When the pandemic shut down Atlanta in mid-March, Nick Melvin made the difficult decision to furlough himself from his chef position at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q. Doing so meant he could save two other employees’ jobs and also take on a bigger load of childcare while his wife worked remotely full-time. But he couldn’t keep out of the kitchen for too long and soon launched a burrito pop-up out of his house called Poco Loco.
He had two rules when coming up with the idea for the pop-up: it had to be fun and he couldn’t lose money. With just a little bit of social media marketing and word of mouth, the burritos, which come in flavor combinations like sweet potato and chorizo and ramp chilaquiles, have been selling out every week.
“I didn’t realize how much I needed to feed people,” Melvin says. “At the beginning of this, I didn’t have that fire that always just kind of keeps me pushing no matter what direction I’m going. And the second we did this, it was like the best day I could remember.”
Melvin isn’t alone in experiencing success as a restaurant-less chef during the pandemic.
Sarah Dodge, the self-proclaimed “rogue baker” behind Bread Is Good, experienced an increase in her sales almost immediately in mid-March. “It’s crazy, because I essentially built a pandemic-proof business, it feels like, without intending to,” says Dodge. Along with one part-time employee, Dodge runs her pop-up out of Ammazza’s kitchen on Edgewood Avenue. They bake pastries and a variety of breads like focaccia and biscuits, then deliver to people in a close radius. They also host weekly contactless pick-up at Ammazza.
Dodge suspects the increase in her business is two-fold. On the one hand, the contactless logistics are appealing, and customers worried about food safety took comfort in knowing that only two people had handled their baked goods, she says. Bread is also a staple and comfort food that people are drawn to in times of panic.
“Bread, at its root, is a very simple thing. I think people are going to always get a little bit drawn back to feeling that connection,” says Dodge. “I kind of had this double whammy of people want bread and then people want it delivered in a safe and easy way.”
Mia Orino, the chef behind popular Filipino pop-up Kamayan ATL, isn’t so surprised that she’s been busier since the beginning of the pandemic. Her pop-up dinners, which are based around a communal experience, are on hold, but the catering side of her business is flourishing.
“I think some people are going stir crazy and they’re tired of cooking for themselves. At the same time, it’s fun [for customers] to pick it up since we don’t deliver. So it’s a chance for them to go out and drive,” says Orino.
Orino says her phone began ringing off the hook in early April when Georgia’s shelter-in-place order went into effect. Since Kamayan ATL isn’t a restaurant, they can’t deliver using a service like Grubhub or Door Dash, and Orino’s meals are large. She started taking orders for party trays and learned that customers would divvy them up among neighbors and friends.
Beyond staples and meals, many still want to celebrate events such as graduations, weddings, and birthdays with a treat—even when those celebrations are held on Zoom. Larissa Neto operates her custom cake business, Bakey Bakes, out of her home kitchen in Ormewood Park. As Atlantans began to self-isolate in mid-March, about 10 cancellations rolled in right away. “I thought my life was over,” she says. But a couple of weeks later, orders began to once again pick up.
“People are still finding ways to celebrate on a smaller scale. They’ve just been saying ‘I want a mini cake,’ and I say that’s totally fine,” Neto explains. She’s had to adjust her workflow to accommodate the different requests, such as making extra batter when baking full-size cakes so that it is readily available for mini cakes. “Everything is just scaled down, for the most part. [But business has] definitely not slowed down,” she says.
Even as these chefs experience success in a pandemic, there are new challenges to contend with. For Melvin, it’s juggling parenting alongside running the pop-up. For Neto, who relies on ingredients from the grocery store (as opposed to a restaurant supplier), shortages have been the biggest issue. First it was flour—she solved that problem with a bulk bag from Hodgepodge Coffeehouse’s market. But yeast has been scarce on grocery shelves and even eggs can hard to come by, she says. The shortages have made her limit the amount of orders she takes. “So far, we’re okay. [But] I’m always waiting. Am I going to have to disappoint someone this week?” she says.
An increase in customers for Dodge has meant more stressful customer service interactions. People are quick to be unkind, she says, whether it’s about delivery times or the face masks she wears for protection. She says it’s taken a toll, but every day she still bakes about 50 loaves of bread.
“For every rotten customer, I have 20 of the most beautiful people that are so grateful,” she says. “I love that bread dough has this ability to bring comfort, nourishment, and community.”
As Atlanta restaurants reopen their dining rooms and patios, inching toward a new normal, Melvin suspects that more chefs will crop up in niche spaces. Atlanta has always had a great pop-up scene, he says, and challenging times birth new creations. “Anything could work at this point,” says Melvin. “As long as it’s good, wholesome, simple, and approachable, it’s a new ball game on some fronts.”