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Unemployed SF restaurant workers pivot to home-based pop-ups

Pastry chef Lyndsay Pullem in her kitchen, where she's started her own baked goods business. | Photo: Courtesy of Lyndsay Pullem
By Alisa Scerrato - Published on July 23, 2020.

From cooks to servers to bartenders, restaurant workers have been some of the hardest-hit victims of the pandemic. Many have seen their restaurants remain closed for upwards of four months. Others have been benched as staffs get slimmed down for takeout-only or outdoor-only operations. 

But when the going gets tough, the tough get cooking. With a little elbow grease and some social media marketing, these three restaurant workers are now running small businesses out of their home kitchens, dishing up everything from birthday cakes to cocktails. Some are even considering the possibility of a post-pandemic shift into full-time entrepreneurship.

LH Bakeshop

With 24 years of experience in the culinary industry, Lyndsay Pullem knows her way around a kitchen — most recently at One Market, where she was executive pastry chef prior to the shelter-in-place.

But after a month of waiting to go back to work, she realized it probably wasn't going to happen anytime soon. So she's pivoted to selling custom cakes and baked goods out of her apartment in Parkside. 

Pullem said she's always dreamed of starting her own business, and with the encouragement of other restaurant-industry friends, the pandemic gave her the chance to take the leap.

“I’ve got all this time, plenty of equipment and tools at home, and the skill and reach to sell my goods,” she said. “It started with a request for a custom birthday cake, and the rest is history.”

A black forest cake from LH Bakeshop. | Photo: Courtesy of Lyndsay Pullem

In addition to whole cakes, Pullem sells mochi cakes and milk buns in both regular and vegan coconut-milk versions. The Asian-inspired flavors include pandan (young coconut), ube, matcha and milk tea. 

Pullem said that so far, she's received a lot of great feedback on her food, especially from the vegan community.

One Market recently reopened for takeout, but since they don't need a pastry chef for the time being, she's remaining focused on her burgeoning business.

Pullem said she'd consider opening her own brick-and-mortar bakeshop if she could raise the necessary capital. She's also a painter, and she'd love to have a space with coffee, baked goods and work from fellow local artists.

“Commercial rents are going down, and property owners are being more approachable, with better leasing terms for small businesses," she noted. "And the city is making the permit process easier. I just need to get the funds.”

From left: vegan ube buns, vegan ube mochi cake, vegan matcha chocolate chip cookies and vegan ube white chocolate macadamia nut cookies. | Photo: Courtesy of Lyndsay Pullem

“I do love my job [at One Market] and hope to go back," she said. "I'll either parlay my personal business into a joint venture, or continue to do it on the side."

To check out the menu and place an order, visit Pullem's Instagram account, @LHBakeshop. All food is offered for pickup from her Parkside apartment; customers can pay via Venmo and PayPal.

Arepas en Bici

Prior to the shelter-in-place order, Victor Aguilera was the head chef at Union Street gastropub The Brixton.

But after his 14-year restaurant career came to a sudden halt, he decided to shift to serving — and delivering — the cuisine of his Venezuelan heritage. 

As its name suggests, Arepas en Bici specializes in arepas, a stuffed Venezuelan flatbread. "Bici" is Spanish for "bike," and when you order delivery from Aguilera, he'll roll up on two wheels to drop off the food.

Chef Victor Aguilera. | Photo: Courtesy of Victor Aguilera

The avid cyclist, who got his start doing bike delivery for a restaurant in Florida, is based in Nob Hill. But he has no problem pedaling to customers as far as seven miles away, with advance notice. (Same-day orders are offered for pickup at his apartment.) 

Aguilera said he's been making arepas since he was four years old, and has always wanted to create a business around Venezuelan food.

In addition to nine varieties of arepas (like the pabellon, with shredded beef, fried plantains, black beans and cheese), he also sells empanadas and tequeños (fried Venezuelan cheese sticks). The entire menu is gluten-free and halal. 

“It’s a lot of work, but I’m really happy doing it,” he said.

The effort has paid off. Last week, he was featured on "Good Morning America." His initial three to five customers a day have grown into a waitlist. 

“Now it’s steady," he said. “Some days are more busy than others, and I've also been catering to businesses, which has been amazing and a blessing."

Aguilera poses with an arepa de pabellon. | Photo: Courtesy of Victor Aguilera

Even if restaurants begin to reopen, he'll continue to focus on growing his business.

"I want to pursue this dream," he said. 

Check out Arepas en Bici's menu here, then text Aguilera at (415) 660-0303 to order. Hours are Wednesday-Sunday, with pickup from 2-6 p.m.; payment is through Venmo. 

Coquitos by Chalè

Christina Carrilo, known to many as Chalè Tamale, is a "jack of all trades" bartender in the city.

Prior to the pandemic, she worked shifts at three bars in San Francisco — Nitecap, Mission Hill Saloon, and Winters Tavern. When they all closed for the shelter-in-place, she knew she had to get creative. 

Carrilo is no stranger to side hustles. Over the past few years, she’s held pop-ups at Bender's Bar & Grill as La Cubana and Elotes, serving Cuban sandwiches and elotes (grilled corn with a spicy mayonnaise-based topping).

When the pandemic hit, she got the idea to sell another item inspired by her Puerto Rican heritage: coquitos, a traditional Puerto Rican rum drink that she describes as “tres leches on crack.”

Christina 'Chalé Tamale' Carillo with her coquitos. | Photo: Courtesy of Christina Carrilo

Made with condensed milk, coconut milk and eggs, coquitos are a family favorite for Carrilo, who was born and raised in San Francisco. She also sells a non-alcoholic version, and a coquito-flavored cake. 

With the success of her coquitos, she's planning to expand into selling other Puerto Rican dishes, like arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), pernil (roast pork) and alcapurrias (banana-yucca fritters stuffed with meat). She'll offer vegan options, too. 

Bottled coquitos. | Photo: Courtesy of Christina Carrilo

But Carrilo's hustle doesn't stop there. She's hosted online cocktail-making classes, and prints logos on masks and T-shirts for businesses (including Nite Cap and Winters). As her Instagram handle sums it up: "Chalé Gets It Done."

To see her full selection of offerings and place an order, go to her Instagram page.

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