Meet the First-Time Food Entrepreneurs Starting Businesses During the Pandemic
Despite intense operational challenges, these founders are spreading joy and nourishment.
Odds are, when you're reading about a food business in a magazine, it’s already well-established. It’s probably making enough money to pay for a publicist. Maybe it already has investors.
But there's something exciting about the very beginning—the moments when first-time entrepreneurs land on business ideas, finance them, and keep them afloat.
Despite unprecedented operational challenges, there have been a flurry of new food ventures launched during the COVID-19 era, and we're spotlighting a few first-time founders here. While some of their businesses were born of necessity, others started as hobbies. All of them are inspiring us right now. Here's how they're making it work.
Shabnam Ferdowsi, Lingua Fresca Pizza
Shab Ferdowsi had been wanting a new professional outlet for a while, but the pandemic was the catalyst that finally made it happen. A musician and photographer living in Los Angeles, 28-year-old Ferdowsi found herself at home, unable to tour with her band. So, in July, she started baking pretzels.
“It felt like a fun thing that I wasn’t seeing people do,” she said. “And they were really easy to make.”
A few weeks earlier, she’d gotten some sourdough starter from a friend. She also started experimenting with that. “It was just for fun, trying sourdough pizza and posting photos of my sourdough journey," she said. "And then sometime in August, my friend asked me to make her a pizza because she had seen a photo that I posted. That kind of got me thinking maybe I could do this for other people.”
Ferdowsi didn’t charge her friend for that first pizza, or her trial run of six pizzas the week after, which she also distributed for free. But she knew she wanted to start a business. So she put up a menu soon afterwards, ordered some pizza boxes online, and started taking pre-orders on Instagram.
At first, her clientele was mostly friends. Then it was friends of friends. Soon, it was Instagram followers, some of whom she didn’t know, and strangers began to post about it. Now she’s up to selling around 18 pizzas per day, twice a week. Currently she offers pickups on Sunday afternoons and sometimes Wednesday nights, with people placing orders two to three days in advance.
Her individual size margarita pizza starts at $11, with Calabrian chile, fresh mozzarella, and basil. Sunday-only offerings include arugula walnut salad, cucumber mint salad, and coffee gelato, for $5 each. All can be picked up at her home in Pasadena.
“I’m still in that phase where I’m investing in tools,” Ferdowsi said. “So all the money I make goes back into getting my system set up.” She recently bought an Ooni pizza oven, which allows her to churn out charred Neapolitan-style pies.
“Eventually, I’ll get to a point where I’ll be done investing in those supplies," she said. "At the end of the day, pizza ingredients are not expensive, even if I’m getting higher quality stuff. A pizza is a few tablespoons of tomato sauce, a few pinches of fresh mozzarella, and I’m trying to keep it simple that way. So, to a certain point, the profit margin can be a good one.” She’s currently talking to people about doing pop-ups, and possibly finding a non-home kitchen to work out of.
A huge impetus for Ferdowsi to start this business was that other streams of income were shifting, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, she’s been experiencing changes in her eyesight. “I'm a pretty able person, but this deals with visual acuity and central vision,” she said. “So it really hinders me from doing so many things.”
Freelancing from her laptop, for example, was becoming tedious. She considered getting a job in a commercial kitchen at one point this summer, after discovering her love of baking. But chopping vegetables as a prep cook, and the optical detail that entails, simply didn’t make sense.
“At the very end of the day … there's that visual acuity that is needed for just general working in a kitchen that I don't have,” she said. The situation motivated her to start her own operation.
"The alternative to moving forward is just sitting still, and I’m not going to do that," she said. "I’m not that person."
Courtney Lewis, Err'body Eats
Amid Black Lives Matter marches this summer, Courtney Lewis and her co-founder Lauren Mitchell recognized a deep need for food, water, and nourishment. There were people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity in the wake of pandemic layoffs, and Lewis and Mitchell knew they wanted to help. So they founded Err’body Eats, a not-for-profit meal organization.
“While we were in protest, we continued to pass tent camps and see people that were hungry,” Lewis said, recalling marching in D.C. “And we knew that if we were thirsty and hungry, and we were experiencing the weight of the pandemic, that people on the street were experiencing it tenfold. We didn’t feel right promoting the sale of food, but rather people contributing and being able to help their community.”
Lewis, who has cheffed at D.C. and New Orleans restaurants, is not currently working in the industry, and she doesn’t think she wants to go back. “We knew that we could contribute to the food industry and we didn't have to be in the restaurant working the lines to do it,” she said.
As protests against police brutality continued, Lewis cooked and distributed the first set of meals on June 3, using her D.C. home kitchen and her own funds. Since then, she and other volunteers have gone out every week—sometimes every other week—to deliver home-cooked meals, toiletries, hand sanitizer, Gatorade, and water.
“You'll see a lot of [people experiencing homelessness] in the Capitol Hill area, which you wouldn't expect because there are all these government buildings,” Lewis said. “If we see that there’s a mass of people, then we make a note of it and we make sure to go back to that place.”
Having worked in fine-dining open kitchens, Lewis recognized the privilege of being able to talk to someone who’s cooked your food—and wanted to relay the same experience to the people she serves. “We’ve built relationships with these people and they’re counting on us to be there every week,” she said. “If we missed a week, they would make it a point to let us know.”
Err’body Eats officially earned non-profit status in August and has raised about $12,000 to date. $4,000 of that has been on their GoFundMe page, with the rest being via CashApp and other in-kind food donations.
“We know that in taking care of others, we’ll be taken care of. There’s nothing that we’ve ever had to want for,” Lewis said. “The things that we do on a weekly basis are currently covered, but if they ever weren’t, Lauren and I are willing to put up the money for it like we did in the beginning.”
Lewis is exploring the possibility of ghost kitchens to prepare a larger volume of meals. Post-pandemic, she’s also interested in moving towards a soup kitchen model, hopefully one with an education component. “We’d like to start culinary classes and urban agriculture classes and get people really into what their bodies are ingesting,” she said.
“We have a lot of faith in the work that we’re doing,” she continued. “It’s definitely been a learning curve to figure out how to fundraise and sustain for the community that we serve, and I won’t say that we’ve figured it out yet. But we’re so committed to this. These are our full-time jobs. We’re not going back to the kitchen.”
Kim Cohn, founder of Farm to Tea
Kim Cohn, 35, has always wanted to start her own business. She ran through several ideas before landing on Farm to Tea, which she launched during the pandemic while working full-time. It’s an online-only store that sells U.S.-grown green tea, and Cohn buys directly from a couple in Hawaii who farm and harvest the tea themselves. They use only regenerative methods, without pesticides or herbicides, and grow the tea in the rainforest to ensure that the land doesn’t need to be deforested for agricultural use.
When most air travel came to a halt this spring, the tea-growing couple lost the agritourism that made up a sizable portion of their income. Cohn realized she could provide them a new distribution channel with bulk orders, as they weren’t interested in growing a direct-to-consumer business themselves.
After investing nearly $2,500 over the past few months, she officially launched her store in September. Like many new businesses, it’s still in the process of becoming profitable, but Cohn is confident that it can be—while not compromising on farmer compensation or product quality.
Although she’d been interested in entrepreneurship for a while, she was moved to action by reading stories about struggling family farms.
“For a lot of small producers and growers making a high-quality product, the supply chain basically collapsed overnight,” Cohn said. “I honestly found it a bit heartbreaking when I was hearing all of these stories. Milk farmers, for example, didn't have a market anymore because schools closed, and pork farmers had to actually kill their animals, which is horrible.”
Cohn, who grew up in Northern Virginia, made a map of small farmers in the area to encourage people to buy from them. She posted it to several local Facebook groups and got significant traction. “I think it got like 20,000 views,” she said. “I felt like this wasn’t enough though; I just wanted to do more.”
She talked to tea farmers across the country, and figured Farm to Tea could help support little known regional foodways. Most Americans don’t realize that tea is grown in America, or that it’s such a special product. Cohn spent months researching sustainable packaging. She registered an LLC, opened a business bank account, and bought a color printer for labels.
Now, she's figuring out how to scale her business in a way that leads to long-term profit, while not compromising on her mission. “Right now it’s just trying to raise awareness that there’s a tea industry in the U.S. and that it's really high quality," she said. "It's supporting small farmers, and it’s enabling regenerative agriculture to flourish in Hawaii.”
Ras Rody, Ras Rody’s Jamaican Vegan Kitchen
Ras Rody, 60, has been a chef for 25 years. But, like so many others during the pandemic, he's shifted gears entirely: by moving across the country and opening his first-ever food truck.
That had been the plan all along. But when the pandemic hit, the timeline accelerated. Rody decided to leave Tampa, Florida, where he had been cooking at pop-ups and farmers' markets. Facing a dead tourist season there, he drove to Santa Fe, where his partner, Michelle Wurth, was waiting for him.
Rody specializes in Ital cuisine, a Rastafarian philosophy with which he grew up in Jamaica. It's characterized by vegan, plant-based cooking that avoids processed ingredients, additives, and preservatives. To that end, it was important to Rody that his food truck had not previously been used to cook animal products. Last year, he and Wurth started the process of building their own food truck trailer from scratch, and they launched it this April in Santa Fe.
Despite opening in a new city at the onset of the pandemic, the food truck has gotten significant local traction with word-of-mouth advertising. And Santa Fe-area press has quickly followed. “People really appreciate what we do and they support us,” said Rody.
Rody and Wurth grow an organic garden as well, located right by the food truck—corn, spinach, chard, and kale make it into the Jamaican curries Rody cooks.