In early March, Asha Wheeldon, the chef-owner of Vancouver’s Kula Kitchen, was struggling to find new retail outlets for her Afro-vegan stews and sauces. Countless closed doors had already led her into catering, where she was just beginning to crack the lucrative wedding market. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and she lost all her contracts overnight.
After a major pivot, Ms. Wheeldon now sells her frozen sakuma stew and jarred pili pili sauce through several online shops and virtual markets, including this weekend’s BIPOC Foods Vancouver Pop-Up.
Since mid-April, she has also spent every Saturday afternoon zooming across town to deliver preordered family style meals – which include large steaming containers of portobello-potato curries over toasty rice and beans, leafy bunches of collard greens and cardamom-scented mandazi doughnuts – direct to customers.
The home-delivery model, which allows Ms. Wheeldon to give back to the community by selling products for fellow food startups and to donate 5 per cent of proceeds to local social enterprises that support Black lives, isn’t just the most rewarding experience she’s enjoyed since launching Kula Kitchen three years ago. With an average of 300 orders each week, it’s also the most profitable.
“I’m not religious, but I was born a Muslim woman,” says Ms. Wheeldon, who migrated to Canada from Kenya as a teenager. “And I can’t stop thinking about what my mom always says about Sadaqah: Give what you have and it will always come back.”
Albeit heartwarming, this grass-roots initiative would be a small and seemingly inconsequential story if viewed in isolation. But Ms. Wheeldon isn’t the only creative entrepreneur thriving in the new food-service ecosystem.
There is also Mona Ong Johannus and her niece Tess Tham, who cook ambrosial laksa curries, next-level chicken wings strewn with fragrant slivers of lime leaf and exquisite nyonya kueh rice-cake desserts through Bibik’s Singaporean + Peranakan Pop-Up.
About a year ago, they began holding occasional dinner parties at YVR Prep, a commissary kitchen in Burnaby, where they rent space for $25 an hour. Their dream was to someday open a restaurant or takeout shop of their own. Now they make an astounding 65-per-cent profit margin on 100 home-delivered meals a week.
And there is Dan Villasin, the new owner of Coco Cakes YVR, who began baking up a storm after he was furloughed from his job as a massage therapist. Right from the get-go, Mr. Villasin’s rainbow-coloured mochi cakes, a modern fusion of traditional Filipino recipes, were a home-delivery hit through Instagram. He has since moved into a commercial kitchen, hired two part-time workers and is earning more money (all poured back into the business) than he did as a massage therapist.
The COVID-19 pandemic has knocked the restaurant industry to its knees and the depth of that economic devastation, still unfolding, cannot be overstated. But it has also provided unforeseen opportunities for creative cooks who have traditionally been marginalized from the mainstream.
In shared kitchen spaces all over Metro Vancouver, a mini United Nations of new culinary innovators are leveraging social media and accelerating technological trends that were already well under way. Without the crushing burden of bricks-and-mortar overhead or the baggage of conventional expectations, these underground restaurants – ghost kitchens with heart, if you will – are adding diversity to our food-delivery options while redefining what hospitality means in a world where everyone must stay two metres apart.
“COVID-19 forced a lot of us to shift and start thinking outside our comfort zones,” Ms. Wheeldon says. “But now there is a movement happening and I would say that virtual is here to stay.”
Ms. Tham, a corporate banker, and her aunt, a homemaker, knew very well that a restaurant to call their own would be a passion project with scant financial reward.
Two years ago, Ms. Tham’s cousin had opened Lion City Restaurant in Mississauga. They both went for a few weeks, to pitch in. And while there, both fell in love with idea of bringing these same family recipes to Vancouver, where Peranakan cuisine, descended from the earliest Chinese settlers in Southeast Asia, is rare.
Their monthly pop-ups – the last was held Feb. 29 – quickly gained success through word of mouth. But then COVID struck. Indoor dining was shut down. Any restaurant that was still operating essentially became a ghost kitchen. People who had never previously ordered food online began adopting the e-commerce en masse. And suddenly, Bibik’s regular pop-up customers started asking if they were doing takeout.
“The push came from our customers,” Ms. Tham says. “We had never even considered delivery as an option.”
Ghost kitchens, which deliver but are not attached to a sit-down dining room, were not an unknown phenomenon. For years, anyone who had anything to do with restaurants had been talking about this somewhat menacing trend. But the focus had always been on existing restaurants looking to expand their reach through spin-offs and search-engine optimization.
It was easy to envision a chain restaurant group such as Joey gobbling up new territory by selling DIY meals and cocktail kits from suburban warehouses (as the company did during the COVID-19 closings). It was harder to imagine Bibik’s, a small niche concept with no permanent physical presence, turning into a bona fide virtual brand.
Yet on May 22, Ms. Tham and her aunt began advertising their first home delivery for the following week through Instagram. Within a few days, all 70 orders paid though e-transfers had sold out. Weekly sales (now capped at 100 orders) have been consistent since.
“Without COVID, we’d still be looking at opening a restaurant with all the expensive overhead, labour costs and unpredictability,” Ms. Ong Johannus says. “Now we’ve changed direction. Direct home delivery has become pretty successful for us.”
Ms. Tham and Ms. Ong Johannus still worry that there is something lost from not being able to break the proverbial bread with their customers or sharing meals face to face.
Their new customers don’t.
“I love the idea of this super home-cooked food,” says Vancouver’s renowned Chinese food expert Lee Man, who has raved about Bibik’s online. “It reminds me of Si Fang Cai, the private kitchens in Hong Kong, a very meaningful tradition that implies you’re being welcomed into a secret inner sanctum.”
For him, the takeout from Bibik’s and an outfit like Domino’s Pizza is as different as apples and turnips. “There’s a deeper personal connection. Even if you’re not talking to them for very long when they drop off the food, they include handwritten notes that explain the origins of the dishes and instructions on how to reheat it. There is no cheating in food quality. Even the little calamansi limes that are included for garnish are phenomenal. All these little gestures of thanks make us feel engaged in their success and convey a sense of hospitality. It’s sweet and it’s personal and I don’t know, but do we really need a restaurant to provide that?”
Although Ms. Wheeldon still dreams of some day opening a communal café, she has now found an unexpected form of community at Coho Commissary, where she began renting commercial kitchen space in February.
More than just a shared-use kitchen, the East Vancouver prep space was designed to act as an incubator that would provide culinary creatives with the tools and resources to grow their businesses. When COVID hit, the state-of-the-art facility had just opened. And all its new members, representing a broad spectrum of the industry from wedding-cake designers to craft breweries, were all in a state in a shock.
When another member, Anika Makim Talwalkar from Indian Pantry Catering, asked the Coho managers if they could help with the BIPOC pop-up, a virtual market that would include food vendors from other commissaries, they immediately offered their café space and helped the organizers formulate a plan for logistics and pickup.
These virtual markets – or limited-time online shops built around communities and and shared interests – are a new type of platform that has grown out of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ms. Wheeldon will be participating in a second one for Black-owned business, which is being organized by the owner of Mumgry, a locally produced nut butter designed for pregnant women that recently went viral when Beyonce gave it a shout-out on Instagram.
Last month, Corvette Romero and Matt Brennan, the owners of the Shameless Buns food truck, organized one for Filipino food vendors called Magkasama. Although designed as a stopgap replacement for an annual outdoor festival that had to be cancelled, the virtual rendition was so successful – ringing up $20,000 in sales for 25 vendors – they have decided to turn it into a monthly event with rotating vendors (not just Filipino) called MRKT HAUL.
“The way we eat and shop has fundamentally changed,” says Mr. Brennan, who gives their vendors a marketing boost by connecting them with handpicked social-media influencers.
Mr. Villasin of Coco Cakes, Magkasama’s top seller, is a case in point. This is his first food venture and he doesn’t have any baking background or culinary training.
“It’s insane,” the 22-year-old cake maker says of his first food venture, which has become a full-time business. “We launched on Instagram on April 19 and just exploded.
“COVID sucks. That’s for sure. But it’s amazing how it has created all these new ways of doing business.”
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