“We are sold out! Thank you so much everybody!!!!” Former Gramercy Tavern pastry cook Lauren Tran types out the note and publishes the update to her Instagram feed. Months into the venture, Tran, 32, still can’t believe customers often snap up her $40 pastry boxes within hours of posting her weekly menu for Bánh by Lauren, her Vietnamese-French pastry business, on Instagram.
On a gray, snowy Monday in mid-January, with customers anchored to their apartments and scrolling through the app, Tran’s macarons and banh bo nuong — a chewy, striated Vietnamese pandan honeycomb cake — are irresistible. While customers light up Tran’s DMs to see if they can squeeze onto her waitlist, she’s plotting out her baking schedule for the next five days. Over 60 cumulative baking hours, she’ll make 80 langue de chat biscuits, 320 macaron shells, and five to six whole cakes. She’ll also test her recipe for banh bo nuong at least five times before getting up at 6 a.m. on Saturday to bake six loaf pans of the dessert.
By early evening on Saturday, 40 brown compostable Bánh by Lauren pastry boxes have gone out the door. Later that night, Tran, along with her fiance and self-appointed Bánh by Lauren intern Garland Wong, will mop and sweep the apartment to reset for the following Monday.
No one is more surprised than Tran and Wong that this is the current cadence of their lives. Owning a restaurant or cafe was always an eventual goal for Tran, but Bánh by Lauren was nowhere in the five-year career plan that she set out for herself after graduating from culinary school and landing a position with the pastry team at Gramercy Tavern in late 2019.
Now, in the midst of navigating Bánh by Lauren’s surprise success, Tran is rethinking whether she wants to hop back on that career path and return to Gramercy Tavern. “If you had asked me [last year], I would have been like, ‘Yes, of course,’” Tran says. “This is just a test run to see if other people like what I’m doing, and to kind of occupy my time. Now it’s like, does this move up my timetable?”
It’s a question that many cooks-turned-pandemic entrepreneurs are asking themselves. Instagram-driven food startups have proliferated across the country, as the pandemic cratered the restaurant industry and left millions of staffers without jobs. Now, as vaccinations become more widely available and operating restrictions lift on brick-and-mortar restaurants, the entrepreneurs are weighing out their post-pandemic futures. Running a food business on Instagram is not easy. The pay — after factoring in labor and production costs — often clocks in below what pop-up owners were making at restaurants. There are no health benefits. Churning out food from a cramped NYC apartment kitchen, without a dishwasher, is kind of a nightmare.
But it’s not a simple decision to leave the pop-ups behind and walk back into restaurant kitchens, which pose their own challenges. Many staffers were used to working long hours in order to put their employers — Uncle Boons, Red Hook Tavern, Rezdôra, Gramercy Tavern — in the spotlight. With the pop-ups, the script flipped. The hours were still grueling, but cooks were now recognized directly for their efforts. Customers were clamoring for food sold under each entrepreneur’s own name, not their employer’s. The people behind the pop-ups built strong bases of regulars, mostly through word-of-mouth, experienced sold-out menu drops, and, in some cases, had potential investors slide into their DMs.
Over the past 15 years, tens of thousands of people in New York City have lined up to have Shirwin Burrowes cook for them. He worked under chef César Ramirez at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare when it first opened as a $70, five-course meal in a grocery store on Schermerhorn Street in Downtown Brooklyn. He also cooked on the opening kitchen team at the NoMad, when it was run by former partners Will Guidara and Daniel Humm. Most recently, he orchestrated endless 300-cover nights at Michelin-starred Thai knockout Uncle Boons, where he worked for five years, first as a sous chef and then as the restaurant’s chef de cuisine in charge of day-to-day kitchen operations.
Of course he dreamed of owning his own restaurant during that time, he says, like many other cooks. But it was always something he felt that he needed to work up to over many years, and for good reason: Starting a traditional restaurant involves a staggering amount of work as well as connections and know-how. It requires assembling an arsenal of investors, and then assembling a secondary arsenal of lawyers, real estate brokers, contractors, accountants, and more. Each step raises the barrier to entry for restaurant ownership.
Before the pandemic, Burrowes planned to move into an operations director role at a different restaurant group after Uncle Boons, stepping away from the kitchen and taking on a more managerial position. At some point after that, he figured he’d make the jump to ownership.
In a now-familiar story, the pandemic stalled those plans. Then, once Burrowes started delivering food through his Caribbean-leaning Instagram pop-up Bajan Yankee last July, those stalled plans were completely rewritten. For seven months straight, Burrowes designed different four-course meals every week, marketed Bajan Yankee’s menus on Instagram, and cooked and delivered the $80 feasts to up to 25 customers every weekend.
Running the pop-up challenged everything that Burrowes had built his career around up to that point. “I’ve had to step outside of this [mindset], like, ‘Oh, I would never do that,’” Burrowes says. “I’ve never worked outside of a huge kitchen that’s furnished with all the equipment I need. I would never deliver food. I would never cook Caribbean food, or Caribbean-influenced food, because it’s never going to be as good as how my mom and my grandma will make it, or there’s tons of restaurants in Crown Heights and Flatbush that already do it. So why would I do it and charge people more money for it?”
Through Bajan Yankee, Burrowes began to shed that self-doubt. Every week, he developed a different dinner set that was built around themes from his childhood in Barbados and adult life spent working in NYC. One week was a tribute to the city’s halal carts, with a slow-roasted spiced lamb and a butternut squash, cauliflower, and swiss chard curry; in another week, Burrowes invented a new spin on his father’s favorite West Indian weeknight dinner of fried fish over rice. In Burrowes’s version, he dressed pan-roasted red snapper in a creole curry sauce, added a pickled hot pepper escovitch, and paired it with sides including coconut jasmine rice studded with scallions and sesame, and a mix of soy-glazed vegetables.
“I was just like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna do this because I want to try to do it in my way,’” Burrowes says. “‘It may not be the same way [Brooklyn Caribbean restaurant] Gloria’s does it or it may not be the same way my grandma did it. And that’s okay.’ I was finding my own voice.”
For many entrepreneurs, developing their brand is an all-consuming process. Autumn Moultrie and Brian Villanueva of Back Alley Bread, a pandemic-born Brooklyn bakery, built up a following for their sourdough loaves and made-to-order angel doughnuts, or flaky, fried cubes of dough — a play on a beignet — that Moultrie layers with butter by hand. Before the pandemic, Moultrie worked at Major Food Group and helped open the Grill in Manhattan, while Villanueva worked at chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The duo, who have been dating for three years, decided to launch the bakery from their apartment shortly after the city shut down last March. Before long, people were taking notice. In August, Back Alley Bread was covered in Bklyner. Then, in November, both chefs were named to the 2020 cohort of StarChefs’ Rising Stars in New York for their work at Back Alley Bread.
Now, they’re carting 500 pounds of flour every two weeks from a vendor in Queens back to Brooklyn to complete 20 to 25 daily delivery orders from Thursday through Sunday. “You really have to want to do it,” says Moultrie. “You really have to be inspired by it. It really has to bring you joy, because we only sleep two hours a night.”
The pair has had to move operations multiple times due to space constraints; first, they worked out of their Ditmas Park apartment, then they rented kitchen space at the temporarily closed Filipino restaurant Purple Yam over the winter, and now they’ve moved operations into a new, larger apartment — with a dishwasher, central air conditioning, and a washer and dryer — in Bed-Stuy.
Even though fine dining restaurants are reopening, neither Moultrie nor Villanueva have plans to head back to work on staff. “I don’t think I could give up being able to create things and put it on my own menu,” Moultrie says. “I dream about some of these pastries that I make. Like, I’m going to make a pot pie. But I don’t want to put pie dough on top, or a puff pastry. I’m gonna put some beautiful buttermilk biscuits [on it]. I see it in my head, and then the next day, we can put it on the menu and sell it to people, and they love it. There’s no better feeling than that.”
And while the apartment setup has been working well enough to get Back Alley Bread off the ground, Moultrie and Villanueva are saving money and applying for small business loans in the hopes of moving the bakery into its own brick-and-mortar spot by the end of this year. They spent time last summer securing proper licensing to legalize the home operation — an option not available to every Instagram-based business, as the state does not allow, for example, the sale of meat or dairy products from home — but the pair agrees that running the business out of their apartment is not something that can last forever. “We would kill each other,” Moultrie jokes. “We eventually need to go to sleep.”
In a similar step, Burrowes garnered serious investment interest from a pair of private dining clients who became Bajan Yankee regulars. He has paused the pop-up since February while he explores his next move: a fast-casual brick-and-mortar shop featuring the top-selling dishes from his Instagram pop-up.
Established restaurant owners are also stepping in, to help build a middle ground for pandemic entrepreneurs who are struggling to fulfill orders out of their apartments but aren’t yet ready to sign a 10-year lease on a space.
Libby Willis, the former co-owner of celebrated Prospect Heights restaurant MeMe’s Diner, took over sole ownership of the diner’s lease at 657 Washington Avenue after the spot shut down last November. Willis is formally reopening the space in May as an incubator called KIT — an acronym for “keep in touch” — that is designed to help entrepreneurs who launched food pop-ups during the pandemic grow their businesses and learn more about restaurant ownership.
The pandemic “has really put in front of us the time to reflect on some of the many reasons why the industry is so fragile, and how to save this industry, and turn it around, and make a place that feels sustainable and ethical,” Willis says. “And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is: If we’re going to change restaurants, perhaps we need to change who owns them.”
Entrepreneurs including Jessica and Trina Quinn of Eastern European food business Dacha 46 and Susan Kim of Doshi, a playful pop-up selling Korean doshiraks (boxed meals), are among the first group of tenants at the incubator. One of Willis’s ground rules at KIT is price transparency: Every tenant will know what everyone else is paying in rent, for example. The businesses work together to buy paper products in bulk and put in group food orders with vendors to drive down costs. Cleaning responsibilities are shared among the tenants.
“We only know more when we have more information,” Willis says. “[The incubator] is a way to really split the upfront costs of running a restaurant, to share the burden, and to break the barrier of entry to owning a food business in NYC.”
The idea and the mission resonate with KIT’s tenants. “We thought unless you were a major name that had investors, you couldn’t open a restaurant here,” Dacha 46’s Jessica Quinn says. Prior to the pandemic, Jessica and co-owner and wife Trina worked as chefs at buzzy NYC spots Rezdôra and Red Hook Tavern, respectively. As the former executive pastry chef at Rezdôra, Jessica recalled how difficult it was to receive proper credit for her work. She would read reviews of the restaurant and her dessert program — including in the New Yorker and Eater — that never once mentioned her name.
“It’s not that people need a pat on the back,” Jessica says. “If you’re working so hard to put a dish on the menu, it’s not about the accolades, but you want that to be recognized. And I think it should be recognized.”
When the opportunity opened up to work with Willis at KIT, the pair chose to try to scale Dacha 46 instead of continuing to sell pelmeni from their apartment — or going back to work at restaurants.
“We say it every day, if we had the option tomorrow to go back to working at someone else’s restaurant, that would be a really hard pill to swallow,” Jessica says. “We’ve gotten to taste what it would be like to actually cook the food that we want and put our own stamp on it without anyone else’s interpretation sort of muddling the waters.” The New Yorker restaurant critic Hannah Goldfield recently reviewed Dacha 46 and both Jessica and Trina’s names are mentioned in the first line.
Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group has similar plans to create a program to help entrepreneurs grow their food businesses. The company intends to launch an incubator under its Union Square Events arm with hopes to attract tenants to the group’s new, 70,000-square-foot space in Sunset Park’s Industry City this summer. Details are still coming together for the program, but participants will have access to kitchen space and coaching from USHG executives with support for operations and finance management, and marketing efforts, according to Union Square Events president Tony Mastellone.
The investor interest, brick-and-mortar moves, and incubator launches underscore the fundamental industry shifts that are brewing in the wake of the pandemic pop-ups. “Every cook is telling you a story,” Doshi’s Kim says. “And what’s so exciting is that we’re questioning who gets to tell the story — and what stories get told — in all the mediums right now.”
Betsy Alvarez, a former colleague of Tran’s at Gramercy Tavern who is also a recent culinary school graduate, ran a side pastry business on Instagram before the pandemic, called Blessed by Betsy. After Gramercy Tavern temporarily shut down last year, she ramped up her operation, breaking personal records over the summer for the number of cakes, cupcakes, and cookies she sold.
On particularly busy weeks, she’d make about the same money that she would on staff at a restaurant, she says, but the work was lonely and difficult: She had to play Tetris with her mise en place in her mini fridge every week, and she made cake batters and frosting in a KitchenAid mixer instead of a commercial Hobart. By the end of the year, she decided to wind down her pastry orders and got a job on staff making vegan pastries at Mexican spot Xilonen in Greenpoint.
“I felt like I had so much more to learn in the restaurant industry,” Alvarez says. “I only spent six months at Gramercy Tavern and it wasn’t enough time for me to learn everything. I still wanted someone to teach me new things; someone to answer my questions. When you’re running your own business, you don’t have anybody to run to. It’s just you.”
Alvarez’s overall goals are similar to those of many other pop-up entrepreneurs — she wants to open her own bakery in the Bronx one day — but going back on staff to continue training was a step she says that she needed to take in order to move closer to owning her own spot. “I remember one coworker who told me that when you master bread, you master the universe,” Alvarez says. “Well, I’ve mastered bread. But I haven’t mastered the universe yet.”
In March, Alvarez left Xilonen to take a pastry chef position at Vinatería in Harlem, where she completely revamped the pastry and bread program on her own. Now, she’s in the process of restarting Blessed by Betsy — with a new logo and a refreshed menu — and she plans to sell her own pastries on the weekends, on her days off from Vinateria.
Others are adopting a similar approach. Peter Barry — a Rezdôra alum who started selling pasta over Instagram under Pastaiolo e Sugo during the pandemic — has continued to run a less-frequent version of the pop-up after taking on a full-time job again at Wolf, an Italian restaurant located inside Nordstrom’s flagship store near Columbus Circle.
“The extra cash doesn’t hurt, and I’ve got a ton of flour and egg yolks that I have to burn through,” Barry says. “And it’s just something I like. It’s a little bit of freedom that I have without having anyone say no.” He also views it as a good way to keep in touch with the base of regular customers who he got to know through the pop-up.
Some pop-ups, like Extra Helpings from pastry chefs Miro and Shilpa Uskokovic, have completely paused as restaurants reopen. Extra Helpings was “an opportunity to see what people want, what people like, and engage with our neighborhood,” Miro, the longtime executive pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern, says. The pop-ups also helped keep members of Gramercy Tavern’s team in touch while everyone was out of work. Multiple former staffers from the 20-person pastry team, including Alvarez, Tran, and Joy Cho, ran pastry businesses out of their apartments at the same time as the Uskokovics.
While Extra Helpings itself is not currently running and Miro has returned to Gramercy Tavern, the Uskokovics are filing away what they learned as research toward the ultimate goal of running their own spot, Miro says. But the impact of these ventures runs deeper than individual business development. The pop-ups demonstrated how commercially viable bakeries and pastry shops are — especially during an economic crisis.
“It kind of showed to everybody, especially in our industry, that things like bakeries and cafes are much more resilient,” Miro says. “I think there will be a lot more interest in what pastry chefs and bakers do moving forward, especially from investors.”
On a Monday in early February, just after Tran posted a sold-out menu for the weekend of Lunar New Year, she and Wong were forced to freeze Bánh by Lauren’s operations and jump on a plane to Tran’s hometown of Seattle to handle a family emergency. Tran posted an update to her feed letting customers know that holiday orders were canceled.
The response was overwhelming, Tran recalls. Customers flooded her DMs with notes of concern and care, assuring her not to worry about all the canceled orders. Weeks after she landed in Seattle, there were still a handful of people who reached out daily to check in about her family.
“The people who are supporting us and supporting this idea, and just everything that we’re doing — it does kind of feel like we’ve created something a little bit bigger than just this [pastry] box,” Tran says.
By day two of post-travel quarantine in Seattle, Tran was plotting out how to transplant Bánh by Lauren and sell pastry boxes in her hometown. A few weeks later, she was able to start up operations again from her family home. Almost overnight, the business seemingly picked up where it left off, and her first Seattle pastry box sold out in under 15 minutes. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times have since covered her pop-ups. Tran and Wong have had people in both Seattle and New York City reach out with early interest in investing in Bánh by Lauren, although they are holding off on taking the step of bringing on partners just yet.
Meanwhile, Miro Uskokovic reached out to Tran in March to let her know that Gramercy Tavern was in the process of rebuilding its pastry team. There was a spot for her on the roster, if she wanted to return.
Tran hasn’t yet decided whether or not to go back to Gramercy Tavern. She and Wong plan to return to NYC in May, and she knows she’ll resume selling Bánh by Lauren’s pastry boxes in the city. Beyond that, Tran is still sorting through her future.
It is a position that both Tran and Wong never imagined that they’d be in prior to last year. “It’s weird to constantly compare to this alternate universe where, without COVID, Lauren would still be happily rotating around the different positions at Gramercy Tavern,” Wong says.
The wholesale shutdown of restaurants in the city last year pushed Tran and others to step out on their own in ways that they never felt that they could prior to the pandemic. “COVID has been terrible in so many ways, but without this pandemic, we would never have started this,” Tran says. “Bánh by Lauren wouldn’t be here.”