Getting restaurant takeout has been a way for Utahns to satisfy their cravings for new flavors during the pandemic, when it can feel risky to go out and eat. And offering takeout has been a lifeline for food businesses struggling under COVID-19 restrictions.
But for some Utah caterers and chefs who don’t operate out of traditional restaurants, making single meals to go hasn’t been an option. So, how could they get their food products out into the community?
The solution from Spice Kitchen Incubator? Box them up.
Community food boxes from the kitchen offer heat-and-serve meals, plus snacks and desserts — such as chicken pozole, smoky tomato-lime salsa and crispy tortilla chips from chef Merab Maciel, or delicate sandwiches and pastries from chef Mika Lee, perfect to pair with tea.
The boxes, available for preorder and curbside pickup in Salt Lake City, feature diverse cuisine from resettled refugees and others whose food businesses are supported by Spice Kitchen. The mix of packaged items in the boxes are designed “to supplement your weekly foods that you’re eating,” program manager Kathryn Idzorek explained recently. (She has since left the incubator.)
Spice Kitchen releases one food box each month, and you can subscribe to its newsletter at SpiceKitchenIncubator.org to find out what the next box’s menu will be. Prices are in the $40-$55 range, and the foods inside are themed — January’s box was full of snacks to munch on while watching a Sundance film from the couch. March’s “Feminista” box will feature food made by Latina chefs; preorder by March 4 at noon.
Chefs Maciel and Lee credit the community food box project with not only helping their one-woman businesses survive, but also giving them the opportunity to be creative with food. Still, they first had to find the drive within themselves to hustle in a whole new way.
‘What would Grandma do?’
For Merab Maciel, her heritage and the food she makes are inseparable. She was born in Southern California to Mexican parents and grew up “surrounded by family,” whose gatherings were always centered around food.
As a chef, she says, she’s inspired by her late grandmother. Her “abuelita,” as Maciel calls her, was “old-fashioned,” but she also had a “gangster side,” and her granddaughter knew to always show up at her house hungry.
The matriarch died in 2017. But Maciel, who now lives in Utah, says that whenever she cooks, her grandmother guides her. She asks herself, “WWGD? What would Grandma do?” Maciel says, laughing.
However, until recent years, turning her her love for cooking into a business wasn’t Maciel’s plan. Instead, she would make fresh salsa and other traditional Mexican dishes for her husband and three children at home.
But after she started bringing samples of her homemade salsa to church to give to her friends, their enthusiastic reactions helped Maciel realize she had something special.
She opened her business The Salseria in 2019 through Spice Kitchen Incubator, and delivered salsa orders to customers herself. When the pandemic made that system unsafe, Maciel says, Spice Kitchen’s community food boxes gave her “a new opportunity to just be creative and continue to do what I love without being exposed” to the virus.
At the suggestion of Spice Kitchen, Maciel started experimenting with making heat-and-serve entrees that could be included in the boxes along with her salsas.
Now, the products Maciel sells include tamales (savory and sweet), chile verde, sides and a tres leches cake cup for dessert. And, of course, salsa and crispy “totopos,” a Spanish word that essentially means “tortillas that are noisy to chew,” Maciel posted on Instagram.
When new customers order salsa from Maciel, they often say they heard about The Salseria through the Spice Kitchen food boxes. “It gives me a lot of joy,” she says.
Like her abuelita, Maciel’s favorite part of cooking is hearing that people enjoy her food.
Women often struggle with feeling like they didn’t do enough, she says. But positive feedback is “fuel that keeps you going.”
‘Spilling the tea’
Tea maven Mika Lee also draws from her history as she makes foods like scones and cucumber sandwiches, meant to be nibbled with an afternoon “cuppa.” She was born and raised in Utah, but her parents immigrated from Taiwan, where black and green tea is “like water,” she says. And her travels to the United Kingdom introduced her to the ubiquitous ritual of afternoon tea with cream and sugar.
But in Utah, “people don’t really know about tea, people don’t have a palate for tea,” she says. Lee is determined to change that, and “really show people this is actually what tea should taste like.”
When she opened her business Honey Teahive in January 2020, Lee was ready to bring the experience of afternoon tea to people’s doorsteps, arriving equipped with all the necessary tea, food and equipment to do it up right.
But that plan had to be thrown out the window when COVID-19 hit.
Spice Kitchen’s community food boxes gave Lee a way to keep bringing in customers and a chance to get out of her creative comfort zone. She calls the project a “playground,” where she can test new products. “I get bored easily,” she says, so throughout 2020, she made new foods for Spice Kitchen’s boxes and also launched her own monthly “tea party in a box.”
“Spilling the tea” on, well, tea, Lee explains that proper British afternoon tea, also called “high tea,” is meant to be fancy and feel like a special occasion. Picture a “harpist in the background,” she says. But “low tea” — with, say, a simple spread of scones and your favorite tea — enjoyed at your kitchen table “can be whatever you want it to be.”
Her menu ranges from traditional British classics like egg salad sandwiches and vanilla scones, to not-so-traditional creations that would likely “get people’s blood boiling” in the U.K., she says.
Sticklers for ritual would probably raise their eyebrows at scones with any extra ingredients, she says. But “variety is the spice of life,” so she likes to make scones flavored with chocolate chips, cardamom, cranberries, or cinnamon and raisins.
Lee even infuses some of her desserts with tea — her colorful fruit tart, for example, is filled with hibiscus-flavored cream.
The pandemic may have inhibited Lee’s plans to hold in-person tea ceremonies, lessons and tastings, but it doesn’t have to stop people from gathering to enjoy tea, she says. Her custom high tea boxes — complete with sandwiches, scones, desserts and tea — are a way to “get some friends together for a summer picnic or a Zoom meetup and everyone gets to share the same meal,” she says.
About Spice Kitchen Incubator
Spice Kitchen Incubator was founded in 2013 through a partnership of Salt Lake County and the International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps refugees resettle in Utah.
The incubator aims to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds start their own food businesses by providing training and affordable access to commercial kitchen space. Learn more at spicekitchenincubator.org.