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When the world shut down in March 2020, many turned to their kitchens for comfort. Whether baking sourdough bread or trying the latest TikTok food trends, folks stretched their culinary muscles at home, to the delight of their roommates and family members. Some even took their foodie adventures one step further and opened up bona fide pop-up food businesses—often publicized via Instagram and Facebook Marketplace—bringing their delicious creations to the masses.
For many, these ventures were a way to keep busy. For others, they were a lifeline when they were out of work. As more and more of these pop-ups emerged, the Ontario government even relaxed regulations on home-based food businesses and released a how-to guide to get started.
Over a year into the pandemic, after Toronto’s mainstream restaurants opened up, we caught up with the founders of three food businesses that emerged over the past 18 months to see how they were faring. Here’s what they had to say about their newfound projects.
Brindle Food Co. doesn’t make your average meal kits. Instead, classically trained chefs Carlos de Veyra and Nicole Douglas showcase Ontario’s bounty through restaurant-inspired meal kits anyone can assemble and cook at home.
“We really want to promote local ingredients, so that’s one of our major influences in our style of food,” says de Veyra, who specializes in pasta making.
Over the Christmas holidays, he and Douglas—who weren't working as restaurants remained shuttered—decided to sell a ramen kit in support of the Holiday Helpers charity. Demand for their product remained high, so they continued making different types of meal kits to provide eaters with a unique at-home restaurant experience. For those with a sweet tooth, Douglas—who trained in pastry arts at George Brown—made desserts, also inspired by what’s in season.
“We’ve always dreamed about opening a restaurant one day and it kind of just happened at the perfect time to create this brand and it just keeps evolving,” says Douglas. As word about Brindle spread organically, the two began to get custom orders, whether it be for birthday cakes, as well as for catering and private dinners.
As local produce reaches its zenith, their recent menus have included corn agnolotti (a stuffed pasta) and Niagara cherry cream puffs. Even in the winter, when fresh produce is limited, they aim to include other types of locally made ingredients in their food.
“We’re trying to showcase ingredients and bring awareness to what our city and what Ontario in general has to offer,” says de Veyra.
Lawyer and passionate home cook Daniel Seidman has a 70,000-strong following on Instagram and has used the platform as a side hustle for the past five years. However, about a year into the pandemic, instead of only sharing mouth-watering food photos and video tutorials, he began selling his meat-forward food, too.
“I wasn’t cooking for a lot of people like I was used to and I was wanting that feeling that I used to have of sharing my food with other people,” he says.
He began with sourdough bagels, something he would already bake every weekend. Later, he expanded to sous-vide burger boxes (with two patties, brioche buns, caramelized onions, and more), pastrami boxes—filled with house-brined and smoked pastrami, sourdough bagels, sauerkraut and dill pickles—and ribs.
“During the peak of my pastrami [boxes], I was throwing six new pastramis in every week… I actually got a second fridge for my garage to store all the brining pastrami,” says Seidman, who says he brines his pastrami for two weeks.
He’s grown his business via his Instagram and through word-of-mouth referrals. He’s even had hometown heroes order his food—Max Kerman, the front man of the band Arkells, even posted about his experience ordering a burger box.
While Seidman’s slowed down a bit to enjoy the summer—he’s still working full time and preps his boxes on evenings and weekends—he plans to pick up again in the fall, likely serving a rotating menu of burgers, pastrami and ribs.
At the start of the pandemic, Kimberly Ng was an account manager at a growing Toronto start-up—now she’s running a food start-up of her own.
“I didn’t know anything about the industry and I was just baking from home,” says Ng, who began selling inventive baked goods over one year ago under the brand name The Good Goods.
Her mochi muffins, Basque-style cheesecakes and tiramisu were clear winners, so she began focusing exclusively on them and experimenting with unique flavour combinations—like her popular everything bagel mochi muffin, a sweet and savoury confection. After working on The Good Goods as a side hustle—with lots of late nights—Ng quit her job and made her burgeoning business her full-time gig.
Now, she runs her own team of 8-10 and is in the middle of a three-month pop-up inside the Upper East Food Club food hall in North York. She and her team also sell at local markets and via their online shop. Just like in her previous role, she approaches The Good Goods as a start-up—evaluating what works with different demographics and on different marketing platforms, and pivoting as she learns. Her experience has also been a crash-course in the food industry as she manages inventory and the myriad demands of a bakery operation.
At the end of the day, however, along with quality baking, for Ng, it’s all about providing customers with a moment of joy, no matter how they interact with The Good Goods.
“The main goal from the start,” she says, “Was just to create things that would make people feel really happy when they got them.”