For all the mayhem COVID has wrought, it has also sparked a creative energy among local entrepreneurs.
MBJ spoke with the owners of three food-related businesses — all of whom are making it work.
City Tasting Box
Let it be known: There is nary a bit of moss growing under Cristina McCarter’s feet.
McCarter, who founded City Tasting Tours, saw early on that her culinary tours wouldn’t fly during the pandemic. So, she began offering online tours. The tours weren’t just virtual; McCarter would deliver restaurant samplings to the tour-goer.
Then, when the city entered phase two of its back-to-business plan, she realized her nascent virtual tour business was pretty much kaput.
“Everybody was able to get their dining experience again, which is great. I’m not mad about it,” she said. “But, it wasn’t like I could go back and start doing tours again.”
McCarter began to cast about for ideas. She was considering a box with Memphis food items when Lisa Brown got in contact.
Brown, who has a background in e-commerce and the food and beverage industry, liked the box idea but thought bigger: Instead of marketing to the home crowd, they should go nationwide. The two teamed up to launch City Tasting Box.
There are two boxes to choose from: the Official Memphis Travel box ($74.99) and the Support Local box ($64.99).
The pair said that the boxes work for those out-of-towners and ex-pats who crave a taste of Memphis and locals who they consider “loyalists,” those who support anything 901-related.
The travel box features Memphis comfort food staples — from Makeda’s cookies and My Cup of Tea teas to Rendezvous barbecue sauce and Wing Guru pork rinds.
The Support Local box is an artisanal, handmade selection of items — homemade granola from Nine Oat One, Pop’s Kernal’s Gourmet Popcorn, Greek Vinaigrette from Grecian Gourmet, and more.
“Cristina has always been excellent about vision casting,” Brown said. “I’m like, dude, this is something big.”
Sugar Avenue, the online cake business started by father and daughter Ed Crenshaw and Miller Cowan, offers a “crispy cake.” It is a cake-sized Rice Krispies treat covered in icing. It’s their own invention.
It’s that sort of innovative thinking that launched Sugar Avenue.
Crenshaw has been a local baker for decades, supplying desserts to local restaurants and grocery stores. When COVID-19 hit, business dried up.
“COVID shows up, and we gotta do something,” he said.
That something was taking the business completely online, with the help of Farmhouse Branding.
Ben Fant of Farmhouse got them set up to take orders on their site, and once that was done, orders started rolling in, Cowan said.
They said they don’t consider themselves so much a Southern bakery as a Memphis one. They use dry ice from nexAir and ship via FedEx — both local companies.
Sugar Avenue offers coffee cakes in cinnamon and blueberry; cakes in coconut, strawberry, caramel, chocolate, red velvet, and confetti; as well as baby cakes and the crispie cakes.
Business has been going well, Crenshaw said, and his cakes were recently picked up by a group that is putting them in restaurants. They hope to expand regionally soon.
As for the father/daughter dynamic?
“It works super well. It’s fun to be able to be together, and we have a good time,” Cowan said.
“As long as I do what she says,” joked Crenshaw.
Zayde’s NYC Deli
Marisa Baggett’s Zayde’s NYC Deli launched about a year ago.
“We’ve stayed in a pretty tight market niche, which is why people in general haven’t heard a lot about us,” Baggett said.
She started the business for people like herself, who are keeping kosher.
“At the time, I had a job working full time and, if you know anything about getting a Shabbat meal together, it’s basically like the Jewish equivalent of getting a big Sunday dinner together,” Baggett said.
She started offering full dinners — from soup to dessert — just to see how it would go. Six weeks later, she quit her job.
But when COVID-19 hit, she saw a lot of the events she was going to cater evaporate, from the birthday parties and weddings to the Bar Mitzvahs and the brises.
“What we ended up doing is adding an extra delivery day in the middle of the week with something fun — things that you can’t necessarily get if you keep kosher in Memphis. That helped us really increase business and increase awareness, because now we’ve gotten some attention outside of the kosher community,” she said.
The business has grown so much that Baggett has been hiring to keep up with demand.
Zayde’s — Yiddish for “grandfather” — offers Shabbat and holiday meals as well as its Wednesday specials for delivery.
Baggett noted she always offers a vegetarian option in addition to her briskets (corned beef and pastrami) and kosher versions of Mexican, Chinese, and sushi dishes.
Baggett made her bones as a sushi chef, having taught classes and worked for Tsunami. She said there are similarities in preparing sushi and preparing kosher meals.
She talked about making the briskets — considering the weight of the meat, mixing the spices, figuring out how long to brine.
“It’s very similar to the amount of attention that it takes to create sushi,” Baggett said. “It is a craft, and it is a task.”