If you’ve ventured outside your home recently, you’ve probably noticed it looks like pre-pandemic times. Traffic clogging the freeways, Angelenos out and about shopping and people dining outdoors. Ever since Southern California saw some restrictions lifted, it’s felt just a bit like getting back to normal. That has some public health officials worried but what about businesses?
There are all sorts of metrics to figure out how businesses are doing. We looked at one -- pies. Nicole Rucker is a chef who runs a pie shop at Grand Central Market called Fat + Flour. She told us that this activity has economic teeth to it.
KCRW: What's it been like since L.A. County stayed home or was largely lifted last month?
Nicole Rucker: “It kind of happened very abruptly to announce that the outdoor dining was allowed again...it was confusing because it came on the tail of the announcement of the new variant being more contagious and it just seemed like everything was getting worse. And then they said, surprise... you can have outdoor dining.
That first weekend was incredibly busy at the market...I think everyone was really struggling with being happy at how busy they were, but also being scared at how busy we were.”
“The following weekend after that was a little bit more manageable and stable in terms of the flow and not quite, as, you know, Disneyland-like busyness, which, you know, I think is better to have a steadier flow and not just like a bombardment, but, you know, it's hard to reconcile that with the need for cash flow and simultaneously feeling unsafe.”
KCRW: How does that compare to the crowds that you were seeing before restrictions were lifted?
“Our business is interesting because we -- I hate using the word pivot. It's like the least favorite word of 20/20 now for any business owner --But before we pivoted to digital orders really quickly, so everything happens mostly online. People are ordering in advance from us.
My neighbors in the market do all the menu cooking, so it's not exactly the same kind of business model as mine. It takes a lot of effort to have steady business in this economy right now, so I'm constantly hitting Instagram. My husband manages it and is trying to get as many pre-orders as possible and that's how we stayed alive.”
KCRW: You mentioned when it was first sort of coming back, the crowds were pretty heavy.You and your employees were worried about safety. What kind of measures are there in place at the market and within your own stall to help alleviate some of that worry?
“The market has brought on more security. On that first weekend, they saw the influx and they increased the security again the following weekend. So we have people monitoring really great security guards monitoring and, you know, calling people out on not wearing their mask .
It's very tempting to, I understand, to get a tasty snack from DTLA Cheese and want to bite into that sandwich right away while you're walking to find a table. It's very hard to resist that but, the security guards are there to make sure that you don't.
You know, and as business owners, we try to remind people to keep their masks on as much as we can. But after a year of operating in this way, it is exhausting to constantly monitor everyone around you while trying to monitor your own self and your staff. So I'd prefer not to have to talk to people about wearing their masks. I leave that just to security as much as I can.
Within our own stand, we switch to strictly KN95. As long as we can get them, we stay as far apart as we can. In a way, the market and the way that it's set up with its stalls are good because the ceiling is very high and it's open on two sides. There's no recirculated air. So, it does feel a bit like you're outside even when you're inside and I think that's helpful in making it feel I'm not claustrophobic for employees being spread apart.
We’re able to spread out and work just a little bit and we have a very small staff. So that's probably why if we didn't have a small staff it would be impossible to keep people apart.”
KCRW: How many pies, if I can ask you, and chocolate chip cookies are you slinging now compared to more restrictive times, do you know?
“Our big surprising moment when you ask about the health of our business...this past Thanksgiving was our first real Thanksgiving in business as a pie shop. And during a pandemic with only online sales, we were able to make 600 pies out of a stand in Grand Central Market, which is something that I am immensely proud of our ability to make 600 pies in that space.
It took a long time and a lot of logistical effort.But again, it's stuff that we can use in the future so that this upcoming Thanksgiving we can make 1000 pies instead. So that's good.
You know, we make a lot of cookies. I make a little cookie dough. And on the weekends when they first opened up for outdoor dining, it was like we had become a Mrs. Fields and we could not make chocolate chip cookies fast enough. And, you know, then people caught wind of warm chocolate chip cookies and it made like a little bit of a mania moment. But it's a lot, it's thousands of pounds of butter a year.”
KCRW: What is on the menu at Fat + Flour this month? Is there anything new that we should be keeping an eye out for?
“Right now we're going into the rhubarb season. We just started our creeping out of winter, so we put rhubarb on the menu and we brought in some frozen sorry cherries as a kind of like a colorful emotional perk just so we can get some brightness in there.
And then pretty soon here we're going to be moving into the early strawberry season. Thankfully, we live in California so we can take advantage of that. And we're going to have some strawberry rhubarb coming up later this month.
And we're just going to keep going with whatever looks the best and is the freshest.
Right now, we want color. I want color and vibrancy. I think we're all very tired of the struggle. And those colorful, fruity pies really lift our spirits. And we'll always have chocolate chip cookies. We'll always have our famous key lime pie. We will always have chocolate chip on the menu every single week. And then we'll just layer in some fruit pies, you know, for color.”