Life in the restaurant industry is complicated, but Texas does love its chefs.
Zach Knight, an Austin restaurant industry vet of 12 years, was on a gondola in Aspen with his friend Emmie Nostitz when the idea for Tivity was born in 2020. Knight received a call from a client, if he could call them that, asking to be connected with an Austin chef for a private at-home dinner. He had been making those personal connections to keep the restaurant spirit alive during the pandemic, but it wasn’t a business yet.
Nostitz, a creative director in advertising living in New York, saw that call as the signal it was: there was a market for this kind of connection. For the next six months, Knight and Nostitz traded calls and texts full of incidental ideas for an informal product slowly unfolding.
One of Knight's calls included an acknowledgment (that Tivity had to be real) and an invitation (that Nostitz should join, no pressure). Like many New Yorkers ready for a change, Nostitz found herself in Austin for a visit two weeks later, and for a home in 2021.
Tivity has branched out since then — with markets in Austin, Aspen, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Chicago — but the service is still in a sweet spot between having an established community, and enjoying total freedom within its own system. It's not even tied to those markets; anywhere an individual chef is willing to travel is fair game, with nearby places like San Antonio representing a great opportunity to build lasting new cross-city relationships. That ethos extends to everything Tivity does. Most questions about how the service works are met with a question back: “How do you need it to work?”
As of July 2022, there’s a Google form to get things started. It asks about the necessary logistics, and opens up to “vibe.” The text boxes solicit information on the purpose of the event, the desired feel, and the type of guests, but notably, not the name of any chef or restaurant. But pulling from a wide pool of talent — sous chefs, chefs de cuisine, chef teams, and more from recognizable local restaurants — it’s hard to choose wrong.
“I think one of the best representations of what we do is a dating app. We are a matchmaker for chefs and clients,” says Knight. “We know what the chefs do, we know what the clients want, and we are matchmaking those experiences.”
Like a consultant, Tivity offers an opinion, or at least an idea. The team has noticed patterns early in conversations — clients choosing the same chefs and the same types of plates, again and again — that keep the service unnecessarily restricted.
“They say we want the chicken or the steak, and they don't know how to think outside the box,” says Nostitz, putting that paralysis of choice in sharp focus. “We end up talking to them and offering a Peruvian meal that they never, ever would have thought about.”
One of Tivity’s earliest, most defining meals took place during a more restrictive phase of the pandemic, for a client organizing her husband’s birthday. She requested steak. When she and Knight started planning over the phone, she mentioned that they would usually be in Spain, but couldn’t travel for birthday festivities. Tivity connected the couple with a chef to recreate “the dinner they would have had [in Spain],” who made a Spanish cake that caused the birthday celebrant to shed a tear over dessert.
“Before Uber, having a black car pick you up was getting a chauffeur,” says Knight, “and having a chef in your home was only stuff you saw on TV. We're really trying to bring that down so that it's a common idea.”
They’re succeeding. Tivity can get things started for a custom meal 24 hours after receiving a form, with about a month recommended in advance. Taking into account the huge variability Tivity offers (and the flexibility of pricing necessary to sustain that), a simple buffet-style spread could run a client in a home city roughly the same bill per person as most of the lower priced prix fixe menus around town on holidays. Meal preps are priced even lower, but for bigger budgets, a plated course dinner is comparable to one at top restaurants in Texas.
It’s as ready for an exclusive corporate celebration as it is for girls’ night. And hopefully, the duo says, it can make life easier on chefs, too, who suddenly have the chance to get creative and build a brand outside of the kitchen, to make some cash on the side, or even to offset a leisure trip near a far-away client.
Both Knight and Nostitz talk about the life-changing potential of food, for chefs and for everyone else at the table. Why should we be picky about whose table it is?
More information about Tivity, including an in-depth inquiry form and transparent pricing, is available at thetivity.com.