The Covid-19 pandemic has brought challenging times for many in the food industry. But simultaneously, the changed pace and shifting business models of pandemic life have brought new opportunities for food brands, restaurants, and even talented individuals who may never have entered the food business otherwise.
One of those individuals is Remy Mendelsohn, founder of Olive Tree Bakeshop. Mendelsohn is a lawyer and a mom of two living in Orinda, California, in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area. (She is also a friend, and our kids go to preschool together). As the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Mendelsohn and her family temporarily moved to Southern California and sheltered in place for over a year.
Mendelsohn told me that “I’ve always loved bringing people together through food. I even remember making my family sit with menus I created to eat my, likely terrible, food when I was just in elementary school. That love of making memories and building friendships through creating and sharing food has only intensified through the years.” While navigating the challenges of pandemic life, Mendelsohn learned that a friend had started a food business called J’s Sweet Spot from her home in Woodland Hills, California.
J’s Sweet Spot specializes in home-baked cheesecakes. Mendelsohn doesn’t like traditional cheesecake. But she says she felt “inspired” seeing her friend’s venture, and it got her thinking about pursuing her interest in food. She “started fiddling” and trying out recipes, and developed a recipe for a cake that she “couldn’t stop eating”, building on cakes her friend was selling: Basque Burnt Cheesecake.
“The way I ask people to think of this cheesecake is to imagine Crème Brûlée and cheesecake had a baby”, Mendelsohn told me. “It’s delectably creamy and lush, weighty, but light, and hits all the right notes on your palate with the caramelized flavors from the burnt top.” Some Basque Burnt Cheesecakes are deliberately gooey and undercooked on the inside, Mendelsohn says, but her recipe is designed “to be creamy and evenly textured throughout.” Olive Tree Bakeshop’s Facebook page concedes that “Basque Burnt Cheesecakes are not the prettiest”, but assures customers that they’re still “divine and perfect gifts!”
Mendelsohn initially baked her customized cheesecake for friends and family members. Mendelsohn’s sister-in-law, however, felt that she shouldn’t stop there. “My sister-in-law immediately told me ‘you should sell these!’, Mendelsohn told me. She even brought Mendelsohn her first customers, despite the fact that Mendelsohn hadn’t made a solid commitment to starting a business, and was out of town at the time.
“I figured, ‘ok, why not, let’s see what happens’”, Mendelsohn told me. She started baking the cakes, and selling them to three customers that her sister-in-law had lined up. Word spread quickly. In just a few months, Mendelsohn said that she had “developed a clientele with repeat customers and then some”. Mendelsohn bakes a stack of cakes each Friday, and people drive from around the Bay Area to pick them up in Lamorinda.
Like Mendelsohn, I don’t like cheesecake. With the exception of Cheesecake Factory’s banana cream pie cheesecake (don’t judge me), I can’t eat the stuff. But Mendelsohn’s Basque Burnt Cheesecake is totally different. To me, it tastes like a lighter, fluffier version of a flan. As advertised, the inside is creamy and custardy, and the outside has a crackly, caramelized crust. I spent about 20 minutes photographing mine before I started to eat it, and the smell alone is worth buying a cake for.
Mendelsohn makes the cakes by hand, wraps them in paper, and packages them in gift-friendly, clear-topped boxes. She takes orders via email, WeChat, Instagram and Facebook Messenger. Each cake costs $30. Customers pay her through Venmo.
Business is booming. Mendelsohn says that she is “selling out despite increasing production.” She has introduced new flavors of the cake, including a matcha/green tea flavor with a subtle green color, a strawberry flavor, and a chocolate version described as “hot chocolate in cheesecake form” with “hints of toasted marshmallow.” Customers who are unable to choose one cake can order a sampler for $37.50 which includes some of each flavor. Mendelsohn even created a flourless version for the Jewish holiday of Passover, which has also been popular with customers seeking options with lower gluten and carbs. She has also recently begun to sell cookies in addition to cheesecakes.
In starting a food business during the pandemic, Mendelsohn is part of a broader trend. According to an article in Mother Earth News, during the Covid-19 pandemic “millions of Americans have opted to launch their own business from home to cover the bills and enhance the local food movement with homemade products sold to their neighbors.” The article quotes Alexia Kulwiec, Executive Director of the Farmer-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, in saying that “There has been a significant increase in consumer interest in cottage foods and the food freedom movement in the last year.”
The pandemic has created a culture of ordering in, greatly expanded the use of apps like Venmo and PayPal (which many small-scale food entrepreneurs use to take payments), and led to an increased interest in engagement with local communities. All these factors — as well as an often-challenging economy and a surplus of talented people confined to their homes — is driving a surge of interest in food entrepreneurship. According to Food and Wine, many small-scale food entrepreneurs are women or People of Color, who may not have explored the food economy before Covid-19, but now are “spreading joy and nourishment.”
Some small-scale food entrepreneurs keep their ventures small, but others expand. Boichik Bagels in Berkeley, California started as a cottage food business run out of founder Emily Winston’s home. Like Mendelsohn, she sold her bagels to a small clientele, but demand soon outpaced her ability to cook bagels in her home oven, and people lined up around the block to make purchases. Winston moved her business to a storefront, hired staff, and invested in equipment. Despite the pandemic, Boichik has thrived. In early 2021, the New York Times declared her bagels the best in the country. Despite her expanded scale, her bagels now sell out three weeks in advance. From what started as a home-based food business, she’s well on her way to creating a bagel empire.
For Mendelsohn’s part, she says that she is actively considering scaling up Olive Tree Bakeshop. Several customers have posted to the company’s Facebook page asking if she has a storefront, and urging her to sell her cheesecake by the slice. Others have asked for delivery to other regions of the Bay Area. Mendelsohn told me that “discussions with my family involve thoughts of being in a local market and more growth in production.”
For now, if you want to try Mendelsohn’s cheesecakes, you can reach out directly to order one via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by sending an Instagram message to the venture’s account, or by sending a WeChat message to OliveTreeBakeshop. You can also visit the Olive Tree Bakeshop Facebook page and send a message via Facebook Messenger. Make sure to order well in advance, as the cakes tend to sell out quickly.
The pandemic has disrupted much of daily life, and much of the food world is still reeling from Covid-19’s effects. But in that disruption, entrepreneurs like Mendelsohn have found opportunities to build thriving small-scale food businesses, with the potential to expand rapidly if they choose to do so. That’s good news for anyone interested in pursuing a passion for food, testing out a new food business concept, or simply paying the bills through their cooking skills. And the diversity and innovation these businesses bring is great news for anyone who loves eating, too.