A makeshift sign attached to a white delivery van points the way to an artisan market open to the public and filled with goods from Orange County food makers who have come together with the goal to keep themselves and their employees in business during the coronavirus lockdown.
The group also offers free items for healthcare workers and hospitals.
“Come in,” the vendors encourage tentative customers who aren’t sure whether they’re at the right place.
“Would you like to meet a ‘Chopped’ champion?” OC Baking Co. founder Dean Kim asks, pointing to chef Shachi Mehra of ADYA, more than six feet to his right inside Kim’s Orange warehouse.
Signs abound reminding customers to practice social distancing. The chefs, standing behind their respective tables, wear gloves and tight-fitting masks.
Kim said he had never imagined he’d be endangering his life as a baker of bread.
“It’s not like I’m a police officer,” he said. “But we’re dealing with a lot of people now, and my God, I’m constantly sanitizing, washing my hands, wearing my mask. I even sanitize my gloves. And when I get home, I run into the garage, strip down, run upstairs to take a shower and change into new clothes.”
For the past decade, Kim has provided artisan bread for hundreds of restaurants and hotels across the county. But because he runs a wholesale bakery, customers never bought bread directly from his warehouse at 1960 N. Glassell St.
That is, until about two weeks ago, when he opened his steel roll-up doors to the public. First it was because he realized bread shelves in the supermarkets were emptying and people were asking him for bread. But then he thought maybe he could do more.
“Everyone’s business was tanking, restaurants were shut down,” Kim said. “I figured I had such a big open space, I could probably distribute bread out of here and recruit some [chef] friends. … We thought maybe if we keep it safe, people would feel more comfortable walking into a big warehouse. They can get what they need and leave.”
So on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m., Kim is on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, alongside some of his close pals who have made names for themselves in the O.C. culinary world.
They include Mehra, Tarit Tanjasiri of Seal Beach’s Crema Cafe; Max Schultz of Sessions West Coast Deli, with locations in Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Irvine; John Park of Costa Mesa’s Toast Kitchen + Bakery; Leslie Nguyen of Miss. Mini Donuts (run out of her other Newport Beach restaurant, Bosscat Kitchen and Libations) and Dee Nguyen of Laguna Hills’ Break of Dawn. Many of them get their bread from OC Baking Co.
Kim joked that as a longtime boss, he had gotten good at giving orders and watching over his production staff through the monitors in his office while catching up on his Korean dramas. This is the hardest he and his fellow owners have worked in a long time.
“This is like the beginning when I first started my baking career, selling bread out of my minivan, just hustling,” Kim said. “My wife has her spies in the business asking ‘Is he eating? Make sure he’s eating.’”
Mehra is reminded of her early days making jars of chutney and grilled cheese for a traveling underground market in Oakland. Her Irvine restaurant is still open for takeout and delivery, but her location in the Anaheim Packing District is closed.
For customers who visit the pop-up, OC Baking Co. Artisan Market is a one-stop shop for takeout they would otherwise have to travel countywide to purchase. For the chefs, it’s not about making a lot of money — an unrealistic goal during the shutdown — it’s about making just enough to keep their employees working and paid.
And keeping up their own mental health.
“A lot of times the first thing people say is that it’s not worth it to stay open,” said Tanjasiri, who was the first to join Kim at the pop-up. “But it’s because they’re thinking about dollars and cents. But when you communicate with your staff what the situation is ... [you’ll see] you provide much more than income by staying open.”
He quickly turned his Seal Beach cafe into a pantry and saw that his customers were happy to retain a sense of connection and his employees appreciated the reminder that “we’re not just their bosses; we are human and we care a lot.”
At the entrance of the OC Baking Co. Artisan Market is a table of food offered on the house for healthcare workers: a loaf of bread from OC Baking, soup from Break of Dawn and cookies from Crema.
“I see them coming in after their shifts and they’re dead tired,” Tanjasiri said.
“As long as I have flour and water and chefs available like Dee and Tarit, we’re going to be doing what we can for the front-liners to make sure they have nourishment,” Kim said. “They’re risking their lives for us.”
Last week, they made orders of soup, bread and cookies for Hoag, Saddleback, Orange Coast and Fountain Valley Regional hospitals. They encourage local hospitals to contact them at email@example.com to let them know how many people they need to feed so the chefs can prepare bulk orders for pickup.
Others in their industry also are offering support. Vincent Passanisi of Marisa Foods in Long Beach donated meatballs and pepperoni for soup delivered to healthcare workers. WooJin Kim makes deliveries, Mona Shah of Moxxe PR is their volunteer publicist, and Wing Lam of Wahoo’s Fish Taco is also helping to get the word out. Their contacts at food distributor Sysco, an example of a large multinational corporation also struggling in these times, have pledged to help.
“To me, it shows what a great community O.C. has,” Mehra said. “Because the more each of us post, the more each of us have people who are coming in to say, ‘I’m here to support you.’”
“They’re coming back, they have smiles on their faces, we’re on a first-name basis,” Schultz said. “It’s this awesome restaurant community, and the common tie is Dean and his consistent, good, delicious, fun artisanal breads he’s feeding O.C. and L.A. … All of us are here because of him.”
Sometimes Kim has moments where he thinks “What the hell am I doing baking bread? I should be quarantined at home too.”
“It’s tough because I’m worried about my friends, I’m worried about my employees, I’m worried about America in general,” he said.
But he knows he has a role to play in the community’s coronavirus fight.
“Even when there was the Atkins diet phase or the ‘everyone’s gluten-free now’ phase, I was always like, ‘Everyone goes back to bread,’” Kim said. “It’s comforting, it’s nourishing, it’s a staple. Believe me. Just follow my lead. Everyone goes back to bread.”