Still here, still alive: Gu Grocery

Throughout this pandemic, my attention has been drawn to mom and pop shops that are struggling to survive. We tend to forget that there are individuals in these shops that rely completely on the shop’s success, and we often don’t know the extent of their pandemic struggles. Some may have not been able to find work and had to press pause to re-evaluate their game plan, while others push on to survive by reaching out to collaborate with other communities. 

Let me introduce you to the duo behind the dessert concept @gu_grocery - Jess and Peggy Wang. I discovered Jess, Pique-Nique L.A.’s creator and pastry chef, through her pop-up bake sale residency at Paper Please, where she sells delicious pastries with her mother, Peggy. They show up with fresh baked pastries week after week, always drawing a long line of customers to the stationery store in Chinatown. Their mother-daughter teamwork caught my eye, and so did the enjoyment on every customer’s face.

During our shoot, I asked Jess what it has been like to work with brick and mortars to sell her desserts. I was curious to know about her experience working with them through the pandemic, and how she and her mother got involved in doing pop-ups. She shared some insight with me in the interview that follows.

Q1: What was your experience like working during the pandemic with brick and mortar shops?

A: Overall, my experience with brick and mortar shops has been positive and extremely educational. I have so much gratitude for the shops that have either retailed my pastries or hosted pop-ups. Shoutouts to Yang’s Kitchen, Found Coffee, Paper Please, LASA (now Lasita), Lolo’s Wine Bar, Tilda Wine, Chifa, and Woon. 

- How did it start?

A: I had been selling pastries from home directly to customers for about a month when I was approached by Chris and Maggie who own Yang’s Kitchen, almost exactly a year ago! I was a new regular customer of their market and we became friendly on Instagram. They were fans of the pickles they saw on my account, which I was making for the classes I teach online. I pitched the idea to them that maybe instead of pickles I should sell pastries at their market. After they gave it some thought we went for it and fortunately their customer base responded well to the treats I made. From that initial wholesale account, I was fortunate enough to have fancied the interest of a few other shops, for wholesale and pop-up opportunities.

- In what way has your experience been educational? (What did you learn?)

A: Out of necessity, I learned a lot of basic things a wholesale bakery needs to set up, which I would not have needed to learn if I was only selling directly to customers. Things like establishing wholesale policies (such as order minimums and payment terms) and figuring out what was realistic and making adjustments when it turned out the initial policies were not reasonable.

- That’s great that it has been a positive experience, and it’s been educational. Do you still plan on working with brick and mortars and in what capacity? 

A: Ultimately, doing wholesale orders is just not sustainable for my health or from a business point of view. Starting with the business side of things:

Cash Flow and Profit Margins. This pertains to most of my wholesale order experiences. The product we make is with high quality ingredients (organic butter, wholegrains, farmers market produce, to name a few) so my expenses from the start are on the high end. To mark up the price to make a decent profit and not make it too expensive for the customer is a difficult balance. There is a risk involved on the retailers’ side (they’re not guaranteed to sell out and the product is perishable) and they have to meet my order minimum requirements. On my end, with an already slim profit margin, getting a check weeks later for the product, work, and staffing expenses is a real threat to my business’s cash flow. 

Access to Space. The challenges I am weighing include the limited scale I operate at, in a home kitchen. Physically there is not enough space for production and storage to take on more orders, which could in the long run could help offset some of the financial issues. 

From a mental health POV

Blurry Boundaries. It did not take long for me to develop a complicated relationship with working from home because when I work (which ends up being all the time) I do not have a place to relax and that is a cost I did not factor in when I started this whole thing. My kitchen and living room are spaces I use personally, so to sacrifice them for business activities, that physically take up space and are visually noisy, is demanding of my attention and energy. Throw in being a Capricorn in the mix and you get the picture. It’s not hard for me to slip into a stew of workaholism. It is time for more balance in my life and one step in that direction means no more wholesale. Pop-ups are in another category, which we’ll continue. 

Q2: How did you get involved in participating in pop-up events with your mom? (Are these pop-ups something the both of you bonded over, and enjoyed throughout the pandemic?)

A: When I first started doing pastry pop-ups in 2017, they were on my own. It began with a pop-up at Coffee Hall with my friend Alex Kipling, before he opened SPLA Coffee, and then I started selling hand pies at LASA. My mom, Peggy, and I started working together as pop-up partners in 2018. It started when Chef Royce Burke, who was a Business Improvement District event organizer in the neighborhood at the time, invited me to do a cooking demo at a holiday event. I asked my mom to join me to present a demo on tea eggs, and we made a few pots of eggs to sell at a stall after our demo. We recruited my sister, Joyce, to join us and she took care of the customers. Shortly after that initial pop-up, we participated in Chinatown After Dark: First Thursdays at Far East Plaza, which was a monthly pop-up event. 

Doing pop-ups during the pandemic has definitely been a bonding experience for my mom and me. Not saying we don’t get annoyed at each other, or have to continue working toward improving our communication. My mom enjoys showing up at my house with bags (note that’s not a bag, but BAGS) full of food to make meals for us every time she comes to help me with a sale. I have to remind her we don’t have time or space to go all out on cooking elaborate dishes, but since she can’t seem to narrow down her haul, I’ve learned to compromise and indulge a little bit. Like I just can’t say no to fantuan, even if she shows up with dough to make youtiao from scratch. Because pastry prep usually involves 1-2 full days of work, my mom and I have had some of the most interesting conversations (some I could never have imagined having with her) covering topics like what it’s like to be a conservative Christian parent who has a transgender child, and newly realized views on divorce. I am grateful to have such an expressive mother whose perspectives I am seeing expand. 

- Do these events allow you to have a creative outlet for you to enjoy? 

A: Absolutely. I love creating new menus every time I do a popup or holiday orders and I thrive on change (and, to an extent, surprises, too!) but it requires a lot of energy from myself and everyone else on my team to pull off a new menu every time. When we are physically present to sell the goods at an event, we are giving our all, but we need to make sure we give to ourselves too (basic things like sleep and food) so we can sustainably keep on doing what we love.

- Would you recommend chefs participate in doing pop-ups to sustain themselves or to do something creative and get feedback?

A: YES. I fully support chefs pursuing pop-up opportunities. It is not for everybody, but you won’t know if it is or not until you try it, and you’ll experience growth no matter what.

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