2020 saw many aspiring entrepreneurs hit pause on plans for new restaurants — or scrap them altogether for something new
“The year has been a wash,” says Caleb Zigas, the executive director of La Cocina, the San Francisco-based kitchen incubator focused on uplifting immigrants and women of color. “It’s a garbage-ass year.”
In March, La Cocina was poised to open the first food hall of its kind: In San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, it would showcase seven women-led La Cocina businesses. Called the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, the project had been in the works for years; during the first week of the month, it celebrated its impending launch with a week of dinners featuring La Cocina entrepreneurs and local chefs, a celebration of women in food.
But of course, like so many other businesses, the La Cocina Municipal Market never did open this year. For the culinary industry, this wash of a year has meant massive financial losses and closings, but also the pause of long-in-the-works projects that, due to the pandemic, are now deferred indefinitely.
“I literally had no idea what was going to happen,” says Tiffany Carter of Boug Cali, one of the businesses slated to open in the La Cocina food hall. “We were pretty busy prior to the pandemic. We were feeding all the tech companies, and it literally just changed in a week.”
The food hall will open sometime in the first quarter of 2021, even if it looks different from what the organization had envisioned. Instead of seven vendors, there will be five; two vendors in the initial lineup already have brick-and-mortar locations, and taking on the additional obligation of a food hall stall no longer makes sense. Pre-pandemic, La Cocina had planned on a two-month soft opening exclusively for the immediate community to “make sure that the families that live in the Tenderloin, the kids who go to school in the neighborhood, the nonprofit workers, the city workers understand that this place in here is for [them],” says Zigas. Inviting its neighbors to gather in the space is no longer possible under pandemic restrictions, so establishing the Municipal Marketplace as a community resource will be a longer process.
But La Cocina and its entrepreneurs are fortunate to have the opening on the horizon at all. La Cocina was able to keep the Municipal Market space and push back construction until it was safe to begin again. A primary purpose of La Cocina is to lower risks for business owners, and it waived rent payments for its entrepreneurs, preventing their individual businesses from being put on permanent hold; many have had no choice but to forge ahead however they can.
For Carter, the year hasn’t been unproductive, just different. At the onset of the pandemic, Boug Cali went from fueling lunch crowds to fulfilling private and government contracts to feed vulnerable communities. Along with other Black business owners, Carter co-founded SF Black Wall Street, which aims to preserve Black businesses in San Francisco. She’s been able to continue serving Boug Cali’s po’ boys and gumbo without having to desperately scramble to keep afloat, and she still has the food hall to look forward to. “I’m excited to open,” she says. “I think what that looks like will be determined. Obviously, it’s not going to be what we’ve been planning for almost two years.”
For the food businesses without the backing of such an organization, the projects put off at the start of the year have more precarious futures. In Austin, Joseph Gomez planned to open his own taqueria after years spent working his way up through kitchens in the city, most recently at She’s Not Here, which closed suddenly in February. “The beginning of the year was really good. I had a good job running a kitchen and [my wife and I] were trying to look for a house; I was going to try to get a new car,” he says. “And then the pandemic hit. I got let go, the whole taqueria thing was going to happen, then it fell through; then it fell through again.”
At one point, Gomez thought he would debut Taqueria Tala, named for his mother and an ode to the migrant workers in his family, in early spring. A first set of investors backed out when the impact of COVID-19 became clear, and a second group fell through over disagreements around the vision for Taqueria Tala, a risk even in non-pandemic years. “We had some differences, partly because of the pandemic because it was starting to get worse, and the other part was … they basically were asking me to whitewash my ideas,” says Gomez.
By May, after working some odd jobs including a stint at a liquor store, Gomez needed to find another way to support himself and his family. With $60 and some leftover cake ingredients, he launched Galleta, an Instagram-only bakery specializing in cookies. “I figured if I could turn extra ingredients and $60 into a few hundred dollars and build off of that, I could probably make it work.” Gomez soon struggled to meet demand: This fall, he moved the business from his apartment into a new kitchen space, and has plans for an expanded operation with more baked goods and collaborations with other Austin food businesses.
Gomez hopes Galleta will be successful enough to grow into a drive-thru brick-and-mortar selling coffee and Mexican sweet breads, and maybe even one day supplying tortillas to the taqueria that’s never far from his thoughts. “As soon as I can make enough to open a taqueria, I’ll open up that taqueria.”
Gomez’s pivot, born out of necessity, has hit on a business model that works for right now. In fact, new bakeries have seemingly thrived during the pandemic, whether on Instagram, through direct-to-consumer sites, or even as physical spaces. Jen & Bee’s, a bakery from Portland bakers Jenna Legge and Rebecca Powazek, isn’t at all what the duo had planned. In February, Legge and Powazek announced their brick-and-mortar bakery would serve breakfast sandwiches on Portuguese muffins, laminated brioche cinnamon rolls, and sourdough bagels, among other baked goods. “We were ready, we were weeks away [from opening],” says Powazek. “We were finalizing our menu and how we were going to operate.”
They were looking to debut in April, but with the COVID-19 outbreak, that possibility quickly disappeared. Powazek has a compromised immune system, so opening in any customer-facing capacity was out of the question. “Once we figured out what we weren’t going to open for retail, we immediately went into the mindset of, ‘How are we going to sustain ourselves? How are we going to stay open through this pandemic?’” says Powazek.
The duo started making monthly seasonal pastry boxes for pick up or delivery and promoted them through Instagram. The boxes, in addition to being their own income stream, led Legge and Powazek — who met as wholesale bakers working out of the same commissary kitchen — to new wholesale clients, and they’ve been able to grow as a wholesale business, adding a few employees to their previously two-person operation. “I’m happier than I thought I would be. I thought I would be bored of the same thing every day,” says Powazek. “I think I do miss what could’ve been with what we were planning. I’m really humbled that we’re as busy as we are.”
That’s not to say it’s been easy. The two bakers excel at different kinds of baked goods, and one of Powazek’s specialites is wedding cakes. Before the pandemic, she had a wedding scheduled every weekend, including her own. Now, she bakes for much smaller elopements around once a month. It feels like both a personal loss and a professional one.
Eventually, those weddings will return, as will a brick-and-mortar Jen & Bee’s, but Powazek and Legge found a schedule that works for them, and aren’t in any rush to open a consumer-facing bakery as they had initially envisioned. The wholesale business propelled them through the pandemic in such a way that they’ve achieved a rare sense of stability. “Before the pandemic, I was struggling financially, like I wasn’t sure I was going to make it,” says Legge.
While all levels of the restaurant industry have been affected by the pandemic, workers without the autonomy or capital to shift course have been most severely impacted. And when it comes to putting off plans and career goals, for culinary school students, this year of upheaval has brought with it heightened uncertainty about the future. But even the workers in this category are turning to more creative paths forward.
Cortney McKenzie was a career services coordinator at the International Culinary Center at the start of the year. At the start of the pandemic, the school shut down; months later, it merged with fellow New York City culinary school the Institute of Culinary Education. In many ways, the students were left in limbo. Even before New York city fully shut down, it was getting harder to place students with internships as restaurants pared down to the most essential staff. As the pandemic went on, it didn’t get any easier. “The goal [of an internship] is always going to be employment. The internship should lead to employment in some way, but no one can guarantee that at this point,” says McKenzie, who is now a career services coordinator for the culinary program at the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center. “Last year, if you went to an internship and it ended in October, the odds of you getting hired in October were probably somewhere like 95 percent because you were heading into busy season and they needed someone and you were already trained. Now, they have to offer jobs to the people who were laid off first and see if they can come back before they can necessarily hire an intern.”
Recent culinary school graduates must now re-envision their futures without that first entree into restaurants, and in the case of graduates a bit further removed from their graduation dates, without restaurant work at all. Sarah Jackson graduated from ICC’s farm-to-table program in June 2018. The internship she got through her program led to other restaurant work. When the pandemic hit, she was working as a cook at Dirt Candy and at a board game cafe. “I lost both my jobs in two days, I cried, and then I felt this overwhelming sense of relief in the sickest way,” Jackson says. “I didn’t know what my next thing was going to be or where my rent money was going to come from.” The usual volatility of work in the service industry, Jackson says, conditioned her for being ready for having the rug pulled up from under her. “It almost helped me cope with it in a way that’s more solutions-based rather than reaction-based.”
McKenzie notes that culinary students are taught to be adaptable, both in the kitchen and when considering the arc of their careers. “We always teach them that adaptability is key to any successful restaurant employee. If you’re working and you’re a server and you sold a special that’s been eighty-sixed, you have to go with the flow … something’s always happening,” says McKenzie. “We teach them it’s a career path; it’s not just [about] your next job.” Now, though, students are having to rethink their paths altogether.
According to both McKenzie and Jackson, culinary students are returning home from the cities where they had once planned to stake out careers, swapping their big-city restaurant dreams for something different. “People are taking their skillset back to their communities and I think that’s so cool,” says Jackson. “Learning cooking in this formal institution is really a privilege; it teaches you what can be. To take that back to your hometowns and share it with the industry there is incredible, and that’s really something that’s happening with COVID.”
Jackson, for her part, stayed in New York. She received unemployment and started a pop-up with a friend. The time away from restaurants has given her new perspective on what she wants from her career. If not for the pandemic, she says, “I would still be in a restaurant and trying to figure out how to divest from this system that relies so heavily on underpaid labor and so heavily on people who don’t have another option.” The pop-up allowed her to get at the root of what she loved about restaurants in the first place, and going forward, she wants to continue to innovate outside the system she entered right out of culinary school.
The pandemic has brought to light the urgent need for restaurant industry reform, and some projects that have been put on hold might look different when they finally do come to fruition. “During the pandemic I’ve heard stories and seen employers not taking care of their employees well, not paying them enough, not offering assistance programs, or even not being responsible,” says Gomez. “Anything I ever open, it’s key to me that the health and well-being of every employee can’t be looked over.”
La Cocina has long existed so that food entrepreneurs have the space to innovate and create better, healthier businesses within the food service industry. But this kind of work is one more thing deferred during the pandemic as business survival, not business incubation, became La Cocina’s priority. “Instead of begging pro-bono lawyers to fight a major, multinational landlord about a $2,100-a-month rent obligation for a small business, we could’ve been building our own infrastructure for cooperative health care, but we just don’t have the time,” Zigas says. It’s only now, nine months into the pandemic, that the organization can start looking beyond immediate survival, and as Zigas imagines what a post-pandemic landscape can look like for the industry, he’s optimistic that the businesses coming out of this will help construct better models for the future.
The La Cocina Municipal Market Place will put some of those ideas into practice. It’s built on a community-driven business model that’s meant to foster solidarity among entrepreneurs, uniting them in a shared vision of economic self-sufficiency. However, none of that can come to fruition until the place actually opens to the public. “We can build the ethos of it,” says Zigas, “but it’s not until you have to wash somebody else’s dishes and still be okay with them that you can really test the limits of that solidarity.”
Sara Wong is an illustrator with a big stubborn dog and more plants than she can handle, currently residing in Charm City.