Chef Jazzy Harvey’s Jamaican LA fusion standout Anjahles crushed the pandemic-era pop-up game in 2020. One year ago, she launched her Crenshaw business with such creations as jerk jackfruit sliders, seafood boils, oxtail burritos, and keto-friendly riced cauliflower with peas. Every week, Harvey advertised her dishes on Instagram, only to find that regulars would buy everything out in just a few hours.
But a year later, Harvey says her business is down by 20 to 30 percent over the past few months. “Now that more people are getting vaccinated and the world is opening up, events are starting to be the thing that people want again,” Harvey says. “That’s where the demands have been, to focus more on catering, events, and [as a] private chef. Mine is definitely the type of business that had to change.”
In recent weeks, Harvey shifted her business model: Now, she’s running fewer pop-ups and cooking more private dinners. She’s also developing a subscription service where customers can have meals delivered to them on a weekly basis, and she just signed a publishing deal for a cookbook. Her next effort is to ditch the pop-up and sign a lease for a restaurant. “I’ve been so patient,” she says. “Hopefully we are open by Father’s Day or at least July when people can come in to sit down and enjoy the food.”
Harvey is one of the many LA-based pop-ups trying to figure out how to succeed as the city reopens. For most of 2020, pop-ups and ghost kitchens were a massive success story for the worst year in restaurant history. As Los Angeles residents sheltered at home, these grab-and-go eateries thrived. With daily traffic mostly subdued, people drove all over town to pick up meals from new underground spots, like the hot kim cheezy sandwich from Jeff’s Table in Highland Park and the New Orleans creation etouffee from My Dad’s Gumbo.
But now the race to reopen is circling its final laps. Back in April, Gov. Gavin Newsom set a milestone date, announcing that life could resume as it was pre-pandemic June 15. On May 10, LA County health officials projected that the region could reach herd immunity by mid- to late July, and this week, the LA Times reported that two-thirds of Californians have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In a surprise move last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even said that vaccinated people are no longer required to wear masks, indoors or outdoors.
The surge in demand for pop-ups accompanied a decline in on-site dining through 2020. But now that 51.5 percent of county residents are at least partially vaccinated and the seven-day average of new infections is hovering around 200, diners are ready to emerge from their homes to sit-down experiences with friends and family. Head to Resy or Tock for reservations, and it’s challenging to find tables at places like Gasolina Cafe in Woodland Hills, which just debuted its new dinner menu, or at Cha Cha Cha’s stunning patio in the Arts District. Hollywood’s L’Antica Pizzeria is booked solid despite trying to squeeze in as many customers as it’s allowed on the patio. Restaurant owners, of course, are happy to make up for lost time and money while still operating at 50 percent capacity.
It could be that Los Angeles residents are burned out from home cooking and takeout and simply want to be doted on by restaurant staff. Or they want a cocktail that takes five minutes to prepare while imbibers, music, and friends buzz around them. Los Angeles resident and real estate agent Milla Goldenberg says returning to dining in restaurants is long overdue. “I’ve been waiting for this for over a year,” she says. “I missed my community the most. So much of eating out centers around seeing my friends and breaking bread with them. The food, the drinks, the restaurants create the perfect backdrop for laughter and connection, which is ultimately what I missed most during quarantine.”
Booming demand for sit-down restaurants comes at a time when the underground scene is mellowing, signaling a change in the patterns of new post-vaccination-era dining. Lowkey Burritos owner Matt Stevanus says the decrease in sales started in February. Prior to that and since mid-2020, Stevanus held a weekly service stand in Koreatown and ongoing pop-ups out of Long Beach’s Lord Windsor Coffee, where he easily sold out of his signature cheese-encrusted breakfast burrito. He even announced a permanent K-Town storefront last October. Stevanus says he hired extra staff to meet the projected demand at his Koreatown pop-up but still saw a 40 to 50 percent drop in sales.
“During the pandemic, we were [selling] between 280 to 320 burritos on our busiest day,” he says. “As things started to open back up to outdoor seating, the spot that we had planned on opening in Koreatown went from an average of 200 to 280 when it was busy, all the way down to 80 a day,” he says.
Like Harvey, Stevanus is looking at events to help boost business, which he had focused on prior to COVID-19. He says the recent decrease in demand has taken a toll on his formerly viral business. “We can adjust, but it comes with things like longer wait times,” he says. “I can’t have a staff of eight when we’re only selling 80 burritos. As much as I appreciate the 80 people that showed up that day, I did those same numbers two years ago. I’m not looking to pursue spots that don’t even pay for the gas for us to get there.” Stevanus has since delayed the opening of the Koreatown storefront.
Redondo Beach’s Nanas notes a similar drop in business in March and April. Co-owner Jonathan Anzaldi says his receipts are down by 25 percent for the month of April compared to the beginning of the year. “We’re happy that life is returning to normal, but it’s impacting our business,” he says. “It’s almost as if we’re the forgotten child now.”
Anzaldi opened his South Bay ghost kitchen with fiance George Torres in early January. The couple quickly found a following in Redondo Beach, where Torres combines recipes from their Mexican and Italian grandmothers. But they’re concerned about staying power. “We were really enjoying the low overhead and higher margins,” Anzaldi says. “But we’re at a point where we need to be conscious of what our next step is knowing that people are more eager to get out of their homes or travel. We don’t want to sacrifice our money and what we have saved away. If we move into a smaller space, the cost has to be right for us.”
A contingent of customers have asked how they can continue to support Nanas, knowing that business has slowed. Anzaldi also says he has regulars who are still uncomfortable with dining out and have been keeping the business afloat with weekly orders.
Not all pop-ups, however, are in decline. Over in La Canada, Maynard Llera’s Kuya Lord pop-up is having a record year. This former Bestia sous chef has been busy preparing and selling Filipino fare like kare kare peanut stew and lechon. His weekly menu still sells out, but Llera says his biggest concern is finding employees to work every week. “My sales are surprisingly getting better,” Llera says. “I just started last year. But I’m looking for my own space now, because I need to do more production.”
Other pop-ups solved the drop in revenue by partnering with other businesses that have a place for diners to sit. Long before the pandemic, Melody wine bar featured pop-ups at least five days a week. Husband and wife owners Paloma Rabinov and Eric Tucker supply the wine, while the unstaffed kitchen becomes a blank canvas for operators like Lowercase Deli to prepare sandwiches or De La Nonna to crank out thick-crust pizzas. The couple creates a recurring pop-up schedule for concepts that fit the airy Virgil Village space. It’s a workable collaboration, whether people are socially distancing or dining out. Tucker says that more pop-ups are approaching him than ever before. “I’ve never seen LA so ready to be out and about,” he says.“Even in the heat of the pandemic, we’ve been open and busy.”
With drops in sales, swift operational changes, and difficulty finding employees, most food businesses have myriad pandemic-era challenges in common. These rapid and significant shifts over the past 14 months could amplify another need in hospitality: new business models. Secret Lasagna chef Royce Burke — who also operates out of a ghost kitchen — points to the difficulty of opening a restaurant in LA and hopes that established restaurants and pop-ups in the city determine a new path.
“I understand that push to open a restaurant, but it’s so shortsighted to do the same thing over and over again,” Burke says. “Brick and mortars have insane additional costs. But it is incredibly hard. I want to see businesses coming out of [ghost kitchens] and finding new ways to succeed.”