Facebook Food Groups Are Being Reinvigorated by Home Chefs and Bakers
Facebook groups have lent themselves as a place for chefs and bakers to pursue entrepreneurialism, especially during the pandemic.
I don’t really go on Facebook anymore. My timeline is riddled with announcements of former friends having kids or barely-acquaintances making sweeping statements about politics -- not to mention the abundance of misinformation spread on the platform and the tolerance for hate speech. I find the website no longer provides anything of use for me, save for one thing: Facebook groups. There are Facebook groups devoted to anything and everything: crocheting, judging questionable wedding decisions à la Reddit, practicing French, and of course, food.
I first became aware of the thriving world of Facebook’s food groups after returning home to Los Angeles (specifically the San Gabriel Valley) following months of dystopian horror spent in New York throughout the peak of the pandemic. At home, I was invited to the Facebook group SGV Eats by a friend -- a group of over 17,000 people -- all of whom share insights on the best place to grab xiaolongbao; where to buy take-out Japanese curry after the closure of legendary curry chain, Curry House; and which Korean barbecue restaurants offer outdoor seating within the greater San Gabriel Valley area. Among the food reviewers, of which there are thousands, are home bakers and chefs selling their own concoctions.
There’s spicy jars of homemade chili oil available for preorder, fresh-baked buns stuffed with garlicky cream cheese, and tubs of gumbo made from a grandmother’s recipe thousands of miles away from its Lettsworth, Louisiana origins. “You can’t get this here,” Kimberly Harper Velazco, who sells the gumbo on SGV Eats under her business called Alice’s Southern Comfort, told me over a recent video call. “Even in your more famous and popular seafood or Creole restaurants in LA county, it’s good -- but because they’ve become these large restaurants, it's still not that grandma-in-the-back putting that heart, soul, and love into it. That’s what I do.”
Though Velazco was born in California, she made trips every summer to Louisiana to spend time with her grandma Alice and cousins there. The food and the shenanigans she would get into were always memorable. “Her gumbo was just something that became this community thing. I was always right next to her hip when I was a little kid. I just stayed in the kitchen and watched her do her thing.”
When Grandma Alice passed this past November, Velazco felt it was right to continue her legacy of sharing food imbued with love and started the business honoring her grandmother’s name in January. “The [South] is like home to me, and I want to bring as much of that to sunny Socal as I can.” But when Covid-19 hit, Velazco’s catering plans were put on hold. Instead, she took to Facebook to get the word out about her gumbo simmered with blue crab and other Southern favorites she provides: black eyed peas, baked mac and cheese, and lemony buttermilk cake. The response, support, and cultural exchange that followed is something that Velazco “never would have thought [she’d] find in a million years.”
Tracy Phuong, another member of the SGV Eats group, has also turned her side hobby of baking into a small business selling Basque cheesecakes with Asian flair under the name Beurre Food Co. “I’ve always had a thing for baking and started in middle school,” Phuong explained to me on a video call. Phuong, who works in pharmacy administration, found baking as a positive stress reliever on the weekends, especially with the added time spent at home given the pandemic. She took one of the first things she ever baked, cheesecakes, and found a way to add flavors that were familiar and comforting to her. “It hit me that I wanted to try durian and salted egg because of the trends in Asia. I hadn’t seen it around anywhere else,” Phuong said. Me neither -- but I wouldn’t question the combination. The durian Basque cheesecake Phuong makes is creamy and indulgent while still maintaining durian’s signature aroma and custard-like flavor while the salted egg is freckled with orange yolks whose saltiness balances out the sweet.
“I literally thought if I posted, maybe one or two people would be interested,” Phoung said. That hasn’t been the case. Since posting, Phuong and her sister, Becky, have made and delivered over a dozen Basque cheesecakes each weekend. “I feel very supported by the [Facebook group]. It’s exceeded my expectations.”
Though the SGV Eats group is thriving, sharing food on Facebook doesn’t just occur in this small community East of Los Angeles. Over in the Gulfport and Biloxi area of Mississippi, Thuy Cherie Frederick handmakes Vietnamese egg rolls that she just recently began selling on Facebook. “During the pandemic, I realized there were different emotions going on all over the world and especially here on the coast,” Frederick told me via email. “I wanted something to comfort my coastie folks and I thought about how my egg rolls would be a good fit -- especially with people not wanting to go out to eat at restaurants.”
At first, Frederick -- who works at the Gulfport Memorial Hospital -- was regulating her egg rolls to friends, family, and coworkers. But with encouragement from her husband and mother-in-law, she began selling her egg rolls online. “Making egg rolls is something I love to do in my spare time,” Frederick said. “I honestly do love cooking and always watch a lot of cooking shows on TV and Youtube.” In the future, Frederick hopes to broaden her menu but for now, she wants people in the greater Mississippi area to “venture out on different foods” starting with her egg rolls.
Yes, these online groups support home bakers and chefs, but they also happen to support a home farmer, too. In Kansas City, Missouri Jean Van Booven-Shook maintains a blackberry patch that she planted in 2008 and has been selling her fresh berries to restaurants since 2010. It’s a family affair: the patch is on her parents’ property and she gets her kids to help with the harvest during the season.
Due to the pandemic, restaurants aren’t buying nearly as much produce as usual and Van Booven-Shook found that the berries don’t fare well sitting out at farmers markets. It just so happens that COVID-19 hit during a year with such abundant crops -- so she logged on to Facebook and created a page for her business, Eden Eatin’ Blackberries. “It is really nice to have people texting and messaging with inbound orders, rather than making outbound calls every day. It's nerve-wracking with a perishable product like this,” she told me through email. “I was somewhat surprised how easy it has been to connect with everyone for delivery. With everyone being home more and texting, even my older customers, it has been surprisingly easy to connect with people for delivery at very short notice, as I am never quite sure how long my route will take.”
Of course, as a first time seller, there are occasional hiccups. In the future, Van Booven-Shook wants to announce different areas of town she’ll be visiting to make deliveries more efficient and create larger minimums for orders. That being said, it’s a fun way for her to keep her family connected. “When we started it, we didn't really think about an exit strategy. The patch keeps producing every year, and my parents love that I have to come out every day with my kids. So it is a family-bonding thing, and helping these kiddos develop a work ethic while earning some money.”
The running thread between all of these stories is the feeling of togetherness brought forth by sharing food and made easier thanks to an online platform. Whether in Los Angeles, Mississippi, or Missouri -- and even in isolation -- Facebook has given a space for those who want to connect through food.
“It’s cool just seeing all of these cultures and communities come together, which is so exciting in all the upside downness of the world right now,” Velazco said. “It’s the one thing we can all come together and be like, ‘Let’s just eat. And chill. And vibe.’ It’s the one commonality we can all kind of come to right now.”