Time, pressure, and the pandemic forced chef Michael Reed and his wife and business partner Kwini Reed to re-prioritize their lives. Before March 2020, the couple had relied on Kwini’s parents to help care for their three-year-old daughter Mackenzie while they ran their Downtown Los Angeles restaurant Poppy + Rose. But when California’s COVID-19 restrictions hit, the bottom fell out of their child care plans — just as restaurants began to face an existential hurdle.
Kwini’s retired parents had relocated to Orange County during her junior year of high school. Their babysitting commute across county lines was doable in better days, but with the uneasiness of those early lockdown weeks, Kwini’s parents said they were no longer comfortable making the trip. So now what?
“It was tough,” says Kwini, who spent weeks trying to figure out how to manage it all at once, particularly within an industry that is notoriously hard for working mothers. For many, free family child care is a necessary lifeline that can make the difference between sinking and swimming. “We had always had that type of family support,” says Kwini — until they didn’t. With limited other options and Mackenzie at the forefront of their minds, Kwini and Michael packed up and moved to Orange County. “We live all together and we spend our time all together. Three generations in a house.”
Kwini believes that during this time her marriage with Michael thrived. In the months that followed, the family’s home cooking began to influence the food at Poppy + Rose, their Fashion District restaurant that opened in 2014 and is known for its rustic brunch offerings like creamy mushroom gravy toast, warm biscuits, and chicken and waffles. Michael began to cultivate an organic garden at their Orange County home, thinking more deeply and personally about sustainability and the ways in which his family preferred to eat.
“Before the pandemic, I was a chef’s wife,” says Kwini. By that time, Michael had spent years in celebrated kitchens on both coasts, moving from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York to the acclaimed David Myers restaurant Sona. “All of my holidays were spent going to the restaurant, bringing our baby and family members [there] so I could have some type of normalcy.” Michael pulled double duty overseeing Poppy + Rose and working as a consulting chef, meaning his days usually began before 9 a.m. and ended after midnight. To help out — and just to see her husband more — Kwini took on an ownership role just before the first wave of government-mandated business closures. With in-home child care help and more mandated time under the same roof in 2020, the pair began to cook, experiment, and grow their vision for what Poppy + Rose (and what a family) could be.
“The Kitchen Sink Bowl is something that I was making [at home],” says Michael. “We were constantly making rice, so we’d put leftovers together with kale, yams, bacon, and make a scramble in the morning. Now that’s on the menu Downtown.”
A year into the pandemic, the Reeds decided to expand — no small feat at the time — into Orange County, combining the lessons they’d learned from opening Poppy + Rose with the new family growth they had undergone while quarantining at home. In March 2021, Poppy & Seed was born at the Anaheim Packing District as a breezy indoor-outdoor home for the team’s more upscale vision of what dining out responsibly could look like.
The glass greenhouse building filters between a covered dining room and a gravel-strewn patio filled with circular stone fire pits and wooden tables. It’s a lush destination far from Downtown LA, but aligned with the community feeling of the couple’s first restaurant and their current culinary missions. The food still leans toward comfort, but it isn’t hemmed in by a small, more urban space or the limited time that chef Reed could spend on site while bouncing between gigs.
With Ashley Irene of Heirloom Potager, the Reeds cultivated an organic edible garden that partially wraps the Orange County restaurant’s large patio. Vibrant marigold yellow-hued planters are filled with tender greens: delicate sorrel, opal basil, nasturtium, and herbs, along with several varieties of chiles, petite tomatoes, and citrus trees. The latter is an homage to the original packing house, built as a depot for the Sunkist company in 1919.
Everything that Kwini and Michael do is intentional in that way, from the citrus they grow to the coffee that they serve (the woman-owned local roaster Sir Owlverick’s out of Anaheim is on bar). The restaurant’s artisanal loose leaf teas are sourced from Oakland-based Teas With Meaning. “I honestly wanted to find a Black-owned, women-owned tea company to work with so I searched that tea company out,” says Kwini. A sencha green tea called Summer Solstice is flavored with cornflower blossoms, Moroccan mint, and currants. A vibrant hibiscus and beet root tea is fused with ginger, mint, lemongrass, sandalwood and licorice.
Irene sees the same focus and dedication in the garden that chef Reed plucks from at Poppy & Seed. “He’s very responsible and reflective of the seasons, which I love,” she says. “We grow some cool things.” While not big in acreage, the on-site farm does offer an outsized amount of inspiration for the menu. Peppers might get fermented for a sauce, herbs may get plucked as a garnish or finishing flavor. “It’s a unique way of taking something that we can’t grow in huge amounts, and making it a highlight of a dish.”
As with Poppy + Rose, brunch is still a highlight at Orange County’s Poppy & Seed, but it’s dinnertime where chef Reed really moves in new directions, spreading out his menu over multiple courses and incorporating a bit of show into the experience. Arrive on the right night and you might even see chef Reed cutting nasturtium right from the on-site garden to garnish dishes at the chef’s table inside. “You feel like you’re going into chef Michael and Kwini’s backyard for the best meal you’ve ever had,” says Irene. “There’s something really intimate and special about that.”
Because their small home and restaurant gardens cannot fully meet the needs of Poppy & Seed, the couple continue to shop locally and support farmers and fishmongers from San Pedro to the Central Valley. “We’re small business owners, too,” says Kwini. “So we understand. Honestly, that’s how we survived during the pandemic: by relying on each other, the relationships that we built. Those are small families just like we are. We have to keep that going, because if we don’t support each other who else is [going to]?”
It’s been two full years of near-constant changes for the Reeds, though both say that they wouldn’t have it any other way, given how it’s all worked out. During the pandemic, the couple also had to reimagine Downtown LA’s Poppy + Rose, working to add outdoor dining to a garage area while still offering takeout and giving back to the community. In 2020 alone, Poppy + Rose donated 6,000 meals to frontline workers and their families. “We’re always looking every month: where can we do some activation, where can we donate meals,” says Kwini. The pair and their staff continue to donate 100 monthly meals to Skid Row residents via the Brown Bag Lady initiative.
“That’s the most important part right there,” says Michael. “We’re family-owned. We’re small, we’re growing. But you can grow and [still] take people with you. That’s what all our people have done for us so far.” Next up for the Reeds is yet another opening, though that one is a ways off. The family is gearing up for a new restaurant at San Pedro’s West Harbor development, with an opening slated for 2023.
“It will be a happy mix between Poppy + Rose and Poppy & Seed,” says Kwini. “So you’ll see both reflected. It also has a garden that we’ll source from, but we’ll have quality grab-and-go food as well. So it will still be farm-to-fork, still very clean and sustainable.” The restaurant will also present a vision, an ethos that touches on notions of dining and time at home in Southern California. “You’ll be able to experience the garden” at the San Pedro property along the waterfront, says Kwini, “and have private family dinners in the garden.” It took a pandemic for the Reeds to find a deeper connection to themselves, their foodways, and their family, and now, they want to share that peace and prosperity with others.