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May 19, 2021 News » Cover Story

Join the Party! 

Launching a food business in the midst of a pandemic isn't optimal, but these owners took it in stride.

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It's never easy to launch a new food business. You need a hip location, stylish furnishings and dinnerware, a well-equipped kitchen, a dynamite menu, a skilled staff. You need money—lots and lots of money—and advertising and influencers on social media.

But add a deadly pandemic to the picture, and things can get pretty dicey. Couple the threat of illness with government stay-at-home orders, followed by months of fear and reticence by your customers and team members to return. Then add a lack of money. Or the glimmer of government money that must be applied for and then waited upon. And then alter all your plans to include mandated social distancing and cleaning requirements.

You don't have to be nuts to start a new food offering during the time of COVID-19 but it could sure help.

We asked writers from Devour Utah—our erstwhile sister magazine currently on hiatus—to check in with members of the restaurant community who are cautiously "normalizing" their operations. This is Week 2 of their findings.

Not only have the owners clung to their wits, but each has discovered survival strategies that got them through the uncertainties. They adapted. They embraced new levels of cleanliness and are now as "touch-free" as possible. They became more innovative and adopted new technologies. And the idea of serving a "community" has become a driving force for each.

It might just be time for the rest of us to start venturing out to see how the restaurant industry has transformed itself during the year we all stayed home and ate frozen pizza.
—Jerre Wroble


Mika Lee launched Honey Teahive—a tea party service— - during the pandemic and needed to pivot from the get-go. - EVE RICKLES
  • Eve Rickles
  • Mika Lee launched Honey Teahive—a tea party service—during the pandemic and needed to pivot from the get-go.

A Tea Party to Go
Mika Lee was born and raised in the Cottonwood Heights area after her parents immigrated to Utah from Taiwan for her dad to attend grad school at the U of U. Later on, Lee herself studied at the U of U for B.S. degrees in exercise physiology and occupational therapy sudies.

Ever the overachiever, Lee completed a master's in occupational therapy, became a traveling licensed health-care clinician and then landed in the Bay Area working as a director of rehab.

She eventually took off some time to re-think where her career was going before moving back to Utah. That's where we met up with her as she began writing about her passion—which was food—for Devour Utah magazine. Along the way, she decided that entrepreneurship was her goal.

How did you come by your love of food, food writing and now a food service?
Wanderlust + glutton + hostess = British tea party entrepreneur who craves bringing memorable experiences to people for important moments.

When I was with Devour, I was so inspired interviewing restaurant owners. I couldn't wait to start my own journey into food, drink and experiences. My family from Taiwan taught me everything I know about tea. And who doesn't want to incorporate another meal into the day? Afternoon tea was an obvious choice!

Tell us about your new business.
Honey Teahive is a traveling British tea party that provides sandwiches, scones, desserts and exceptional tea. We cater parties, rent tableware for tea parties and do a monthly "tea party box" for pickup. Our tea lessons are best in person, but some "Queen Bees" (nicknames for my customers) have gotten creative and hosted Tea 101-lessons virtually.

We officially launched in January 2020—just before the lockdown—and weren't able to offer our traveling tea parties. We (I say "we" like there are two of us, but it's just me and the business) took a few months to rewrite our business plan to give Utahns a COVID-safe option to enjoy unique dining experiences. We pivoted to offer tea-party boxes for curbside pickup and more recently began shipping boxes nationwide for companies/large families who want to enjoy virtual tea time social hour. The Hive (what we call our Honey Teahive family) has very dedicated followers, which is mostly how word has spread about us.

So, you're a self-taught chef/baker?
I started cooking in the third grade making mac 'n' cheese and began to bake desserts in high school for all my friends. At 18, I taught myself how to make macarons through what seemed like dozens of trial and error. I even bought a book on how to make them in the high desert.

I was hesitant to go into a food business because I know how difficult it can be to succeed. I heeded my parents' warning (they had owned and managed their own restaurants), so I decided to focus my business on creating experiences with food.

So, having no formal experience, I "test kitchen" everything I do. Honey Teahive works through Spice Kitchen Incubator program, which contracts with Square Kitchen, a commercial kitchen.

I've learned so much over the years about modifying and altering recipes to make them my own. Each one I use is based on my own experiences and about eight recipes! I've also honed my skills watching YouTube videos, with friends wanting to experiment in the kitchen and even casual cooking classes like those taught at Harmons and from food-industry friends. My forte is in beverages, particularly tea.

What's the most popular menu item during the past year?
I am still rotating new items into our menu and collecting feedback from the Hive on their favorites. Those will make it into the ever-expanding regular menu. Our most popular food items include: English cucumber finger sandwiches; the orange cardamom English scone with cream and jam, the lavender shortbread cookie and the 10-inch berry fruit tart (egg free). Our most popular teas are Earl Grey black tea, bartlett pear white tea, raspberry hibiscus herbal tisane and organic chamomile flower herbal tisane.

Tell us about your mother's role, and how you sometimes create Asian dishes.
My mom is the most amazing chef I know. She made elaborate meals all throughout my childhood, beginning with Taiwanese/Chinese cuisine and eventually, as she learned more about American culture, she branched out into more diverse palates.

Growing up, Mom made stewed pork belly, braised beef shank, pickled veggies, hot pots, etc. We learned how to make potstickers and zongzi (sticky rice) as a family, and she'd let us help out in the kitchen if it was something we were particularly fond of eating.

My mom can make absolutely anything, and I got my "test kitchen" trait from her. I call her the boss, because she advises me on so many aspects of my business.

Formosa (informal name) is our line of Chinese/Taiwanese/Asian dishes and desserts, and we only offer it for those who loved our Chinese New Year and Dragon Boat bento boxes. Many of our clients who ask for those dishes coordinate with Spice Kitchen Incubator.

What kept you going over this past year?
I was actually inspired by my Taiwanese heritage of bento box lunches to create the tea party in a box. It's easy, convenient and giftable to friends and family.

I also participated in the Next Step program offered by the Women's Business Center where we built a coalition of women who support each other in their business ventures.

The most rewarding part of the business is that I get to share happy moments with all my Queen Bees. I love making people smile—life is meant to be celebrated!

My saving grace were members of the Hive who wanted something special for their birthdays, parents on the East Coast, virtual tea parties and businesses wanting to cheer up their staff.

Where do you see your business going now that restrictions are lifting?
Well, as May is Asian/Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month, I'm looking forward to celebrating our culture and traditions with the Hive and #stopasianhate.

I am already reserving full-service tea parties with tableware rental. Some hostesses have gotten creative for outdoor parties for summer weather.

I also hope to develop more tea products, as I began blending my own tea mixes back in November 2020 for a large 200-person distanced party. (by Jerre Wroble)

Honey Teahive
801-998-2057
honeyteahive.com


“What kept me going was the love we have for family.” - —Giuseppe Mirenda - Sicilia MIa - JOHN TAYLOR
  • John Taylor
  • “What kept me going was the love we have for family.”—Giuseppe MirendaSicilia MIa

Dark Days Are Behind Us
Giuseppe Mirenda is a co-owner, with his family, of four Italian restaurants in Utah. The Mirendas came to the Beehive State from their native Sicily. Mirenda says that Sicilian cooking incorporates more flavoring and spices than traditional Italian fare. "Because Sicily is on the coast, there is a lot of seafood. Garlic, lemon and oranges are picked from the land and incorporated into the cuisine." The Mirendas had just opened their new destination eatery, La Trattoria di Francesco, in January 2020, only a short time prior to the coronavirus shutdown.

How did you get through the pandemic?
Beginning on March 15, 2020, when we had to close during the two weeks—it was the darkest time of my whole life. I didn't know what was going to happen. As a restaurateur, I never imagined anything like a pandemic. But after those two weeks, I thought, "This cannot last forever." After that many days of being home, I could not stay home anymore. It was becoming stressful, so I would go to the restaurant and cook. Another challenge I saw was that people were divided—mask or no mask—and all of the other craziness around this situation. Now, we are looking forward to serving our guests—our families and friends.

Was there any silver lining?
Staying at home gave us to time to try new dishes and new ideas. We [actually] needed this time off because we have been going nonstop for five years—although this definitely wasn't the way I would want to take time off. What kept me going was the love we have for family.

What challenges do you face now?
Now that business is picking up, our challenge is getting enough people to work in our restaurants. We went from 90 employees to 40. I wonder if our former employees have changed their jobs, changed their destination. We are now looking to hire everything—front-of-the-house workers, back-of-the-house, and managers.

Have you altered your business model?
Our business model is the same in that we are more of an experience than just food. We still focus mainly on dine-in customers, although we are also happy to provide takeout.

Did you change your menus?
We added some healthier options and now have a whole new menu. We added another pasta dish—pasta al burro e Parmigiano [pasta with butter and cheese], prepared in the cheese wheel—and a new appetizer—eggplant ca muddica [eggplant with breadcrumbs]. Our carbonara is still an iconic Utah dish.

Do any remodeling?
At La Trattoria di Francesco, we added a new lounge area. We remodeled Sicilia Mia and added a bar area. We remodeled and painted Antica.

Anything else you want your customers to know?
We want them to know that we have taken this situation seriously. We are now ready to serve our customers and protect them. We want them to see that we are here for them. (by Carolyn Campbell)

Locations:
Sicilia Mia
4536 S. Highland Drive, SLC
801-274-0223

Sicilia Mia
895 W. East Promontory, Farmington,
385-988-3727

Antica Sicilia
2020 E. 3300 South, SLC,
385-202-7236
siciliamiautah.com

La Trattoria di Francesco
1500 S. 1500 East, SLC,
801-419-0730
latrattoriadifrancesco.com


Jeff Barnard, with the Bar X Group, refurbished The Cotton Bottom Inn and reopened in the midst of pandemic surges to bring the famous garlic burgers back to the hungry masses. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Jeff Barnard, with the Bar X Group, refurbished The Cotton Bottom Inn and reopened in the midst of pandemic surges to bring the famous garlic burgers back to the hungry masses.

Bottom's Up!
Jeff Barnard is a partner in The Bar X Group, with ownership of Bar X, The Beer Bar, The Eating Establishment (Park City) and the iconic Cotton Bottom Inn. After purchasing the Cotton Bottom from its original owners, by December 2020, they had refreshed the establishment inside and out, updated the bathrooms and added patios, a pickup window and a fryer. And now, you guessed it: The eatery's legendary garlic burgers are back.

So, how's business?
Better than expected. We are getting rave reviews and a lot of positive comments. The comments that we get the most are how great the garlic burger with cheese is and "Thanks for saving for The Cotton Bottom."

Did you do any remodeling during the pandemic?
I like to call it restoration because it feels the same as it always did but it is all cleaned up, with new services and new bathrooms and kitchen equipment. The Cotton Bottom had been very busy for many decades, but it really needed a new dishwasher and some other equipment. We basically got it ready to last another 20 to 30 years.

Did you create a pandemic menu?
No, we didn't need to have a different menu. We added a few things to the old menu, but it wasn't because of the pandemic. When we were getting ready to buy The Cotton Bottom, there were things people wanted such as french fries, wine and cocktails, so we added them to the menu. But 90% of what we sell is the garlic burger with cheese.

What is your opinion of takeout? Do your offerings travel well?
We added a takeout window. You can order food online and pick it up at the window. It has been a big success, especially during the pandemic. It is permanent. I think our world has changed, and one thing that has changed is that people are going to continue to do a lot more takeout. We serve mostly burgers and fries, and that all travels great.

Are your employees returning to the fold?
I think our employees make really good money, so we haven't had a problem retaining them, but we are hiring right now. We need servers and kitchen help. We have had problems getting people to show up for their interviews or, if they get hired, show up to work. I think they are making too much money on unemployment.

Anything else you want your customers to know?
Two longtime employees [20-plus years], Caty Feltzer and Stacy Holst, are still there making the garlic burgers with cheese exactly the same as they always have been. We buy the same ingredients, and it's done by the same people. Our customers are interested in knowing if it is as good as it always was, and the answer is: It is exactly the same, and it is great. (by Aimee L. Cook)

The Cotton Bottom
2820 E. 6200 South, Holladay
801-849-8847
thecottonbottom.com

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About The Authors

Carolyn Campbell

Carolyn Campbell

Bio:
Campbell has been writing for City Weekly since the 1980s. Her insightful pieces have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists chapters in Utah and Colorado.

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