When the coronavirus pandemic kept people at home, navigating the unknown, four Central NY food entrepreneurs baked up new business ideas.
In lieu of food trucks, farmer’s markets, or opening a traditional storefront, these business owners opted to launch on social media first. Using Instagram and Facebook to market their products and connect with customers, they have each forged a path into the food business world despite the challenges of 2020.
These bakers and candy makers dealt with ingredient shortages due to the pandemic and space limitations, but each of them expressed wanting to do more for their communities and to make people happy during this tumultuous time.
We may be able to walk into their storefronts in the future, but here is how to try these homemade goods now.
Big Al’s Vegan Bakery
Alexis Barney, aka “Big Al”, has wanted to own her own bakery since she was a teenager. Her uncle, a life-long chef, taught her everything she knows about baking when he would take care of her.
Barney is a manager for the Wegmans bakery in Fairmount, but has long had a desire to open a vegan bakery of her own.
“I think Syracuse has been lacking in a variety of vegan options. I decided during the pandemic that people could really use something to brighten their day. I should start my business and start doing deliveries,” Barney said.
She had already acquired her business name before the pandemic started and it was a quick permit process. Before she knew it, Big Al’s Vegan Bakery was up on Instagram @bigalsveganbakery and she was delivering her vegan treats to the people of Central NY.
“Instagram made it super easy. I knew who my audience was already and people were really receptive of it,” Barney said.
She will post up items for sale in her feed or Instagram story as they become available, but people wishing to order any sort of treat can also send her a direct message and get details on pricing and delivery. Her hottest seller is the Big Al’s special, giant cookies the size of your face. Her funfetti cookies fly off the shelves by the half dozen.
Her three-layer vegan birthday cakes are also popular. Barney said she does the classic flavors of vanilla and chocolate, but she also offers funfetti cake, red velvet, champagne, strawberry and lemon, and more.
“The limit is your imagination,” she said.
Learning how to be a one-woman business during a pandemic is the biggest challenge, but she is tackling things a day at a time.
The diversity of her customers has been one of the most positive and surprising things to arise from this journey. She has received orders from vegans and non-vegans alike.
“I want people to know vegan food doesn’t taste bad. It’s fun to be a vegan and you can eat anything you like. You can still get an awesome birthday cake and treat yourself. The goal is to make it taste like there’s no difference at all,” Barney said.
A morning breakfast in May inspired Evan Furey to create and become co-owner of NICE Biscuit. Waking up earlier than usual one day, he created a vegan sausage and biscuit meal for him and his girlfriend, Cristen Crew. As they ate, they started to dream about giving Syracuse a biscuit-based business with a Southern influence.
By dinnertime the idea turned into a full fledged plan with business name and the beginnings of a logo. Furey said the goal of NICE Biscuit was to deliver hot breakfast, smiles, and comfort to people working hard from home during unprecedented and uncertain times.
Furey is no stranger to the food business after working in restaurants for over 16 years and being a co-owner of a food truck in Austin, Texas. The couple moved from Texas to Syracuse, NY in 2018 to allow Crew to finish an environmental science degree at SUNY ESF.
“I was certain I was done with restaurants. I found work more in the corporate America setting and it wasn’t bringing me the same satisfaction,” Furey said. “I’ve always had that kind of revolving door of folks to see and greet, but it also allowed me to have a finger on the pulse of the community. Getting out of restaurants, I didn’t realize how much I would miss that. Being in an office really took away from that social interaction that I had begun to take for granted.”
Two weeks after that fateful plate of biscuits and gravy, the couple launched their online presence on Instagram @nicebiscuitsyr and teased their upcoming business to gain followers. NICE Biscuit made its first deliveries in June.
Since then the business has grown so rapidly that they had to quickly move out of their home kitchen into a commissary space to crank out biscuits at a faster rate. After a month and a half in that space, they are already planning for a new one where they can continue to grow.
Furey is now co-owner of NICE Biscuit with Crew and his brother Dominic Furey. Their Instagram account bio contains the link to their website nice-biscuit.com where people can place their orders from Monday through Friday for weekend delivery and their newly launched pick-up option at the commissary.
The menu ranges from sweet to savory biscuits, and everything, including the honey, is vegan. Their vegan “hunny” is a secret recipe made with apple juice, date syrup, dandelion root, and chamomile.
Despite being in restaurants in every position from dishwasher to manager and ownership, starting NICE Biscuit has still provided new experiences for Evan.
“The thing that stands out the most is the community support. Not only from people online with excitement, questions, and tons of orders, but from other small businesses as well,” Evan said.
Upcoming NICE Biscuit will offer new fall specials and the team is shopping around for a space for the company to keep growing.
Worth the Kavity
Kayla Johnson was home in March during the state shutdown and like many, got into cooking and baking in her free time while waiting for her place of employment to reopen. When she posted her homemade treats online, her connections got excited and wanted to try them.
She had been going to school for hospitality management, but was more focused on managing a hotel or night club. Running a food business was not on her radar.
“I really wasn’t focused on cooking, even though I enjoyed doing it in my free time,” Johnson said.
She learned a lot about cooking and baking from her father, but said she is also self-taught through lots of trial and error.
Her sweets started to gain a following and Johnson launched her desserts under the name Worth the Kavity. She posts her decadent creations on her Kayla Johnson Facebook page and those wishing to buy leave comments or private message her. She is also available to hire for events or special orders.
Worth the Kavity offers pick-up and delivery; whatever is most convenient for the customer, Johnson said.
Her number one sellers are her cheesecake creations. Cheesecake flavors range from strawberry and mango to Snickers and Reese’s. Other popular items include chocolate covered strawberries and cookies.
“I have grown to love being creative. I love trying things and experimenting. That has gotten me to play in the kitchen and do different things,” she said.
Ice cream is Johnson’s personal favorite dessert. She would love to own her own ice cream shop someday and she is currently learning to make her own homemade flavors.
Challah At Me 315
Maura Koenig was living in NYC and working for a non-profit when the novel coronavirus shut down many businesses and institutions in New York state. She lost her job and came home to Central NY to wait out what she thought was a temporary two-week hiatus in March. It was a confusing and depressing time, she said.
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what day it was. The only thing that kept me sane was keeping the tradition of baking challah,” Koenig said.
She would make the traditional loaf in her NYC kitchen to ring in the Jewish Sabbath every week and take it either to a Shabbat dinner or be the host herself. When she moved back to Syracuse, she continued to bake for her parents who then shared photos of the loaves on social media.
This sparked an interest in others to have her bake for them. Koenig said there isn’t a place for people in Central NY to pick up Ashkenazi cuisine from Eastern Europe.
“There is not really a Jewish bakery in Syracuse. If you’re lucky you can buy a challah at Wegmans and sometimes other assorted things. At the beginning of the pandemic a lot of people said ‘this is amazing, ‘this is such an exciting thing,’” Koenig said.
She quickly applied and received her permit to be a home processor through the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets and launched her new home-baked business, Challah At Me 315.
Koenig said every challah is like a snowflake, no two are alike, but she wanted to make them as consistent as possible for her customers. This required some experimenting and new precision measures to scale up her baking to fulfill orders.
Current Challah At Me 315 flavors include what Koenig calls the OG challah, sesame, everything bagel, and her best seller: brown sugar cinnamon challah.
“I add a little bit of cinnamon to the dough and then I stuff the inside with brown sugar and cinnamon. It tastes very similar to a cinnamon roll. French toast made out of that is unreal,” she said.
With the upcoming high holiday of Rosh Hashanah, traditional round loaves and a honey raisin flavor are available. Koenig has experimented with different flavors like challah stuffed with caramelized onions, spiced with Za’atar, maple syrup added, and even a pepperoni pizza challah. Customer interest dictates what flavors will be added to the regular menu.
Continuing to bake weekly challah helps Koenig feel connected to her Judaism and said it gives her a feeling of wholeness while being separated from the Jewish community is a part of in NYC.
To order challah from Koenig, a Google order form on her Instagram account @ChallahAtMe315 and her Facebook page ChallatAtMe315. Or people can email her their orders at email@example.com. She offers free delivery in the Syracuse area on Wednesdays and Fridays and will also do pick-up orders.
For every loaf she bakes, Koenig donates a dollar to the Jewish Community Center of Syracuse.
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