Written by David Jackson,
University of Idaho Communications Director
July 1, 2022
University of Idaho Grad Overcomes Health Scare, COVID-19 to Realize Her Dream
Opening a restaurant three years into the COVID-19 pandemic might seem risky.
The only thing riskier for Danielle Christine (2016 B.S. Exercise, Sport and Health Sciences) was wasting one more day waiting for the perfect time.
On July 15th, 2021, she held the soft opening of her first restaurant concept, Haute Foods – the crescendo of a dream created while attending the University of Idaho.
On the same date two years earlier, Danielle lay pulseless in the back of an ambulance, unaware of the paramedics keeping her alive.
As a young woman, Danielle didn’t know much about the importance of healthy eating and nutrition. Growing up in Wallace, Idaho, her mother regularly worked double shifts as a CNA to make ends meet, leaving Danielle to fend for herself for meals. As a result, Danielle started cooking as soon as she could reach the stove.
Fortunately, her interest in cooking developed early on while attending a dual language pre-school in Joliet, Montana. Every day, her teacher’s husband paid a visit to the school to prepare a traditional Mexican meal for the class. Danielle and her classmates helped prepare the food, set the table, and see to the dishes when lunch was over. This memory was an early insight into the inspiration that fueled Danielle’s passion for food.
“Food is my love language – it has been for as long as I can remember,” said Danielle. “That’s where I learned that preparing, cooking and sharing a meal could be an act of love.”
Money was tight at home and Danielle understood if she wanted to attend college, she would need to pay for it herself.
Applying for every scholarship she could find during her senior year, Danielle earned upwards of 20 academic scholarships. Among them was a large grant from the Frank A. Morbeck Community Foundation in Wallace, which was specific to future Vandals.
Those scholarships, in addition to working full-time after and in-between classes, meant she would become a first-generation college student. Danielle acknowledged the impact that would have on her social life, but that was a price she was willing to pay to earn her degree.
“Continued education was always the path for me, there was never another option,” she said. “I started at a deficit, and I felt like I needed to continue my education to get ahead. At that point, I hadn’t learned the benefits of self-care or downtime. I didn’t know how to slow down.”
One role on the Palouse sparked Danielle’s passion for food. Working at Sangria Grille, a Peruvian restaurant in the heart of Moscow, she watched co-owner Carly Lilly return from the Moscow Farmers Market every Saturday with boxes of fresh, locally grown produce.
“I was amazed to see the difference of using fresh, organic ingredients,” Danielle said. “Sangria was my first experience with local sourcing and the impact of establishing relationships with local purveyors.”
While continuing to develop her skill set at Sangria, Danielle, who was enrolled at the College of Art and Architecture, was drawn to a flier at the Student Recreation Center. The flier featured the opportunity to study abroad in rural Nicaragua through the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences (CEHHS), working in local health clinics and supporting community education efforts.
Never having traveled internationally, and unaware of why this experience called to her, she contacted CEHHS and asked if they accepted students outside the college. The person she spoke with didn’t have an answer, because no one from outside the college had ever asked.
Danielle was surprised to receive the green light, and immediately applied. She was accepted, and soon found herself in a foreign country for the first time in her life.
Thanks in part to the relaxed pace of life of Nicaragua, Danielle finally took the time to discover who she was and what she wanted to be. For the very first time, she left her work behind and discovered life in the slow lane.
“We kayaked down the river, we watched sunsets on the beach, we practiced yoga in the jungle,” Danielle said. “Up until then, I had never allowed myself to slow down enough to really be present and experience the life happening around me. I felt at peace and connected to myself for the first time.”
Simultaneously, she had the opportunity to dig deep into her relationship with food. Living on a thirteen-acre organic farm, Danielle discovered how much better she felt eating simple, clean ingredients.
“Even the soy milk was fresh-pressed, daily,” she said. “I didn’t know food could be like this.”
With a desire to open restaurants even then, Danielle became obsessed with the idea of concepts that served healthy, organic foods, and provided her guests with the healthy, nutritious meals she didn’t have access to as a child.
“I always felt Danielle was motivated to serve,” said Helen Brown, Associate Professor of Public Health and Nutrition, Exercise, Sport and Health Sciences within CEHHS’s Movement Sciences Department. “Being immersed in a community so different from hers helped her realize the talents she has and what a positive influence she could be for others.”
Investing in Herself
Once she returned to U of I, Danielle transferred to CEHHS, changed her major and began thinking about how to integrate her love for wellness, art and food.
Victor Ferral (2014 Masters of Architecture), a fellow Vandal met while attending classes at U of I, agrees that she came back from Nicaragua a changed person.
“It always felt like Danielle was searching for a place on campus to call home,” he said. “She finally found where she belonged.”
After graduation, she moved to Boise in search of internships, a requirement of her program. She took an unpaid position with a holistic doctor’s office, which allowed her to continue her journey to wellness, as well as a paid position at a law firm.
Danielle quickly received a promotion at the firm and began climbing the corporate ladder. She also enrolled in a graduate program at Boise State University to earn her master’s in Business Administration. Old habits proved hard to break, and Danielle’s dreams of becoming a restaurateur were put on hold.
“I felt so much pressure,” she explained. “I can’t tell you where it came from, but it told me working in food service and restaurants wasn’t good enough. I felt like I needed to do something more to ‘make it.’”
During her time at the firm and again at the clinic, Danielle serendipitously crossed paths with Tifané Falvey, an executive business consultant. Falvey challenged her to think critically about what she wanted, encouraged her to stop focusing on others’ definitions of success, and helped her to plan and take action.
“Having invested everything I had into the dreams of others, Tifané suggested I invest 10 percent of my energy into my own endeavors, and asked me to imagine what that would look like,” said Danielle. “It was a comment I couldn’t unhear.”
While hedging her bet and keeping her job at the firm in addition to the internship at the doctor’s office, Danielle began constructing her dream to open her first food concept at the Capitol City Farmer’s Market in the heart of downtown Boise.
While preparing for the final taste testing before her grand opening, everything changed.
Time to Think
Danielle struggled to get out of bed on July 15th, 2019, which was unusual for someone motivated to tackle any to-do list. In an attempt to rationalize why she couldn’t move, she reassured herself she was fine, and was likely experiencing burn out from school, working full-time, and cooking. But she couldn’t pull herself out of bed. Her chest tight, breathing infrequent – it was clear something was wrong.
“It was the ceviche,” Danielle told herself, continuing to rationalize her symptoms. “This has to be food poisoning.”
Attempting to pull herself out of bed, she woke up on the floor, numerous times. Danielle was home alone, and her phone was nowhere to be found. Somewhere in the middle of losing and regaining consciousness, she remembered feeling guilty about how embarrassing it would be to call in late for work.
Miraculously, her hands made their way to her phone and she attempted to call 9-1-1. Her mind hazy, Danielle misdialed and called 9-9-1. After realizing the mistake nearly eight minutes later, she disconnected and tried again. By the time the ambulance arrived, she was in cardiac arrest.
Paramedics began working on her immediately, performing chest compressions for an hour and giving her seven adrenaline shots to the heart, perplexed as to what was happening. After ruling out one diagnosis after another, the attending physician in the emergency room, Chris Gnadinger, suggested a dose of TPA, hoping the problem was the result of a blood clot.
Following his instinct, he gave her a dose of TPA, and Danielle slowly began to stabilize.
Danielle suffered a double pulmonary embolism, which also caused her liver, kidneys, and pancreas to fail, and a lung to collapse. She also had a mild heart attack and was in a coma for three days.
“All I could think about while I was in the hospital was being gone at 26, and having not actualized any of my dreams,” Danielle said. “I made a promise to myself to not let that happen.”
Not taking No for an Answer
After six months of recovery, Danielle began rebuilding her future. Bypassing the small, pop-up model of food production and focusing on restaurant ownership, it was time to think big and jump in with both feet.
She was finalizing her plan just as COVID-19 began dominating the news. Soon, the entire restaurant industry would be turned upside down.
Danielle was undeterred. Too much time had passed already. And there was also the matter of the promise to herself she intended to keep.
“I couldn’t wait,” she said. “Even if that meant pivoting from my original plans.”
Haute Foods was a major pivot from her original business model. As a new business owner, omitting the 2,000 square foot brick and mortar space meant significantly lower financial risk. Operating from a commercial kitchen also meant low startup costs, and without investors, this offered a further sense of security.
Just under two years later, Danielle found herself with an opportunity to purchase a restaurant in Boise’s North End and open her first brick and mortar concept, Apericena.
Acquiring startup funds from two U of I alumni (a $20,000 gift from MaxGiving, a Boise area, U of I alumnus-owned company that creates software for fundraising ventures, and a $20,000 investment from Will Berry, a successful Treasure Valley area restaurateur), Danielle quickly found herself opening her second restaurant concept.
The menus for both Haute Foods and Apericena feature gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and vegetarian selections, an important detail for Danielle due to her own food limitations.
“I have an obnoxious amount of food allergies,” she said. “My menus include versions of what I love to eat but don’t get the privilege of enjoying due to how the recipes are classically prepared. I know if I’m feeling left out while dining at restaurants, others likely feel the same. Food is an experience, and no one should feel left out.”
Eating healthy is important to Danielle. But it’s not enough for her to just eat healthy – the goal is to live healthy, feeding both the mind and body.
Working upstream, a preventative concept learned from Brown while at U of I, is fueled by the idea that we should do everything we can to prevent critical health issues later on. This means giving your body the physical and mental fuel it needs to thrive. Danielle refers to this as “the foundation she has built everything on.”
“I want to educate as many people as I can about healthy eating and wellness,” she said. “These are things I did not have access to growing up. I want to show those around me there is a healthier way to live.”
Although she still spends upwards of 60 hours a week working, she insists she is living a healthier lifestyle and has found the balance she needs.
In addition to getting enough sleep and making sure she eats well, Danielle’s daily routine includes exercise, yin yoga at Hollywood Yoga, and evening meditation.
“Opening Haute Foods and Apericena are the easiest things I've done in my life,” she said. “I’ve never felt more fulfilled because I get to do what sparks my curiosity and makes me excited every single day.”
And after all the obstacles she has overcome, it’s tough to think of anything that can stop her.
“Her story is one of incredible perseverance and resilience,” said Ferral, a Boise-resident and official taste tester for Danielle’s artistic menu items. “More importantly, this is a story built at the University of Idaho.”
Photo Provided by University of Idaho, 2022.