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Viv’s Fridge
Baxter Miller

Famed Chef Vivian Howard Brings Southern Holiday Favorites to a Vending Fridge Near You

Could refrigerated vending machines be the future for sustainable restaurants?

In June 2022, chef Vivian Howard announced the temporary closure of Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, after 16 years in business. Fans and industry folks were left with a huge void, wondering when the PBS star would reopen her acclaimed restaurant. Later that summer, a tech-savvy fridge branded Viv’s Fridge popped up outside of Chef and the Farmer, stocked with Howard’s home-cooked meals — almost like a playlist of greatest hits, only with the chef’s signature dishes in lieu of tunes.

Viv’s Fridge has slowly expanded into several markets: Emerald Isle (Emerald Isle Wine Market), Goldsboro (Farmer’s Ace Hardware), New Bern (Galley Stores and Marina), Wilson (Casita Brewing Company), and new this week, Raleigh at Wine Authorities, a local wine shop in the Oakwood neighborhood. It’s best described as a mini bar-meets-vending machine, where customers swipe a card on the side of the machine and grab their desires.

For the holidays, the fridge is stocked with ready-to-reheat dishes fans will recognize from Chef and the Farmer and Howard’s cookbooks, like sweet potato and winter green chowder with country sausage cornbread, breakfast casserole, and pull-apart party loaf (like monkey bread and French onion soup had a baby). In a pinch for a holiday party? Grab the “Party Magnet” cheeseball or chocolate candy cane cake (and a bottle of wine from Wine Authorities) on the way, as Viv’s Fridge never sleeps. Or feed four people with the family meal, complete with Kim’s meatloaf glazed in Howard’s signature barbecue sauce, mashed potatoes with goat cheese and arugula, and green beans doused with garlic and lemon.

Bake, boil, toss, and steam. That’s it. The fridge menu will change monthly and speak to the moment of holidays on occasion. For New Year’s, expect Howard’s take on black-eyed peas and collard greens for good luck.

The “Family Meal at Chef” dinner
Baxter Miller

One of Howard’s taglines for the fridge is, “Tastes like it took all day to cook, because it did!” Viv’s Fridge is cool and modern and tech-forward, but what isn’t visible to the eye is its potential answer to a restaurant’s sustainability.

”There’s something about the restaurant model that is broken and perhaps never worked,” she says. “I’ve been trying to figure out over the last five years or so,” she adds “How can this not be so miserable? How can running a restaurant not be so hard? How can it be that someone like me, after closing their doors for two weeks because of the pandemic, thinks you’ll have to shut down forever because you don’t have enough money saved up?”

The Party Magnet Cheeseball
Baxter Miller

“I was losing talented cooks, because they wanted daytime hours and wanted to have quality time with family,” she adds. For the first 10 years, Howard notes Chef and the Farmer was only open five days a week so the team was guaranteed two days off each week. “It gave us a real-life schedule we could count on,” she adds. When Howard decides to reopen the restaurant, the hope is to open from Thursday to Sunday and rely on Viv’s Fridge to continue feeding people chef-driven cuisine without being in seats — and give staff a better quality of life.

“We need to look at restaurants as means to really support the people who work in them and use it as a puzzle piece,” she says. “We have to diversify our streams of income, and I don’t think that comes in the form of shipping food because I’ve done that, and the waste and cost associated with that are not sustainable for anyone.”

Viv’s Fridge is a solution to scale but keeps the quality that diners and fans expect. “It’s an opportunity for restaurateurs like myself to leverage their reputations in a different way and put their food in front of an audience that’s hungry and familiar with their work,” she says. “It’s a low-investment way to make better use of the investments we already made in our kitchen and our staff.” And so far, it has exceeded people’s expectations.

Chocolate candy cane cake
Baxter Miller

Viv’s Fridge has faced its own set of challenges, such as figuring out technology kinks, but Howard is confident about the latest model, which has given her the ability to continue the expansion. By the end of December, Triangle fans will be excited to see Viv’s Fridge at the Wine Authorities Durham location. And coming soon: fridges in Chapel Hill, North Raleigh, Clayton, and Cary. In the future, she’s exploring the idea of a franchise concept, in which Howard would hand-select restaurants across the country that meet her standards.

When eating a tomato pie in summer or devouring sausage biscuits and rosemary gravy for breakfast, it’s almost like dining in Kinston at Chef and the Farmer. “You can taste us in it,” says Howard. “[Viv’s Fridge] solves problems,” Howard says. “There are so many restaurants and not enough people to support them.” It’s a smart approach to investing in systems, equipment, and staff already in place, and a way to not further expand a footprint versus opening a restaurant in an already challenging space.

Check out the progression of Viv’s Fridge locations and happenings here and keep in the know via Instagram.

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