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Food

The home kitchen goes into overdrive

The home kitchen has evolved into both a professional and family hub during the pandemic.
Kemi Dessert Bar
Photograph: Kelly Miao

Out-of-work chefs are not sitting idly by while their restaurants are closed or they were furloughed. Instead, they’re selling directly to customers or in retail outlets, turning their home kitchens into production centers for catering operations, baked goods or food products.

When chefs Shilpa and Miro Uskokovic were laid off from their full-time jobs in spring, they turned to cooking and baking from their apartment in Queens, N.Y. as an outlet. “We came up with the idea as a lark to keep busy during these months,” say the couple, “but we took care to treat it as a business from the beginning.”

Extra Helpings tomato tart

They called the venture “Extra Helpings” with the mission to give back something back to the local economy by supporting nonprofits such as food pantries and community composting efforts . “Our first two weeks we posted on Facebook in a couple of local neighborhood groups,” says Miro. “Since then, we never advertised anywhere and all our growth has been organic and word of mouth.” 

Now Instagram is Extra Helpings’ main marketing platform. Shilpa takes all the photos using a simple mirrorless cam, and the irresistible cakes, cookies, pies and yeast breads practically sell themselves. The menus are posted on Instagram each week, with the selection limited to five items, each of which is capped at 20 orders.

“We are careful to create menus that work within our storage and production space and within the time frame. We make everything fresh and bake most things the day of pickup, so we need to make sure we stay super organized, strategic and realistic when making the menu,” say the couple. Yeasted products such as English muffins and kolaches take a lot of space and time, so these are balanced with easier to execute baked goods like granola or brownies.

“Oven and refrigerator space are the two biggest issues and we create our menu and production schedule around it,” they say. 

The Uskokovics rent a two-bedroom apartment with what they call “a generous kitchen by New York City standards,” but it has a home-size oven and refrigerator. “The only non-standard equipment we have is a half rolling rack, the best purchase ever,” they say. “It gives us back so much counter space.” On baking/prep days, they unfold an old card table for an additional work surface and Miro has converted the second bedroom into an extended pantryby repurposing a couple of metal racks to store bulk ingredients and packaging. 

Kemi Dessert Bar

Under New York’s cottage law, home baking businesses don’t require special permits for non-perishable products—a motivator that has launched a number of micro-bakeries during the pandemic. Kemi Dessert Bar, started by professional pastry chef Kelly Miao in partnership with her brother Kevin Miao, sprung up during the pandemic as well.

“My biggest challenge is space,” says Kelly of her tiny apartment kitchen. As a restaurant pastry chef for the past four years, “I’m used to having access to unlimited equipment, but now I’m working with two spatulas, four sheet pans, one small and weak oven, four cake pans, and one small workbench. It’s definitely been an adjustment!”

Like the Uskokovics, Kelly adjusts her weekly order pars based on what she can realistically house in her fridge and freezer. She does two deliveries per week, once on Saturday and once on Monday.

Kevin Miao has a diverse business background, which helped get Kemi Dessert Bar off the ground. But in the past months, “I’ve had to learn a lot about customer service, tracking inventory, cost analysis, managing a small team, communicating and more,” she says.

Kemi Dessert Bar does 99% of its marketing through Instagram, with posts of beautiful photos Kelly takes herself. But she also collaborates with prominent food influencers to spread the word—a move that has contributed to the success of the business, she says.

Professionals are not the only ones expanding the scope of their home kitchens, housebound consumers are upgrading their spaces with more sophisticated equipment, cookware and gadgets.

Virtual cooking classes and cooking videos have exploded during the pandemic, and housebound consumers are cooking along, purchasing meal kits, watching chef demos and engaging in other DIY culinary activities. Sales of housewares, including cookware and kitchen gadgets, were up 28% in Q3 2020 year over year, according to The NPD Group. Holiday sales in Q4 should push electric housewares up another 19% and nonelectric kitchen gear up 13%, NPD predicts.

In addition to upgraded kitchenware, tablets and laptops are essential kitchen equipment for cooks stuck at home who want to expand their skills or simply get out of a dinner rut. In many homes, the kitchen has also become an education center, with lessons on decorating cookies or kneading dough incorporated into daily online classes by mom or dad. And kids are pitching in, with pizza-making and donut-decorating kits designed especially for them.

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