For some Brooklyn residents, being laid-off, furloughed, or underemployed was a blessing in disguise. It gave a unique opportunity to try out a business model or plan that they had always dreamed of doing, at relatively low risk when compared to a more traditional brick and mortar experience.
Several local makers and chefs have turned to the resource they have— their homes. By operating out of their own kitchens and selling to neighbors via Instagram and other social media DMs, they’ve managed to make their product a success.
Benjamin Wolff, who was laid off from his restaurant job at the beginning of the pandemic, started Bread by Ben after realizing the uncertain future of his industry. He bakes focaccia, loaves, and even doughnuts.
“I like it because it’s my own product. I’ve made something that I can sell to my neighbors in Brooklyn. It’s just so nice that I have a following and I have people that buy bread from me every week. It’s just never felt so satisfying and I’ve never felt so part of a community before,” Wolff said. About 80% of his orders come from Instagram.
Kayla McBeth-Burrows, of The Urban Baker, was furloughed from her hotel guest relations manager job. Rebekah Pedler, of Bushwick Hot Bread, came to the States from Australia three years ago to work at the acclaimed Eleven Madison Park, and started the business as a side gig once they closed down. Rachel Joyce, of So Like Candy, lost her biggest client at her marketing job once they closed due to the pandemic.
“I thought, ‘you know what? Let’s try this baking thing.’ It’s something I wanted to do for a while. Obviously having a brick and mortar right now is a little weird given all the restrictions, so I thought this was a good way to just test the waters, try it out,” Joyce said. So Like Candy offers a variety of sweet treats on a rotating scale, including cupcakes, truffles, and pots de cremes.
Working out of tiny Brooklyn apartments with only small, non-commercial ovens can prove challenging. Pedler, who moved here from Australia, says that doing deliveries has also proved to be a difficult aspect.
“We drive on the other side of the road so I had many near misses when, instinctively, I would veer to the left. On one occasion in the middle of Manhattan my Zipcar decided to stop working and the horn wouldn’t stop beeping. I still had a car full of deliveries so we had to divide and conquer in taxis,” Pedler, who answered questions via email as she’s currently visiting Australia, said.
All of the businesses in this story that deliver do their own deliveries— either by foot, bike, or car. For many, however, the benefits of community and support have far outweighed the struggles.
Several of the businesses are involved in a larger informal local group called Makers of Brooklyn, that support, share, and collaborate with each other.
“We all started coming together, and trading, and swapping, and reposting everything that we are all making and sharing. I think that that has really helped to build this community and this following,” McBeth-Burrows said. She started making her signature product, macarons, years ago, and has worked hard to learn and improve her method. Now, she prioritizes using local ingredients in her fillings and supporting her community.
As uniquely local businesses operated out of homes, the neighborhood community support has also been necessary, and for many, overwhelming.
“It has been awesome. I’ve been surprised at how awesome it’s been. I feel like I’ve gotten to know the community more and it’s just so positive and supportive, which has been great,” Joyce, who lives on the border of Kensington and Ditmas Park, said.
Another unique aspect of the Instagram business model is the fact that customer feedback is always right there for everyone to see, in the comments.
“These look delicious,” someone wrote on a So Like Candy post. “Holy moly these look incredible,” on a Bread by Ben post about doughnuts. “Oh yum!! I have got to get to BK!” said a fan of Butch Sandwiches.
Most of them are operating with a staff of one— themselves.
“I think it’s important to know that these online businesses are the definition of small businesses. It’s literally my husband, who has a full time job, and myself. I’m writing menus, ordering produce, figuring out delivery routes, orchestrating the production, dealing with suppliers, actually doing all the cooking and then delivering all over New York. But my [Bushwick Hot Bread] fam is literally the best. I have made mistakes along the way and they are all so supportive and so understanding and they want me to succeed,” Pedler said. It was important to her to serve dishes to the Australian community in New York that they might be missing from home, like meat pies, hot cross buns, and sausage rolls.
Returning this support and kindness is important to all of these home businesses as well. Andrea Wolinetz and Alexis Placzek, of Butch Sandwiches, operate on a suggested donation scale with free food for those in need, healthcare workers, and teachers. They also donated half of the profits from their recent pop-up at Westwood bar to organizations supporting the AAPI community.
“Our big mission really is about nourishing the community and what that means,” Wolinetz said. “It’s about doing what our community can do. We’re not doing this to run a business that is going to feed us into retirement. The hope was to give back to the community in some way that we can.”
Bread by Ben also donates a portion of their profits to local initiatives like a community fridge and a food distribution center run out of a nearby church.
This “test-run” of their business model has given many the confidence to achieve something they’ve long dreamed about— whether it’s opening a brick and mortar, or just doing a passion full-time.
“I’m at a point where I could potentially make this a full time thing. I just need to have a little bit more consistency to then be able to rent a commercial kitchen space. In the next couple of weeks I’m actually going to start offering nationwide shipping in addition to deliveries and picking up. I think that will put me to that point where I won’t have to go back to work in July, and I can make this full time,” McBeth-Burrows said.
Wolff says that he hopes to open either a commissary kitchen or a brick and mortar bakery within two years. He plans on staying in his Flatbush and PLG community.
“I moved to this neighborhood and I didn’t really know much about it and they really embraced me. I just feel so welcomed,” Wolff said.
For Joyce, it’s about doing something that she loves.
“I’ve seen [the business] grow month over month. I’m not making millions of dollars by any means, but it definitely is something I truly enjoy. I love being able to bring joy through food and I love seeing the customer’s reactions. Definitely beyond the pandemic I see it as being something that goes further, and maybe beyond just my home,” Joyce said.
Orders for Bushwick Hot Bread can be placed on their Instagram account, @bushwick_hot_bread.
Butch Sandwiches operates on a pick-up only basis, with inquiries via Instagram DM, @butchsandwiches.
So Like Candy orders can be placed via Instagram DM @so_like_candy, or via email, firstname.lastname@example.org.