The Best Pastries Are Now Being Sold Via Instagram
To put it simply, Nathan and Lachlan were screwed. The two chefs, who arrived in New York City from Australia, had been working in the kitchens of popular restaurants like Estela, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. The country came to a screeching halt in March, and both Nathan and Lachlan (who prefer to not use their last names) found themselves laid off, with no access to unemployment benefits and no other way to support themselves. So they started baking bread out of their Brooklyn apartments. Lots of bread.
"Bread was the easiest to start with," says Nathan, a pastry chef by training. "We didn't have professional equipment, and laminated pastries are very hard and laborious to pull off otherwise."
In April, the duo started selling their hearty loaves of bread, trays of focaccia, and dozens of knotty cardamom buns on Instagram under the moniker Neighborhood Bread. They would bake six days a week, mixing pounds of dough by hand, before stuffing their backpacks with baked goods and making deliveries on their bikes. They now average 20 to 25 orders per day and have expanded their menu to include other pastries like Portuguese egg tarts and English muffins.
Nathan and Lachlan are just two of a multitude of chefs who have launched microbakeries since the beginning of the pandemic, selling high-quality baked goods through Instagram. While microbakeries—often defined as bakeries that are run out of someone's home—aren't new, there has been a huge uptick in the past few months, as many out-of-work hospitality professionals and pastry chefs, in particular, turn to this model to support themselves.
While bakeries and restaurants across the country are struggling to remain open, the Instagram baked good market is flourishing. You can purchase conchas in Austin, or Basque cheesecake in San Francisco, or flan-filled doughnuts in New York City, without ever having to enter a brick-and-mortar business. It's all made possible by cottage food laws, which in most states allow people to sell foods that don't require refrigeration, such as baked goods, jams, and jellies, directly to consumers without using a commercial kitchen space.
Many pastry chefs who have opened microbakeries are baking out of their tiny apartments with extremely limited space. "We are fortunate to have a decent amount of space for New York City," says Miro Uskokovic, the former executive pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern. "But every corner of our home is turning into kitchen storage. We turned our second bedroom into a large pantry, where we keep several metro racks with ingredients and molds."
Uskokovic and his wife, Shilpa, who works as a private chef, run Extra Helpings, where they sell pastry boxes each week, brimming with things like blueberry mascarpone brioche buns and chocolate fudge pound cake that they've baked in their Queens apartment. The couple says they are basically down to just one closet for their clothing, and all other storage spaces house ingredients and equipment.
Sasha Piligian, a pastry chef who used to work at Sqirl in Los Angeles and Lou in Nashville, has developed quite a following for her cakes, which arrive with swooshes of buttercream, pools of jam, and lots of fresh California produce. But she struggles to make the cakes out of her one-bedroom LA apartment.
"My fridge is now just a holding area for my business," she says with a frustrated laugh. "I don't have any food in my fridge to actually cook for myself and my kitchen is no longer my kitchen, it's a production kitchen. I even use my dining table as a workbench."
Equipment restrictions also pose a major challenge for those operating microbakeries, especially for those used to the commercial-grade tools found in professional kitchens. It ultimately shapes what they are able to offer.
"Everything takes longer when you bake at home," says Piligian, who has had to streamline her normal cake-making process. She now bakes cakes in batches and freezes them, instead of making each component of a cake to order. This gives her time, on top of the ten or so layer cakes she makes a week, to also fulfill cookie and pie orders that she receives via Instagram.
Kirstyn Shaw, a former server at Rose Cafe in Los Angeles who now runs a thriving cookie business called The Very Best Cookie out of her apartment, says she struggled to fulfill the mountain of orders she was receiving for her chocolate chip cookies.
"My home mixer can make a batch of 50 cookies at a time, and on average I'm selling 600 to 1000 cookies per week," she says. Combine that with limited home oven space, and she was initially baking cookies about 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Shaw now works out of a commercial kitchen space one day a week, where she can produce dough for 800 cookies in just four hours.
Nathan of Neighborhood Bread sustained a number of injuries in the first few months of the business due to the lack of professional equipment.
"We were hand-mixing everything and I did in my shoulder from overworking it," he says. "I ended up mixing with one arm for a few months and basically blew it out." Baking out of a home kitchen also meant a hard limit on the number of loaves of bread Nathan could make. "We could squeeze six cast iron pots at one time in the oven. That was it."
Eventually the ignition in his oven blew, but luckily they were able to move to baking out of the basement of Otway, a restaurant in Brooklyn. Now the duo bake three days a week, instead of six, making the same amount of bread and treats.
"Space really determines our menu," says Uskokovic. "We have to be really creative not only in terms of the items but also the logistics. We have a regular fridge; you can't fit 20 kilos of dough in that."
Shilpa recounts a story of setting an alarm at 3 a.m., so that Miro could wake up to press down and shape eight kilos of English muffin dough that just kept rising. "Things are very different and behave very differently in the home kitchen," he says. The couple—who bake about 20 pastry boxes a week, with five to six different items in each box—may end up investing in professional equipment like a Hobart mixer and a countertop sheeter, for laminating dough, to make the process easier.
Though it comes with its operational challenges, the microbakery model of selling desserts through Instagram is only growing. A Filipino doughnut concept in New York City has an 800 person waitlist. The Uskokovics say that their pastry boxes sell out quickly each week, and they would make more if they could, but they don't to ensure that their quality level remains high.
Nathan says he and Lachlan are making a little under what they would have made if they returned to their kitchen jobs, but have way more control over their schedule, which is worth more than money. Piligan says she is making enough to pay her bills. Shaw notes that while she doesn't make as much as she was making as a top server at a trendy restaurant, her cookie business is taking off, and she now ships at least 60 percent of her orders to eager customers around the country. All of the chefs say they also have a number of regulars who frequently reorder.
Given its advantages to cash-strapped chefs, the microbakery trend will likely continue gaining traction. Without a physical storefront or being required to pay for pricey commercial kitchen space, the start-up costs are quite low.
"At home you are saving a lot of money on the overhead costs and you are able to control where you want your resources to go," says Shilpa. Piligian points out that it is also much easier to manage your costs because you're mostly working off of pre-orders. Many have also seen it as an opportunity for creative growth and exploration.
"We wrote down 100 different things we want to make," says Uskokovic. "We want to push our creativity and ourselves, and it's also educational for us."
Joy Cho, a pastry chef who also used to work at Gramercy Tavern and spent most of quarantine making boxes of baked goods from her parent's house in Ohio, says that she used this time not only to experiment with pastry, but also with savory goods. "I grew up eating a lot of banchan, and I didn't know I could make it until the pandemic happened," she says. "I am now finding ways to integrate this into my work."
For Cho and her peers, starting microbakeries has allowed them to walk away from the traditional restaurant model of long hours, meager pay, and toxic cultures. None seem to have any plans to return.
"I think having done my own thing for six months has been freeing," says Cho. "I want to continue doing something similar and doing more pop-ups. I don't know how it will evolve but I am being challenged and happy with where I am."
Nathan says he and Lachlan would also like to continue to run their microbakery: "I've been cooking for ten years in restaurants, and at a certain point you just get old enough and don't want to work for people anymore, and you need to leave for your own mental health."
The Uskokovics also agree, though they are hoping to transform their microbakery into a larger operation. "Many people dream of having a business of their own," he says. "We are taking things one step at a time with the hopes that it will turn into something bigger—something permanent."