just wonderful. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that they’re adorable. Nature is like my church, and our animals are my therapist. Of course, I also sneak out and get a massage here and there.
What’s it like to serve kiddie customers after cooking for such high-profile clientele?
Well, what I’ve learned is that, regardless of what high-profile politician or queen you’re cooking for, it’s all about the love and the human connection. When there’s good food that’s well thought-out and well prepared with incredible ingredients, it doesn’t matter who’s sitting around the table. It truly tears down barriers and brings people together. You can feel the love and the connection.