Chefs and bakers are struggling to figure out how to make pandemic-born mutual aid pop-ups sustainable going forward

Aliza Sokolow is grateful to be working again. As a food stylist and photographer living in LA, things have been picking up, and she’s getting ready for her kids’ book, This Is What I Eat, to come out next year. It’s exciting, to be sure, but it leaves Sokolow wondering what to do with her mutual aid pop-up project, This Is What I Baked. Starting in April 2020, after work dried up and she “desperately needed an outlet,” Sokolow began baking challah, selling it to her friends, and donating the proceeds to charity and mutual aid organizations like World Central Kitchen and the Trevor Project. “It was sort of an accidental business,” she said.

As the pandemic dragged on, Sokolow adapted her operation. Demand for the challah rose so high she couldn’t bake from home anymore. “I had to start paying for assistants and kitchen spaces, and I all of a sudden had expenses,” said Sokolow. At first, she was donating 100 percent of proceeds to charity, but as she couldn’t foot the bill for ingredients forever, she lowered her donation amount to 50 percent, and now says she gives about a quarter to different charities. She’s not sure if she’ll be able to keep it going, or if she even wants to, after her book comes out and her other work picks up to pre-pandemic levels.

The beginning of the pandemic brought massive layoffs and furloughs, insecurity and uncertainty. It was a perfect confluence of people having a lot of time on their hands and a lot of anxiety about the world for a specific type of food business to grow, one which centered on giving back to the community and spreading resources around. There was a huge need for mutual aid, and both furloughed professional chefs and amateurs sprung into action, putting their skills to use. They cooked and baked and packed meals and donated the profits, or held free street cookouts and giveaways, all to make sure their communities stayed fed and funded.

But here are some truths about what the pandemic looks like in America right now. Less than 50 percent of the total population is vaccinated. The super-transmissible delta variant is quickly becoming dominant in the country, and cases are dramatically rising in places with low vaccination rates. The country, however, still has some of the lowest documented COVID cases since the pandemic began, and most states have all but abandoned safety regulations around which businesses can operate and at what capacity (some, however, are mandating indoor mask-wearing again, and there’s an argument to be made that vaccines should also be mandated for people dining indoors). Offices are reopening and jobs are coming back. The pandemic isn’t over, but it’s as close as it’s been.

Like Sokolow, the chefs and amateurs running these pandemic aid pop-ups are getting back to work, too, which means they have less time to dedicate to mutual aid. Customers are also turning their attention elsewhere. Creators are questioning whether to keep going, and if so, how to make that doable in a reopened country in which running a business and mutual aid work have often been mutually exclusive.

Listening to constant sirens outside of his Queens apartment window last spring convinced Eli Goldman, a nonprofit worker, the world was ending. It was April 2020, a month into being ordered to work from home, and New York City was still the epicenter of the pandemic. To cope, he started giving away groceries, and then baking bread, and then cooking barbecue to raise money for mutual aid networks and charity. “I think a lot of it was like, well I may be dead or witnessing the collapse of society within the next year or so, so I really should just try and help people on the way out.”

Despite his nihilistic predictions, the project is surviving and thriving. What began with Goldman lowering bread from his apartment’s balcony to friends below morphed into Tikkun BBQ, a “mission-driven pop-up” that has raised over $80,000 for organizations like the Astoria Food Pantry, the Ali Forney Center, and Safe Walks NYC. Goldman has spent the year honing his skills, setting up smokers in the Open Street in front of his apartment, developing his own sandwiches and sauces, and partnering with local businesses. It’s not uncommon to see a line around the block for his barbecue, or for it to sell out within a matter of hours.

He is adapting for what the future might hold, registering as an LLC in case he has an opportunity to participate in bigger food festivals. Like Sokolow, he has modified what percentage of proceeds from each event goes to any given charity; “Right now I have like $10,000 on my credit card, which is fine,” he said. “But that’s not a great way to do something long-term.” In the future, there may be fewer pop-ups, or a lower percentage of sales donated to charity. But in exchange, he could pay his volunteers a fair wage, or other vendors, especially women and POC, to participate. “We’re in a transition phase of, okay, it’s clear that the world is no longer ending. So how do we make this sustainable long-term?”

Rather than stick with a pop-up, some businesses are looking at brick-and-mortar. Ashley Hernandez and Sam Padilla, founders of Seattle’s Coping Cookies, have expanded from their home to a commissary kitchen, needing space to fulfill about 55 cookie box orders each week, with some proceeds going to mental health-focused charities. And rather than stay a pop-up, they are ready to make this business their focus. Padilla and Hernandez decided to return to their previous jobs part-time, so they could continue working on the cookies. They are looking into finding their own private kitchen space that they could turn into a community hub. “My goal is to have a very community-oriented type of space where we do bake out of our own space, but we also have a community pantry,” says Hernandez. “We might host other small business pop-ups and things like that… we love connecting with people.”

These businesses have relied on a regular influx of orders to keep things going, and at the beginning of the pandemic, there seemed to be no shortage. People were bored, worried, and ready to spend on a rack of ribs or a loaf of bread if they knew the money was going to help their neighbors. But now LA-based chef Heleo Leyva is considering winding down his community cookouts since monetary donations are starting to dry up. At this point, he’s given away about 7,000 free meals, cooked by volunteer chefs for those in need, usually in under half an hour. But many of his regular volunteers are returning to work, and as customers return to work as well, there’s less money coming in. “Every cookout, we collect on the lower end $300, on the upper end maybe $700,” he says, but “now it’s very hard to collect donations because people kind of assume that the pandemic’s over and they’re like, ‘There’s no more need.’” From Leyva’s perspective, there is still much need; people are lining up for free meals like they always were. But without donations, providing them is unsustainable.

Instead, Leyva wants to focus on his share-a-meal program, which he runs through his Los Angeles street stand Quesadillas Tepexco, where customers can pay a little extra to buy a free quesadilla for someone else. He notes the eviction moratorium in LA is expiring, so the economic impact of the pandemic will be felt in the communities he serves for years to come. “I have to develop something like a system where it says, ‘If you buy this type of quesadilla, a dollar from this price will go toward funding community cookouts,’” which could continue to happen once or twice a month. But after a year of giving away quesadillas and other meals, he foresees an uphill battle. “People already recognize us from giving free food… and people might expect to see free food [and be surprised to see a] price of, nowadays, like 12 bucks per plate,” he says. “It’s going to be a challenge, but that’s just how it has to be.”

The challenges these pop-up creators face highlight how our society was not built for mutual aid. A 40-plus-hour-per-week job does not leave much room for volunteering or running a food business, and the margins on those businesses tend to be so thin that few independent, homegrown operators have managed to build donations into a business model that also allows them to pay rent.

Demand is still there on both sides. Mutual aid networks are still in need of donations because people are still in need. Customers are still interested in buying barbecue and challah where proceeds support worthy causes. These projects may have been born when it looked like the world was ending, but now they could just be what the world looks like — if operators can figure out how to keep them going.

Marylu Herrera is a Chicago-based artist with a focus on print media and collage.

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