Since 2015, Uyen Nguyen had split her working hours between a trio of restaurants in Manhattan Beach, spending her days dreaming up layer cakes at the Arthur J., overseeing the production of Key lime pies at Fishing With Dynamite, and making sure the soft pretzels were dependably good at M.B. Post. Then, on March 15, when city mandates forced the closure of restaurant dining rooms due to the spread of COVID-19, Nguyen received news that she would no longer have a job after St. Patrick’s Day. “We just bought a house and have an 8-month-old and a 2-and-a-half-year-old, so it was a shocker,” she says.
Brad Saltzman, the founder and co-owner of Zultra Parking, experienced a similar fate across town. As the official valet service for Nancy Silverton’s cluster of restaurants on the corner of Melrose and Highland in Mid-Wilshire, his company was no longer needed after the dining rooms at Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza, and Chi Spacca closed. “My parking business was my entire livelihood,” Saltzman says. “For the first time in my adult life, I had to file for unemployment.”
Just as restaurant owners have needed to retool to account for lost revenue — converting empty dining rooms into bodegas and transforming fine dining destinations into takeout joints — hospitality workers across the city are launching new businesses and spinning secondary gigs into full-time work during the pandemic. These side hustles are helping workers make ends meet, stave off anxiety, and pass time while the dining landscape gets back on its wobbly legs.
“I had a bunch of time on my hands and no purpose outside of my home,” says Alex Davis, the former wine director at M. Georgina. “I was losing the feeling of being of service to other people.” Davis hatched a small-scale bread business while stress baking at home and sharing the results on social media. Numerous requests to purchase loaves led to twice-weekly bake sales from his Atwater Village duplex. “It’s been a quasi-professional pursuit that’s ridden shotgun alongside the things that actually pay the bills,” says Davis. “If I can make just as much money in baking bread as I do selling wine, I’d probably bake bread.”
Gabby Lázaro began selling tamales on the corner of Florence and Central in South Los Angeles in mid-April after being laid off from Downtown cocktail bar the Wolves. Multiple encounters with law enforcement, including an incident where an officer threw her tamales in the garbage, caused the former dishwasher turned street vendor to doubt her new gig. When she shared her experience with Isaac Mejia, a co-owner of the Wolves, he offered the restaurant’s kitchen and front patio for her burgeoning business. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we just have it here at the Wolves?’ It’s completely legit, no one’s gonna bother you, and you have our support.”
As Nguyen and her family settled into a steady rhythm at home in Long Beach, she realized that stay-at-home orders might last longer than she initially thought. “As a chef, you always think, ‘One day I’ll do this or I’ve got this great idea,’ but you’re so busy working full-time. It’s an opportunity to give it a shot,” says Nguyen. While Nguyen had gifted cookies to close friends and family informally throughout the years, she never thought to pursue a mail-order dessert business prior to the pandemic.
With a career’s worth of trusty recipes under her belt, a cottage license in her back pocket, and some free time on her hands, Nguyen and her husband, Jeff Kirshenbaum, launched Kirsh Baking Company on May 1. The menu, which includes a line of dairy- and gluten-free cookies, along with classics like chocolate chip, reflects Nguyen’s culinary greatest hits. “Especially now when people are at home, they don’t see their loved ones, so you can ship them a box of cookies.” Demand leading up to Mother’s Day was so great that Nguyen sold out of cookies.
As Saltzman grappled with stress, anxiety, and depression, his brother-in-law Michael Montilla, a former Spago chef turned high-end caterer, reached out with a business opportunity: While Montilla’s catering events were unceremoniously canceled within the span of days, his clients expressed interest in meals delivered to their homes. Even though neither Saltzman nor Montilla possessed food delivery experience, the two launched Montilla Meals within five days. The new service quickly gained traction among Angelenos sheltering in place with its affordable and diverse menu and stringently contactless service. Delivering meals three days a week, from Malibu to Mid-City to the Valley, Montilla Meals employs three drivers and a small band of out-of-work cooks. “There’s so much loyalty from Michael’s customers — it’s 98 percent repeat business. We’re at the point now where we’re maxing out.”
“This business has given me something to look forward to every morning. I am no longer in fight-or-flight mode,” says Saltzman. “This business is also giving me an outlet to stay in touch with those that I’m close with and give others jobs who have families and would otherwise be unemployed.” In order to grow Montilla Meals and to increase revenue, Saltzman and Montilla plan on expanding deliveries from three days to five days a week and broadening their delivery radius to include further-flung neighborhoods like Calabasas, Westlake, and Thousand Oaks in the coming weeks.
Though sales are strong for Nguyen and Saltzman, their post-pandemic plans are up in the air. While Nguyen is proud of launching a business amid a pandemic, neither she nor her husband see it growing beyond a side hustle. “I’m looking forward to going back to work and I’m looking forward to seeing my team again,” says Nguyen. “[Kirsh Baking Company] is always going to be something on the side.” Saltzman and Montilla, on the other hand, plan on continuing Montilla Meals after stay-at-home orders are lifted, balancing it with their pre-pandemic careers. Even with a plethora of delivery apps and services on the market, Montilla Meals manages to be competitive with the affordability of its menu, loyalty of its clientele, and flat delivery fee.
Lázaro sold all but 10 tamales during her first evening of business at the Wolves and sold out completely on the nights that followed. “The experience at the Wolves has been nothing but positive,” says Lázaro through a translator. “Lots of people showed up out of nowhere — I think it’s because the Wolves pushed my tamales on Instagram and called me the Tamale Queen.” The support Lázaro received from the public has given her hope of selling tamales after the pandemic, so as long as the Wolves is willing to share its space.
Even though Davis is limited to producing 12 loaves daily due to the capacity of his home’s oven, the ritual has proved to be invaluable. “Baking bread has given me the opportunity to provide service again. It has allowed me to use my skills and knowledge to bring joy to those outside my home, which has long been my favorite part of hospitality,” says Davis. “I don’t know what my life will look like when things open back up in this new reality. I can’t imagine most restaurants of M. Georgina’s ilk being able to float management salaries in the same way with half-full dining rooms.”
Davis still hopes to have his own place one day with bread as the centerpiece. “If I were to try to open something after all this mess, it would be, for better or worse, more delivery and staple-focused. Bread would probably take a more prominent role as opposed to just being like a nice little addendum, plus takeout pizza and stuff that travels well.”
As restaurants and hospitality workers continue to figure out their place and purpose in a markedly changed environment — whatever that might look like in the coming months and years — there’s little doubt that hospitality, entrepreneurism, and resilience will endure long after the pandemic.