When you look at Victor Aguilera’s Instagram account, you’ll see a few selfies along with several photos of arepas, a griddled corn cake common in Venezuela. They’re pictured grilled, fried, filled with avocados and cheese, or steak and plantains. But Aguilera is not just an arepa enthusiast. He’s a professional chef, and for the past few months, his Instagram account has served as a way to drum up business.
Aguilera is just one of hundreds of restaurant workers who were recently laid off due to the pandemic. Before launching his arepa enterprise, he worked at the Brixton, an American gastropub in San Francisco. As a way to make ends meet, he took to Instagram to sell food inspired by his home country of Venezuela. Interested customers can either DM him or text him directly for orders (He leaves his phone number prominently displayed right on his Instagram bio). He then personally delivers the food by bicycle all over San Francisco, directly to the customer’s door. After some recent press, Aguilera now has a regular clientele and he says orders have been coming in non-stop.
He is not the only chef who has turned to technology as a side hustle during the coronavirus pandemic. Adahlia Cole (also known as “hungry hungry hooker” online), who used to give custom food tours of the city, has compiled a list of former restaurant workers in the San Francisco Bay Area who have pivoted to Instagram as a means of income. The range of cuisine listed has everything from Italian pasta to apple pie. Several of these enterprising Instagram chefs aren’t just amateur cooks; some have culinary school credentials, while others have worked in critically acclaimed restaurants. Sometimes both.
The selling-food-through-Instagram method varies, but in general, this is how it works: a chef posts what they’re offering and then interested customers can call, text or DM them to place orders. Sometimes there’s a link in their bio where people can order through an e-commerce site like Shopify. If the order is made via text or DM, the chef sometimes asks for payment through Venmo or a similar service. If the chef has offered delivery as an option, the customer would obviously provide an address. Then, on an agreed on day and time, an order of hot, tasty, home-made food arrives at the customer’s front door. Since the order hasn’t gone through a delivery service like Grubhub or Doordash, all of that money goes directly to the chef who actually made the food.
The legality of the practice is somewhat questionable — state laws generally allow selling food made out of a home, but permits and licenses are often still required depending on your region. Enforcement can also vary. But the idea is not a new one, and the concept of the so-called “InstaChef” has been around for quite some time. (A Thrillist video series with the same name debuted in 2018.) Michael Lawless, also known online as “El Chefe,” began his LA-based business in 2013 when he started promoting and selling his style of cajun fried chicken on Instagram, and now has over 45,000 followers. Trap Kitchen, a South London-based operation run by Prince Cofie Owusu (also known as Shakka) started in 2016 out of his mother’s apartment. He now has over 123,000 followers, and offers boxed meals that contain everything from lobster tails to Belgian waffles.
Aside from just offering chefs an additional source of income, social media sites like Instagram have also helped food workers build a community with each other. Instead of competing with one another, chefs often amplify other chefs, creating a word-of-mouth campaign that has proven far more successful than traditional advertising.
I was first introduced to the “InstaChef” world when I saw an Instagram story posted by Tracy Goh, a San Francisco-based food entrepreneur who specializes in Malaysian fare like chili crab and laksa, usually a spicy coconut-based noodle soup. (I’m a fan of her Malaysian-centric pop-up dinners, and backed her recent Kickstarter campaign to launch a brick-and-mortar restaurant focusing on Malaysian laksa.)
It was the early days of the San Francisco shelter-in-place order, and she was promoting the Instagram account for a recently laid-off Singaporean chef (she goes by the alias of “Spice Dom”) who was offering up Singaporean-Malaysian classics (the two cuisines are often interchangeable) like chicken rice and assam laksa, a spicy and sour noodle soup. As diverse as the culinary scene is in San Francisco, there just aren’t that many restaurants that focus on the foods of Singapore or Malaysia, my homeland. Keen on tasting the cuisine of my childhood, I leapt at the opportunity and slid into Spice Dom’s DMs.
Within hours, she responded with the week’s menu. I made my order and Venmoed her the cash along with my home address. Was it risky to give a stranger my address? Probably, but Goh’s recommendation made me trust her, plus Spice Dom had pretty decent culinary credentials to boot. (Her resume includes being an executive sous chef at a critically acclaimed restaurant.) A few days and several back-and-forth chats later, a container of assam laksa arrived at my front door. It was spicy, briny, full of umami and absolutely hit the spot.
Spice Dom didn’t always sell Singaporean fare through her Instagram account. Instead, she started out with slightly more mainstream Asian fare like ramen or chicken teriyaki. But it wasn’t until she started offering Singaporean-Malaysian foods that her orders skyrocketed. That’s partly due to fellow chefs like Goh amplifying her message, but also due to a seemingly untapped market of Singaporean-Malaysian food devotees in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I was completely shocked that there were so many people who liked it,” she said.
The business expanded further when she roped in fellow Singaporean and former coworker “Nonya Queen” as a pastry chef to offer Singaporean desserts like kuih lapis and mango sago.
Then, as luck would have it, another Singaporean-based Instagram operation popped up by the name of Makan Place. (“Makan” translates to “Eat” in Malay.) It was also helmed by two other San Francisco-based Singaporeans, both of whom were also former restaurant workers. After Makan Place was featured in outlets like Eater and the San Francisco Chronicle, Spice Dom and Nonya Queen were getting confused with them, so they decided to brand themselves under a new Instagram account called Dabao Singapore. (“Da bao” roughly translates to “take out” in Cantonese.)
“The [Dabao] menu is more streamlined, while any additional desserts have to go through Erika,” Spice Dom said. “We’ve also increased the frequency of our menu drops to three times a week as opposed to one or two.”
As for the rising competition, Spice Dom isn’t mad that Makan Place exists. Instead, she’s happy to promote them, along with other Instagram accounts that are also offering Singaporean-Malaysian food during the pandemic, such as Nora Haron in Oakland and Satay By the Bay in San Francisco. That also extends to Goh, who recently started offering a Malaysian snack platter through her online store. When perusing their Instagram accounts, I often found that they were promoting and tagging each other as well. “We’re supporting our own people,” she said.
Goh, who had her own laksa business in San Francisco prior to the pandemic, published a photo on Instagram a few weeks ago of a bowl of laksa that she ordered from Dabao, ostensibly a rival shop. But, as she wrote in her post, she wasn’t worried about the competition. The reason Goh started her venture in the first place was because she couldn’t find any representation of her cuisine in the city. “For years, I had felt quite alone on this quest with only one voice,” she wrote. “For me, the dream is to make laksa one of the Asian noodle soups an average San Franciscan thinks about when they’re hungry, hungover, on a chilly foggy day like this … I welcome and root for other players in this field.”
Through Instagram, chefs of all different cuisines have not only figured out a way to survive the pandemic, but thrive in it. Dabao’s business is now so popular that Spice Dom says she’ll soon be able to hire staff — great news for former coworkers who have remained unemployed. They’re also in the process of securing a commercial kitchen space, which offers a lot more prep space than just their homes.
Aguilera is in the same position. He said that thanks to his successful arepa business, once the coronavirus pandemic is over, he no longer plans to go back to working in someone else’s kitchen. Instead, he hopes to open up his own restaurant. “I really hope to find a location and open a small place so everyone can come and [get] take out.”
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