The Pandemic Pushed Home Cooks To Up Their Game -- And It's Changing LA's Food Scene
Los Angeles swap meets might be on a pandemic hiatus but Instagram has filled the virtual void. While Coronavirus didn't create this marketplace, quarantine and the economic chaos it unleashed drove plenty of people to join it.
In 2020, we saw more home cooks, restaurant veterans and food vendors begin selling their goods via social media. Whether they did it out of financial need, entrepreneurial ingenuity, boredom or some combo of the above, the trend is likely to continue in 2021. And after the pandemic recedes, it may reshape the way Angelenos eat.
Although selling from home has its upsides -- not paying rent and all the other costs associated with a brick and mortar space -- vendors live in fear of angering a nosy neighbor and being shut down by public health officials. Most take the risk because they don't have any alternatives.
You Can Go Home Again
Adam Martinez and Doreen Nakama started East Los Musubi in 2016 to pay homage to Nakama's Japanese heritage and capitalize on Martinez's two decades of experience in professional kitchens. Before the pandemic, they had organized musubi pop-ups at various breweries and, on occasion, at Sara's Market in City Terrace.
As the city, county and state issued COVID-19 stay-at-home orders in March 2020, they put safety first and took a break from pop-ups. After a few months, they moved their operation to their El Sereno home to avoid what Nakama describes as "the anxiety of working in another kitchen where you don't know who [other people] are in contact with."
She and Martinez were also worried for their 14-year-old son, who has asthma, so Nakama left her job at a local pizzeria where she interacted with customers while working the register. "We needed that extra income, but from the comfort of our own home. It really did drive us to get creative," Nakama says.
During lockdown, they started making teriyaki plates to sell to friends and posting pictures on Instagram. Their followers, who were at home and hungry, wanted a taste. So Nakama and Martinez started using the app to sell teriyaki chicken lunch plates that customers could get via contactless pick-up.
El Sereno has long been a hub of homegrown food entrepreneurialism, and during the pandemic, that hustle has only ramped up. Alicia Lopez launched smashburger concept Hangaburs from her El Sereno home kitchen after she was furloughed from her graphic design job. Taquero metalheads Evil Cooks started in Azusa but pivoted to selling from their El Sereno home after Smorgasburg L.A. closed in March 2020. When David Marquez was laid off from his union construction gig, he started selling his Two Sons Burritos from his El Sereno home.
"I lost about 60% of my income and I was at home, so I just said, 'Fuck it.' I have nothing but time," Marquez says.
Victor Villa also had big plans for 2020. He had a few catering gigs lined up and his Highland Park pop-up, Villa's Tacos, was taking off. In March, he had to regroup and decided to bring his operation home.
Worried about clogging his grandma's neighborhood with hungry patrons, he developed an intricate ordering system, a combination of old and new. You order through Instagram then Villa writes the order down in a small notebook. You get a five-minute window to pick up your food. During that time slot, someone runs your order out to your car. It works for Villa and it keeps the line moving. Villa stresses the importance of adhering to the time slot but if customers are a few minutes late, the team will prioritize their order to prevent the line from backing up.
Alan Cruz, the pitmaster of A's BBQ, found himself in a similar situation when Los Angeles began to shut down.
"We were in limbo. I'm not even gonna lie, I hit panic mode," Cruz says.
He tried a few pop-ups but didn't earn enough to cover transportation, so he returned to his roots. A's BBQ offers a rotating menu of smashburgers, fried chicken and barbecue with East L.A. soul, all of which Cruz cooks in his front yard. Customers must pre-order on Cruz's new website.
After COVID-19 forced Goat Mafia, known for its mighty Jalisciense birria de chivo, to end its Echo Park residency at 88 Monks, chef Juan Garcia had to pivot. By the summer, he was selling birria by the pound and tacos, all of which you preorder then pick up from his Compton home.
Almost all of these vendors rely on a pre-ordering system that starts in their DMs. When East Los Musubi announces a new drop date, often of comfort food staples such as musubi six packs, you DM them asking for some action. Once you confirm payment, they assign you a time slot, you show up and they place your order on the hood or in the trunk of your vehicle.
Villa's Tacos operates the same way. Pre-orders help Villa manage food costs and reduce walk-ups.
On weeks when Cruz is barbecuing, you can place an order for smoked meat through the A's BBQ website. You'll get a four to five hour pick-up window but he won't slice the meat until you arrive. "Barbecue is one of those things that's just best carved to order," Cruz says.
The Neighbor Problem
If the Dude from The Big Lebowski was a car-obsessed Chicano who made stellar barbecue, he'd be Fernando Carrillo. Since 2016, Carrillo has been smoking and selling meat from his Koreatown home. It's his weekend side hustle, when he's not bumping oldies from his big brown UPS truck or working on his 1948 Chevrolet Fleetline (aka "bombita"). Operating under the banner of Ragtop Fern's BBQ, he's known for his lacquered pork ribs. He calls his smoker Lucifer and says it's the secret to achieving the beautiful bark on his giant beef ribs.
Carrillo is lucky. He doesn't worry about his neighbors calling the city. "I grew up in this neighborhood. I know everyone here. These are my friends," he says. But he takes precautions.
Carillo operates through Instagram, taking pre-orders and assigning customers a time slot to pick up their meal. His biggest piece of advice to budding home-food-sellers: "Never have a menu." His logic is pure Lebowski: If they can't find a menu, they can't prove you're selling food, man.
Among the people we spoke to for this story, pissing off neighbors is a top concern. Vendors know if they annoy their neighbors with too much traffic or noise, they risk getting reported and shut down by health officials. So they use DMs and time slots to control the flow of patrons.
"Our side of El Sereno is a bit quieter, so we were worried we were gonna get shut down," Nakama of East Los Musubi says. "We did time slots and everything was pre-order and scheduled so we weren't being overwhelmed."
Villa asks patrons to stick to their time slot so orders don't stack up and slow down the operation. "That's what played a huge role in coming up with the [ordering] system. I'm not trying to burn myself. We have something good going on," he says.
In Compton, Garcia sets up Goat Mafia's tent as though he were prepping for a pop-up. Except this time, the pop-up is in front of his yard. As residents of L.A. County, Compton's home cooks can't legally sell from home. Even street vendors are relegated to certain areas like taquero row on the city's east side. But many are ready to take the risk.
"It's like they say, we're just being ghetto bro," Garcia says. When it comes to selling food from home, he says, he adopts an attitude of licencia de dios -- a license from god.
Is It Legal?
Christina Oatfield was working as an attorney at the Sustainable Economies Law Center when most of California's recent legislation about selling food that had been prepared at home was being drafted. She used to bake bread from her home in Berkeley. Through the SELC, she teamed with baker Mark Stambler, farmers, retailers and food movement leaders to propose a state law, known as AB 1616, modeled after home food laws in other parts of the United States. It was signed into law in 2012 and allowed the sale of mostly non-perishable foods from home. But AB 1616 was extremely restrictive and home cooks could hardly turn a profit.
About five years later, the food-sharing company Josephine, which wanted to be "the uber of home cooking," approached the Sustainable Economies Law Center, hoping they'd support a new bill that expanded what home cooks could sell.
AB 626 would let domestic residences to be considered food facilities under the California Retail Code, allowing people to prepare and sell hot meals from their homes. Josephine, AirBnB and DishDivvy supported the bill but the SELC feared it would leave home food vendors ripe for exploitation by third-party delivery apps and online platforms.
"We had all these concerns that this process was really being driven by these tech companies. We ended up on opposing sides," Oatfield says. The SELC opposed the bill.
Despite its potential downsides, California legislators passed AB 626 in 2018 -- but with a major asterisk. Individual counties could decided whether or not they wanted to participate. In Southern California, only Riverside County has done so.
"I think it's poor public policy on a lot of levels, this state-created law where all the restrictions and requirements are in state law and only the state legislature can change them but then local governments have to sort of choose to opt in or not. It creates a kind of confusing patch work," Oatfield says.
In other words, selling food in L.A. County that you prepare in your home is technically illegal and definitely risky.
In May 2020, a representative from the county health department said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times, "The county of Los Angeles has not authorized the permitting of Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations. As such, preparing and selling/giving away food from a home kitchen is a violation of the California Retail Food Code."
When Ronnie Muñoz of Ronnie's Kickin' tried to secure a permit from the L.A. County Department of Public Health for his porch operation selling fried chicken and al pastor tenders, they told him it was forbidden. "They just told me to roll with it until somebody rats you out," Muñoz says.
That doesn't mean people in Los Angeles don't want to see loosened restrictions. "Vendors don't want to be criminalized," says Rudy Espinoza, Executive Director of Inclusive Action for The City. "The fact is, a lot of vendors who aren't in a commercial kitchen are cooking at home."
But in a time of economic crisis, the law hasn't stopped culinary entrepreneurs from trying to make ends meet. And it hasn't stopped hungry Angelenos from supporting scrappy local chefs.
Will the trend last? It depends.
For Cruz, the barbecue pitmaster, selling from home is fine -- for now. He doesn't have to rent a truck or unload and reload his gear for each pop-up. Pre-orders help him figure out how much beef, chicken and other foodstuffs he needs to buy. He's comfortable cooking at home. Still, he knows it's not permanent.
"As we grow, I don't want to just stay here the whole time," he says. "For the time being, I'm going to do what I can, and it seems like my neighbors understand that I have nowhere else to go."
For Tania Macin, whose cochinita pibil has made Tania's Tacos a standout, selling from her mid-city home is also a temporary solution. Before the pandemic, she would set up at Echo Park Lake every weekend. She stopped doing that when stay-at-home orders went into effect. When she tried to return to her usual spot in August, she faced competition from a raft of new vendors.
"I was talking and kinda making friends with everyone... and I asked what made you come here. Basically it was just people that got laid off or their business wasn't as it was," Macin says.
The increased competition was cutting into her profits, so Macin returned to selling from home. She began offering her pibil by the pound along with tortillas so her customers could make tacos at home. Because she no longer puts the tacos together with her own hands, she worries that her customers aren't getting the full experience.
"It's not the same. I don't get to see when somebody comes and has that first bite of your taco or see the reaction," she says. "I feel like I'm missing half of the cooking experience."
Muñoz, too, feels that shifting Ronnie's Kickin' to an at-home operation was a compromise. Before the pandemic, he saw it as a temporary fix, a holdover until he found a brick-and-mortar space. Then, he fell in love with watching people chow down on the food he had made on his front porch (although he eventually moved his operation to the garage).
"I had a lot of fun cooking from home. It was one of the happiest times I've had in cooking," Muñoz says. After a year of selling from home, he's transitioning to a food truck. He says the decision was a last resort, and to keep doing what he loves, he wouldn't hesitate to hit the streets again. The Ronnie's Kickin' food truck started rolling in January: "I found a truck and I was like, 'Let's go!'"
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