Five years ago, Ramon Navarro was setting himself up for a successful, if not traditional, culinary career. Cooking through some of the most lauded Portland kitchens of the time — French destination Le Pigeon, brunch darling Simpatica Dining Hall, bar-restaurant hybrid Beaker & Flask — he was in a good position to start climbing the ladder within the Portland restaurant industry; within a few years, he would be in a strong position to pursue his own food cart or restaurant. Instead, he walked away.
“Man, I just — I burnt out, basically,” Navarro says. “The work that goes into being a line cook at a nice restaurant ... I couldn’t keep doing it without a sort of goal or idea of what I was doing long-term.”
He focused on his rock band, None, and worked at a grocery store to pay bills. When the coronavirus hit, the combined danger of frontline food-service work and the lost revenue from concerts put him in another tense spot. “In March, there was nowhere to play music,” Navarro says. “I had nothing to do.”
So, exhausted by frontline food service and financially strapped, Navarro — like many other chefs and home cooks looking for a financial boost and creative outlet during the pandemic — decided to begin selling meals via Instagram. Navarro is half Chamorro, the Indigenous population of the Mariana Islands. Whenever his family got together, his aunt would make big batches of red rice and grilled chicken with a few assorted sides and other dishes mixed in. So, knowing the dishes well and drawn to their simplicity, Navarro started hawking orders of chicken and rice on his personal Instagram account. He sold out on his first run; soon, it became a weekly tradition. After a few weeks, he started adding on dishes like crispy pig trotters and tart pickled mangos. “I can’t help but think, ‘Whoa, what if this actually catches on and turns into a business?’ But that’s not my goal necessarily,” he says. “That’s the cool thing about this: I’m in control of myself. I get to control how much I want to do and what I want to do about it.”
Navarro is one of several local chefs who have started selling meals directly through social media, delivered to people’s homes or picked up from coffee shops or commissary kitchens. Chefs make everything from za’atar-rubbed roast chickens to whole lasagnas to ramen kits to pozole on menus posted to Instagram via stories; customers then order meals via DM, paying over Venmo or CashApp. Many of these Instagram businesses — not quite a restaurant, not quite a pop-up — began as survival mechanisms related to the pandemic as mid-level restaurant jobs dried up. Former line cooks, chefs, and non-industry members have found a certain freedom in selling food through Instagram, using it to build an audience with low overhead or simply as a way to let food be a creative endeavor without the hangups and headaches of a traditional restaurant setting.
Thomas Boyce, like Navarro, had a reputation for his work in restaurants of a recent bygone era. He ran the back of house at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Los Angeles, also working for now-closed influential restaurants like Bluehour and Pok Pok. When his catering kitchen job at Nike dried up in March, he felt uncertainty about reentering the restaurant industry. One night in the summer of 2020, he made his girlfriend a very traditional bolognese lasagna, which she loved, and he started to chew on the idea of selling his own. “I saw people selling charcuterie boards, quiches, and I went, ‘These are pretty good, I should sell these,’” he says. He began offering a handful of lasagnas via a new Instagram account, Lasagna Project, and his weekly deliveries soon started selling out. “It took very little investment, and it just kind of got some traction,” he says. “The job market for the restaurant industry is basically nonexistent, so I basically just went with it.”
Boyce has one employee, someone who helps deliver his lasagnas. After he stacks the sheets of pasta with things like bechamel and bolognese, porcini mushroom sugo, or oxtails and mozzarella, they get a quick hit in the oven before his delivery driver drops the foil trays of pasta at people’s homes. At the moment, Boyce finds the system to be a real relief: Unlike with restaurant work, Boyce can build his lasagna business around how he wants to live — both in terms of work-life balance, but also in terms of COVID-19 safety. “My best employer-employee relationships have existed with people who respected my choices. I can do that here,” he says. “Yesterday was a production day, and I was able to go for a run, do some yoga, and then make some lasagna. I don’t see many people — I see my girlfriend, my kids — even the one person who helps me deliver, he comes to my foyer, he grabs some bags, and he splits.”
At the moment, however, Boyce is trying to think through a potential path forward. When it comes to what’s next, he’s contemplating things like takeout markets or wholesale options, but opening an actual restaurant seems low on the priority list. “I think of restaurants ... [as] the default. But I don’t think it’s the direction I’m going into,” he says. “In the past I loved it, but it doesn’t work with the life I want right now. There’s so much sacrifice for such slim margins.”
Those slim margins are a major factor holding back chefs from reentering the restaurant industry across the board. Before the pandemic, restaurants had an average profit margin of about 11 percent. Now, with restaurants operating at limited capacity or relying solely on takeout business, making a profit is far from a given; most are simply not profitable.
That financial roadblock has kept Anh Tran, the former general manager of the now-closed Yen Ha, from reopening the restaurant in a new location. The restaurant closed before the pandemic, in fall 2019, but the family was looking for a new location; when the industry tanked in March, it became harder to secure the funding and the space for the revived restaurant. He started selling patê sô via an Instagram account he named Hey Chaudy, but for him, restaurants will always remain the endgame. “I grew up in the restaurant and lounge industry. I’ve always been around those people,” he says. “I don’t know where this economy is going, where food is going. I do want to continue doing this, if it keeps going well, but I would love to find a space for it.”
Many restaurant owners have used existing restaurant spaces as a sort of stepping stone between opening a new business and cooking out of their home kitchens. The vegetarian pop-up Raiz, for instance, rents out kitchen space from Tiny Moreso owner Jenn Pereau. Chef couple Dominique Rodriguez and Jorge Rico take over the vegan cafe in the evenings to sell orders of buckwheat fettuccine ragu and sweet potato gnocchi with capers and golden raisins. This exchange has been the foundation of most pop-ups, even before the pandemic: Restaurant owners rent out unused kitchen or dining room space to make room for smaller one-night dinner events. But as owners try to keep their spaces with a severe decrease in revenue, the shared-kitchen model has become more prevalent.
While Rodriguez and Rico have thought about opening a restaurant — or even a pop-up — for some time, the prospect seemed daunting for them as young parents and restaurant workers. However, with a gentle push from Pereau, they found themselves loving being back in a kitchen. Now, opening their own brick-and-mortar restaurant doesn’t seem as impossible. “I enjoy working for myself; it’s less about money and more about something creative,” Rico says. “It reminded me that I am more than work, that there is more to my identity.”
Those within the restaurant world know these challenges: the financial burden, the emotional and physical stress, the toxic workplace environments. Working within the industry now involves carrying the weight of demanding clients, unrealistic standards, and an economy and culture that undervalues food service. Abuse begets abuse; stress begets stress. The industry — like almost all industries in this country — is wrestling with its deep-seated inequities.
But at the core of this work is a love of food, a love of service. So many people who enter the restaurant industry do it out of a desire to make and serve food that inspires people, that draws from childhood memories or cultural traditions, that challenges diners and creates something completely new, that soothes or surprises. And for many, the choice to sell food via Instagram was made out of that uncomplicated interest: People who missed or craved a certain food simply made it and acted on the desire to share it with other people. Selling food this way strips it down to the essence, cleaving off the baggage of the restaurant industry and leaving the intimacy of one person making food for another.
Jerry Benedetto is one such person. A cannabis sales rep, Benedetto moved to Portland from the Midwest, and he found one of his favorite dishes, tavern-style pizza, absent from the Portland food scene. Chicago isn’t just a deep-dish town: There are other pizza varieties specific to the city, including the thin-and-crispy, heavily seasoned tavern style, cut into squares and slid into paper bags.
Benedetto decided to teach himself how to make tavern-style pizza. He rolled out the dough, topping it with a version of his Grandma Pat’s sauce and his fennel-heavy sausage. He sent test pies to neighbors and coworkers, and started offering pizzas on his Instagram. He didn’t charge for the pies; instead, he asked people to make a donation to Don’t Shoot PDX, a social-justice nonprofit that advocates for police accountability and provides mutual aid to underserved communities around Portland. The pizza began getting rave reviews from Midwestern expats; people would cry over his pies, or even the smell of his house, where he cooks, nostalgic for home and unable to fly there during the pandemic.
Eventually, however, the demand just became too high. Benedetto became a pizza machine: He would work a full day for the cannabis business and make pizzas at night, throwing all of his pizza requests in a spreadsheet. By January, his waiting list was around 15 months long. Overwhelmed and exhausted, he decided to start taking money and quit his job to pursue his own restaurant space. “The CEO (of my former job) had the pizza, and they said, ‘You need to leave. You’re in the job for as long as you want it, but you need to do this,’’” he says. “Being someone who doesn’t come from this industry, who started making them at home, I’m taking things slowly. I have my ultimate vision.”
These days, Benedetto still makes his pies, but he’s working on getting out of the Instagram restaurant business, ironically, for a little more stability. He’s partnering with a bar to share the financial load but take on more business. He wants to carry on with his donations to nonprofits and justice groups in some way, however his business transforms in the coming months.
Les Rendon also built her Instagram pop-up, Nopales, out of a certain kind of homesickness — both for the restaurant world and for the massive Mexican feasts her mother made growing up. “Making all this food with my mom, I realized that cooking is one of those things that brought our huge family together,” she says. “I missed that intimacy.” She also missed the personal nature of cooking for people in a restaurant space: Rendon has spent time in Portland kitchens like breakfast cafe Sweedeedee, ramen shop Marukin, and Jewish deli Beetroot. After Beetroot went on hiatus and then closed in September, she started working for a farm, until that work dried up. On a night in November spent scrolling through Instagram and watching cooking videos, she spontaneously made a food-business Instagram with the handle @nopalespdx. She posted an image of radishes with the caption “Keep an eye out for a menu coming to a bario near you!” She had no idea exactly what she’d serve, but thought she’d figure something out in the morning. When she woke up, she opened Instagram to find a pile of new followers and post shares. Making that initial order of tamales was Rendon’s first time cooking Mexican food for the public, under her name; for her, sharing this part of her culinary and cultural identity is simultaneously freeing and intimidating. Whether she opens a restaurant down the line or not, she is sharing her food as an extension of herself.
“Running a business on Instagram is still someone being super vulnerable, putting themselves out there,” she says. “I get to share my story with my food … even if they don’t get it by reading [my Instagram], they’ll get a sense of who I am by eating it.”