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During the pandemic, many chefs, from amateur stay-at-home parents to seasoned professionals, have resorted to selling food cooked in their homes to make a living.
In most cases, operating a home kitchen is illegal in Alameda County, though efforts have been made to push county officials to locally implement AB 626, a state law that allows people to earn up to $50,000 per year selling home-prepared food. But while some chefs eagerly await the county’s decision, others have opted to run legal businesses out of existing restaurants and commercial kitchens. These temporary businesses—better known as pop-ups—are allowed as long as certain county health requirements are met.
The Oaklandside spoke with chefs at several current and former pop-ups about the challenges and benefits of running this type of business, especially during a pandemic.
Bottoms Up Community Garden
Seneca Scott, co-founder of the Bottoms Up Community Garden located on 8th and Peralta streets in West Oakland, used to run a breakfast pop-up called the Bottoms Up Cafe out of the garden’s commercial kitchen space. It sold coffee and breakfast sandwiches six days a week and lasted two years, until 2016.
When Bottoms Up Cafe was operating, Scott said his main concern was making sure he was in compliance with Alameda County Department of Environmental Health regulations. “One of my biggest fears was getting someone sick. I chose to make breakfast sandwiches because that was the only thing we could make safely. Coffee and breakfast sandwiches are also going to win in an area where there are no coffee shops,” said Scott, referring to the relative lack of cafes and other eateries in that part of West Oakland.
Scott’s advice to aspiring pop-up chefs is to invest the money they earn from their pop-up back into their business. “We went from using small campfire grills to buying commercial equipment,” Scott said. The pop-up was bringing in around $5,000 per week at one point, and the goal was to eventually transition into a brick and mortar location in West Oakland. Despite the earnings, Scott and his partners weren’t able to find an existing commercial kitchen space in the neighborhood, and shut down in 2016.
Scott said it’s important that aspiring pop-up entrepreneurs familiarize themselves with commercial kitchen equipment and figure out which restaurants have the setup they’ll need. “Restaurants will allow people to use their kitchen on their off days as long as you clean it up because it’s a little extra money for them,” said Scott. “Go out, eat at local restaurants, and build relationships with your local eateries, especially ones that you know are closed certain days.”
The Bottoms Up Community Garden has since allowed other chefs such Mia Underwood of Onyx Hippy to utilize its kitchen, though no chefs are currently using the space.
Yichen Feng runs her Mama Juju Tea pop-up out of Bissap Baobab Oakland, and is a member of the female collective that helped re-open the city’s only Senegalese restaurant in September. Most of the entrepreneurs involved had never worked with each other prior to launching. When Feng reached out to Bissap Baobab owner Marco Senghor about splitting the rent and creating a shared menu, she and her tea-making partner Connie Leung had yet to attempt selling their beloved beverage. Almost two months later, Feng said that selling her teas at Bissap Baobab Oakland has been a great experience.
“It’s the first time putting our platform out there, and we’ve been getting a lot of awesome feedback about the teas,” said Feng.
Still, said Feng, it could be better. She and other pop-up owners have been individually marketing their products, but it’s been difficult to coordinate a marketing strategy for the entire collective. “We’ve been trying to do it as a group and it’s been really hard coordinating everyone’s schedules. Sometimes folks have different commitments that pop up throughout the day,” Feng said.
One marketing strategy they’ve attempted is selling a $33 Bissap Baobab box filled with products from the different collective members: a Baobab wrap, Mama Juju Tea, baked goods from Marina’s Sweet Catering, and natural healing and sanitizing sprays from Love’s Little Things.
The collective has also had to contend with operational issues caused by the pandemic, which larger more traditional restaurants might have had an easier time dealing with. Marina Houngbadji, who runs Marina’s Sweet Catering, began making mango coconut pudding that was a hit with customers. However, Feng said a Bay Area jar shortage prevented Marina from making a second big batch to sell. “We’re kind of struggling with these supply chain issues,” she said. “The whole jar shortage? I could’ve never predicted that.”
Houngbadji is based in San Francisco, and while selling pre-ordered baked treats in Oakland has been good exposure, she said the profits from Baobab don’t compare to what she makes there. “I don’t have much business in the East Bay,” said Houngbadji. “I created a special dessert that I could sell at the restaurant and other pre-ordered items, but overall I sell more through my individual business than at the collective kitchen.” When asked if she would do anything differently if she could go back in time, Houngbadji said she would create a specialized menu to better complement the rest of the collective’s products. “I’m rethinking what I can offer to the business,” she said.
In the end, she still believes that participating in a pop-up can be a good option, and has been thinking about how the collective can reach more customers at their Baobab Oakland location. “We can have some type of festival where there’s music, we’re in the streets with stands, and there’s interaction with customers. I think that could bring in people who just want to relax over the weekend and have a good time.”
For other pop-up owners who may be contemplating doing business as a collective, Feng suggests having a point person that can help coordinate the group’s various needs. “If you’re doing a pop-up by yourself, you’ll want to manage everything on your own. In a collective, it requires more input because it’s a bigger group. But it also means we’re an experiment in collective decision-making, with women who have never worked together, ever,” Feng said. “If we can come together and make a box, it gives me hope for strangers coming together to get something done, even if it takes a little bit longer.”
Married couple Satoshi and Sachi Kamimae have been running Okkon since 2015. They currently run their pop-up at Soba Ichi, a Japanese noodle house on Magnolia and 24th Street, on Saturdays and Sundays, where customers have been enamored with their okonomiyaki, a savory pancake-like dish prepared with different ingredient combinations and toppings. According to Satoshi, they look for the best natural ingredients and spend two weeks preparing the special sauce, which is drizzled on top.
For Sachi and Satoshi, the pop-up business is a labor of love. “I want to make more real, natural food that is not fake and give better food to the people,” Satoshi said. He and his wife enjoy selling their tasty okonomiyaki as a pop-up because, he said, “It’s fun, and I want to have fun all the time.” Running a brick and mortar restaurant would also be more difficult. The couple had previously considered opening a permanent location, but the pandemic made them rethink their decision.
During this time, Satoshi said that chefs and business owners want to support each other as much as they can. Satoshi and his wife are friends with the owners of Soba Ichi, and are grateful for the opportunity to continue serving the food they love to make. “I was lucky. My friend just asked us if we could come to their store and do a pop-up,” Satoshi said.
As for advice for other pop-ups, he said it’s important to view these tough times through a lens of positivity, and be open to new opportunities. “Don’t think negative and always change your style. If I can’t do a pop-up here, I can ask the next restaurant if I can do it there,” he said. “Restaurants want to do pop-ups, they want to do something different.”