Above: A full meal spread from The Roost.
Ashley Keeler, a former fine-dining chef beginning age 22, longed for a life beyond those 14 hour days. Now, as the Executive Chef of Catering for The Roost, Ashley pivots mid-pandemic to stay true to the people.
Four years ago, Ashley saw a Facebook post from Ryan Shelton, owner and chef of Merchant Roots, proposing exactly what she needed. His mission focuses on people returning to their roots – that means living passionately, eating well, and taking care of each other.
While building Merchant Roots in 2016, Ryan began corporate catering to get things going during initial construction. “He wanted someone to take on this accidental corporate catering business,” Ashley admits. With no former background in catering, Ashley was ripe for a healthier venture.
What started as Merchant Roots Catering is now The Roost. After several successful years, the company’s navigating COVID-19 while launching this new brand name. As a corporate catering company, Ashley explains the uphill shift regarding brand recognition.
“Everyone knows our food but [we had] no way to get it to them because they worked through third-party vendors,” she explains. “We’re trying to remedy that,” Ashley continues, and that’s certainly not the only thing needing remediation right now.
New Roost, Familiar Food
Ashley’s four years in San Francisco have been jam-packed with culinary direction. “I fell backwards into it,” she mentions. “I have a degree in political science…this wasn’t my original plan.” Still, with extensive experience in Italian delis, butchering, making sushi, and fine-dining, Ashley’s more than up for the tasks at hand.
When it comes to the food, Ashley doesn’t hide that “Our chicken is the thing. We’ve tried other things but all anybody wants is the chicken.” Among its ancho chili powder rub with paprika and cayenne, it’s locally sourced and brined to perfection. “There’s no mad science, it’s just really good chicken from an hour away…We decided to go with what we already know,” Ashley states.
You know what they say…if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Roost holds an appropriate name for their best seller.
Ashley’s warm personality translates into the food. As the menu-visionary, she shares creating it “during shelter in place. [It’s] a little bit functional, a little bit creative…” Her intuitive choices stem from what she’d want to eat. “Sweet potato croquettes with cream cheese and spicy mayo. That’s what I would want,” Ashley entices.
The menu’s also crafted based on what’s available, and what Ashley can ensure will stay fresh. If there’s uncertainty, it won’t be done. Whether they get “one order a weekend or fifty, [it’s] things I can guarantee will always taste good,” Ashley promises. The staff’s integrity threads through its food unmistakably. Pandemic or not, here they come.
Hatching in San Francisco
Ashley trailblazes the comfort food market as a result of her own personal inquiries. While San Francisco’s known for its eclectic and diverse cuisines, Ashley identified a need to balance them with simple, grounding, comfort food.
“Sometimes I just want a sandwich or a good plate with delicious chicken and vegetables,” Ashley starts. “Sometimes I’m just looking for lunch.” Ashley emphasizes that while they have amazing food, it’s really about the basics. She describes their items as healthy in a way that transcends nutrition facts. It’s a holistic, soul-filling experience that still fuels you for the rest of the workday.
What began as a one-woman operation in a commissary kitchen two years ago’s sprouted into a strong team of four. When discussing the impact of COVID-19 on The Roost’s operations, Ashley inserts, “On day one of shelter in place…[we knew]…we were still going to pay them. There was no doubt…” The greater mission rests in providing a sane working environment in restaurants, which includes proper pay, balance, and healthcare – as it should be.
In COVID-19 Times
Ashley’s transparent about COVID-19 serving her up some humble pie. Her greatest challenge has been “getting really humble.” She explains, “In January, I was running this massive operation and it just kind of ran by itself…having to readjust and go all the way back to the beginning…making the conscious effort to go back go to the drawing board…was hard.”
While you’d think corporate catering would have the advantage over dine-in restaurants right now, “People aren’t going to work anymore…” Ashley interjects. Back to the drawing board, indeed.
It’s obvious Ashley’s focus remains on caring for her team through these times. “…I’m so elated with sincerity to say we will always do the most we can for them…We feel a great deal of responsibility for our employees…They know we’re all in this together…[We’re] trying to make this a livable situation for everyone,” she proclaims. What started as a Craigslist hire eventually multiplied into a close-knit family-feeling roost.
Creativity’s the name of the game during these times, as Ashley counts the blessings of every order. “I’m so grateful…every one order, every time I write the person’s name on the order…[I think], that person ordered our food…That’s how it starts is one person ordering lunch…” she depicts. Ashley’s keen on the domino effect of San Francisco foodies. She knows that “This is San Francisco…you read a blog, you read an article…people try it.”
The Roost team shows this time to be one of growth, building, and optimism. In the next few months, they expect to have a storefront. In the near future, they’ll likely stay focused on delivery, but Ashley’s excited to “start having a presence and being seen.”
Keep tabs on The Roost to connect with your roots. Support them today to see why Ashley insists, “It might just be chicken [but] it’s not just chicken.” Try it to see for yourself!