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Customers stand in front of a pop-up tent with a sky-blue sign at an event.
Dolan’s Uyghur Cuisine stall at MAMA Night Market.
Morgan Rindengan

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This Group Is Quietly Helping Immigrant-Run Restaurants Shine Online

MAMA is helping small businesses grow their marketing through social media, pop-up markets, and drive-by pickups

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Los Angeles restaurant owners were grappling with new citywide measures meant to limit the spread of the virus, an organization called MAMA stepped in to help immigrant-run businesses stay afloat with its Drive-By Kitchen program. Founder Jared Jue approached restaurants and organized a system of hubs around LA for customers to preorder and pick up meals as an alternative to delivery. Within the first year, MAMA provided support for restaurants like Koreatown’s Jun Won Restaurant, Boyle Heights’ Las Flautas, and Garden Grove’s Brodard Chateau.

Nearly three years later, MAMA has evolved. The group is transitioning from its drive-by kitchen to catering, a response to the return of in-person dining and delivery apps. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly MAMA is today, largely because it’s constantly transforming. At its core, it’s an organization that uplifts restaurants in myriad ways: viral videos on TikTok (with over 200,000 followers), night markets, and restaurant meal donations to the elderly through its nonprofit Respect Your Elders.

“What’s always stayed consistent was this North Star of preserving immigrant culture through food, [serving] ones who are often either underrepresented or misrepresented, and providing a platform for restaurants who represent the communities so they can thrive,” says Jue, a fifth-generation Chinese American originally from the Bay Area.

MAMA’s TikTok and Instagram posts are full of stylized cinematic videos of restaurateurs telling their origin stories, often in non-English languages that are translated with subtitles. (They’re made by MAMA’s videography team at no cost to the restaurants.) In one clip, Dolan’s Uyghur Cuisine owner Bugra Arkin details the plight of the Uyghur people in China who are suffering from a cultural genocide, and how his father’s disappearance led him to open a restaurant preserving his culture’s cuisine. In another, Aja Dawson of A Beautiful Life Jamaican Kitchen describes how her parents’ Caribbean upbringing inspired the restaurant’s stewed oxtail dish.

In 2022, MAMA came full circle in its mission to save businesses. The first video MAMA posted on social media in July 2020 was about Jun Won; the clip showed the Korean restaurant’s matriarch, Jung Ye Jun, delivering a heartfelt message to customers about the closure of her and her son Jeff Jun’s 26-year-old business — a byproduct of the pandemic. In the months that followed, MAMA made more videos about Jun Won and held several Drive-By Kitchen events, selling the family’s comforting bowls of samgye-tang, a soup with a whole chicken stuffed with glutinous rice and boiled with ginseng, garlic, and jujubes. The successful event series convinced the family to relaunch their business as Jun Won Dak nearly two years later in a new Koreatown location. In an interview with Eater LA, they credited MAMA for that boost in confidence after nearly giving up the restaurant business for good. “We’re so thankful that they got involved and reached out to people who wanted our food,” says Jeff Jun.

A woman and man stand next to each other, both wearing masks and aprons.
Jung Ye Jun and Jeff Jun of Jun Won Dak restaurant.
Jonathan Chu
A bowl filled with a whole chicken soup, a bowl with kimchi, and another bowl with salt, on a table with cutlery.
Samgye-tang from Jun Won Dak.
Jonathan Chu

MAMA also worked with Rosemead restaurant Medan Kitchen on social media videos and for Drive-By Kitchen. The market and takeout spot, helmed by 77-year-old Indonesian chef Siu Chen, opened amid the pandemic. Johan Arifin, Chen’s son-in-law and the store’s manager, noted that MAMA bolstered the family business by widening its reach of customers, who previously were primarily Indonesian. “MAMA helped introduce our food to other people,” says Arifin.

When restaurants participated in Drive-By Kitchen, all profits went back to them. MAMA itself was able to operate by tacking on a small fee to customers for the takeout orders, and with the help of volunteers. An entire video team grew out of that first Jun Won video, and now MAMA has a crew of 14 people. They’re a mix of partners, contractors, and volunteers. Up until this point, they’ve been self-funded, though in January Jue plans on fundraising to staff the team full time.

The ecosystem of MAMA has expanded even further and now includes a separate nonprofit called Respect Your Elders, a program that donates meals to seniors with food from their cultures. When Jue was running Drive-By Kitchen, he would raise money by asking brands for donations and pledged that for every meal MAMA sold, Respect Your Elders would buy a second meal and donate it to seniors in the community. The plan doubled the revenue for the restaurants. Jue says the nonprofit will ramp up next year when some more donations are contributed.

“In addition to representing the restaurants, we’ve been trying to solve a lot of their business problems as well,” says Jue. Part of that means getting restaurant owners out of their comfort zones. Jue, who, previously worked with creative ad agencies for sports and lifestyle brands, programmed MAMA’s first Nightmarket, a 21-plus event that had over 20 multicultural food vendors (including Dolan’s Uyghur Cuisine, Jade Wok, and Bhanus Indian Cuisine), alcoholic beverages, and music. Held at the Berrics in Downtown LA, tickets for the 2,000-person event sold out a week ahead of time.

Jue charged vendors basic fees — equipment rentals, electricity, and city permitting — for running the event, but made it low enough that there wasn’t a markup. “We’re very transparent with our vendors, and even with our model that we’re not making money off of the vendors,” says Jue. “I think a lot of the festivals that are out there charge up and it becomes quite the barrier of entry.”

A woman wearing an apron cooks food on a wok.
Siu Chen cooking at Medan Kitchen.
Jonathan Chu
Yellow curry with chunks of beef.
Beef rendang from Medan Kitchen.
Jonathan Chu

From a friend, Jue heard about Rincon Hondureño, a West Adams restaurant popular for its Honduran food, especially its baleadas (griddled and folded tortillas filled with refried beans and cheese). He later found that the 30-year-old family business was struggling. Jue drove out to visit the restaurant to convince owner Adam Bonilla to participate in MAMA’s second Nightmarket, which was held this past September. “So much of what tends to stop someone from starting a pop-up or deciding to even join an event is that their day-to-day is already so challenging,” says Jue.

“He took the unorthodox approach, which is [rare] nowadays, of actually speaking to — and not just texting — someone and came to the restaurant,” says Bonilla. “It was nice to have a one-on-one talk, and once we sat down, he alleviated some of my concerns.”

MAMA sponsored the restaurant’s startup costs for participating in Nightmarket; it was the first time Bonilla’s family had been part of any event. While the family was working at Nightmarket, a car crashed into the building that houses Rincon Hondureño. Bonilla says it was a stroke of luck that the restaurant was closed and his family and potential customers were safe from harm. “It was a blessing for us to come together and things happen for a reason,” says Bonilla. “I look forward to working with him again, and even if I don’t, he’s given me the foundation to create something on my own that I can’t see sometimes,” a reference to being open to trying new things like MAMA’s Nightmarket.

There will be more Nightmarkets next year and, in the meantime, MAMA continues to host pop-up markets at larger events. Over the last month, it brought restaurants together for events at Netflix and a Summit Series conference. The team has also compiled a long list of multicultural restaurant recommendations that they’re planning to pass along to the public through its platforms.

“From our standpoint, we’re trying to figure out a way to keep that consistency so restaurants don’t just only get the short bursts of business,” says Jue. “[We’re thinking], ‘How can we create [content] in the same way as, say Yelp or Google, in keeping certain restaurants on the top of people’s minds?’”

A woman standing behind three bowls of food in a kitchen.
Blanca Perez, the owner and matriarch of Rincon Hondureño.
Jonathan Chu
A man wearing a football jersey stands in a restaurant.
Adam Bonilla, owner of Rincon Hondureño.
Jonathan Chu
Cooks preparing meals at stands while customers wander around.
Vendors and customers at MAMA’s Night Market.
Morgan Rindengan
A wall with projecting lighting and a crowd of people in the dark at a food festival.
MAMA Night Market event.
Morgan Rindengan
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