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Concierge in the Kitchen

A new Burlington entrepreneur will wait on you and make you sweat, too


Published January 13, 2010 at 6:50 a.m.

Leslie Kaufman - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Leslie Kaufman

For some people, there’s nothing more relaxing than slicing, stirring and simmering. The resulting plate of turkey meatloaf with mashed sweet potatoes and wilted spinach or heart-healthy grilled chicken Parmesan with sautéed broccoli is just icing on the cake. But those who’d prefer to see the food appear without the effort can hire someone like Leslie Kaufman.

Kaufman will bake you frosted sugar cookies. She’ll help pick out the perfect Rioja to pair with a platter of paella. Carrying around some extra post-holiday weight? She’ll get you moving until you lose it.

Kaufman isn’t your imaginary best friend or a sci-fi “domestic robot” like Rosie on “The Jetsons.” She’s a slender, vivacious 26-year-old with shoulder-length, dark brown hair, high cheekbones and a Long Island accent that emerges when she gets excited. And she’s the owner of a new Burlington-based concierge company called While You Were Out…

Concierge services are nothing new, and Kaufman performs plenty of the traditional tasks — she’ll wait on the phone to snag hot concert tickets, say, or bring your car to the mechanic. But she hopes her long-standing passion for food — and proficiency as a kitchen elf — will make While You Were Out... stand out.

A typical concierge will make your Friday-night reservation at Trattoria Delia, but she probably won’t offer to scour cookbooks and plan the menu for your mother’s 60th birthday party. Nearly half the offerings listed on Kaufman’s website have something do with eating — or drinking. And, as a certified personal trainer, she can help customers work off the same calories she helped them pack on. It’s the concierge equivalent of the dentist who hands out lollipops.

The question is, will Vermonters buy it? A Google search on “concierge Burlington Vermont” turns up just one listing besides While You Were Out…, and it’s located in Jericho. The Champlain Valley Yellowbook doesn’t have a single one. Kaufman knows that paying someone to do something you could do yourself — even something as frustrating as waiting in line at Costco or picking up dry cleaning — is a concept foreign to most frugal Vermonters. “This is a big-city idea that I’m trying to bring to a small city,” she admits.

Nonetheless, Kaufman believes such a business can be viable if the price is right. Her sales pitch entails urging potential clients to examine their priorities and delegate the tasks that make their days seem like drudgery. “A lot of people spend their hour [for] lunch going to the post office or running errands,” she says. “Why don’t you sit down and enjoy your lunch, and I’ll do that?”

Kaufman works out of her Burlington condo’s living room, with a stellar view of Lake Champlain. The nearby cherry-paneled kitchen attests to her foodie inclinations: It boasts numerous wine racks, a fancy coffeemaker that “sounds like an MRI machine,” says Kaufman, and a professional-looking gas stove and hood. Several times a day, Kaufman pops out to do her job, whether that means collecting mail for an out-of-town customer or taking a golden retriever for a stroll.

The relaxing workday is a change of pace for the New Yorker, who moved to Vermont in March 2008 to be with her sweetie, Matt Horowitz, a former Burton employee who now works as a sales rep for Artisanal Cellars. The small company in White River Junction focuses on selling organic and biodynamic wines.

“We dated for two years long distance, and one of us had to throw in the towel,” says Kaufman, who at the time had a glitzy job at ESPN helping coordinate television sponsorships at events such as the X Games and the IndyCar Series. An avid snowboarder, Horowitz was loath to relocate to the “concrete jungle.” But Kaufman decided she was ready for a change of pace.

Kaufman founded While You Were Out... in October 2009 after realizing she wasn’t likely to find a Burlington-area job in her field of sports marketing. But the seeds were sown months earlier, when she began walking dogs to supplement her income during an eight-month stint at Fuse, the Winooski youth marketing agency. “I started to walk dogs during lunch and sleep over at people’s houses [when they were away],” she says.

By the time the Fuse gig ended, last February, Kaufman’s pet-care business had picked up, but it wasn’t bringing in enough to pay the bills. It was her entrepreneurial brother, Jason, who suggested she become a full-blown concierge. “He said, ‘Why don’t you run errands and wait for the plumber [to show up]?’” she recalls.

As Kaufman researched what it would take to provide those services, her passion for food began to creep into the business plan. By the time she launched her website, nearly half the ideas she’d come up with for potential services were culinary — including playing personal chef by shopping and cooking for clients in her own home and dropping off the results. “Since I’m usually in the kitchen cooking for myself, I thought other people could benefit from me being in the kitchen,” Kaufman says.

For a single person or a couple, that service runs $30 per meal plus the cost of groceries — more mouths means a larger fee. Calling herself an adventurous cook and eater, Kaufman says she’s happy to experiment with new dishes to please her patrons. “[Matt and I] have recipes and cookbooks galore,” she reports, noting that the EatingWell website and the New Mayo Clinic Cookbook are often sources of inspiration. She particularly loves making soups, experimenting with marinades for salmon, and incorporating saffron and truffle oil into her home cooking.

She’s also keen on assisting people with dinner-party planning, and baking up thank-you gifts. “There are phenomenal bakeries in the area, but if you want to send somebody a casual cookie platter, you don’t want to spend $40 or $50,” says Kaufman.

Of course, it’s still pricier than making your own. Kaufman sees her target market as three main groups of locals: dual-income families with children and a busy lifestyle, people who have money and don’t like running errands, and young professionals committed to pampering themselves after long days at the office.

Taking care of tasks most people find mundane doesn’t bug the energetic former psych major, who also works as a personal trainer and spinning instructor. “Some people hate going to the grocery store,” she says. “I’ll spend an hour and a half [food shopping], no problem.”

Back when she lived in the Big Apple, Kaufman used food delivery services herself. She says the experience taught her to be gentle with other people’s grapefruit: “I didn’t like the produce I got because they didn’t care. They just threw it in the bag.”

When she’s hitting the market, Kaufman charges a 30 percent fee when customers spend less than $150 on groceries and 20 percent when they spend more. For other types of work, her rate is about $20 an hour, but may change depending on the circumstances of a particular job. “I’m very competitive on the pet front,” she opines.

Former-coworker-turned-client Sarah Humphries of Colchester agrees. “There’s a neighborhood girl who [walks dogs and house sits] when she’s home from college, and she charges the same thing,” says Humphries. “With Leslie, it’s her career, it’s her business, so she’s a little more professional.”

Over the holidays, Kaufman stopped by Humphries’ house to pick up the mail, take out the trash and water the Christmas tree, but she was willing to provide ad hoc assistance, too. “I was trying to track a package I’d sent, and I’d forgotten the tracking number,” says Humphries. Ten minutes after she called, Kaufman texted her the info.

When Humphries got home, she found the mail in a neat pile and a homemade New York-style cheesecake topped with cherries in the fridge. “My fiancé and I are getting married this year, and when we go on our honeymoon, I’m sure we’ll give [Kaufman] a call,” she says.

Kaufman says her business is growing slowly, mainly by word of mouth. “It’s very much a trust-building thing to give somebody the keys to your house,” she says. To help ease the transition, she always meets with clients before accepting a new job. “I want people who don’t know me to say, ‘I would be friends with this girl, so I can trust this girl,’” she explains. She hopes, over time, regular clients will feel comfortable letting her make their bank deposits or whip them up kosher food for Passover.

Can Kaufman find a healthy local market for her services in a recession, when many people are going DIY by necessity? If her eagerness to carve out her niche is any indication, the signs are good. Want help planning a tour of Vermont’s artisan cheese-making operations or breweries? “If there’s something you need that’s not on my list, I can do it,” she says.