The New Food Business Model in Barcelona
I don’t think we are going to snap back to normal. That’s been the collective mantra, hasn’t it? Get through this bit. However, if this is it rather than just a bit, what are the innovations coming out of it?
Since the start of the pandemic in Barcelona a new food business model has slowly gained speed. The most exciting one I have seen in a while. Addressing all the pitfalls a food business has to surmount. (More on that later) They are single subject, bold, offerings.
Sticky in the mind with distinctive Instagram profiles. So that when you scroll through you are instantly hungry and drooling over the pictures. Helpless, beguiled, you swipe right on lunch.
New ideas are popping up weekly but these are a few that already have a following and are growing rapidly.
Babs and Gigi, Irish and English, started The Dirty Vegans – decadent sandwiches, filling bursting out.
Jenny, a young Californian, runs two accounts Dumplingbcn and Banhmibcn.
Fried chicken sandwiches from Fast Eddies.
Maggie makes traditional British Pies over at Queen of the Pies.
The Chai Guy: a weekend mobile chai cart that you have to locate by following the stories on a private Instagram account.
Angela moved her Rooftop Tea parties to boxes that can be ordered.
Money and the lack of it is a driver for many of these businesses. Instagram is the tool of choice. Get a good enough idea, make it distinctive, put it out there with no financial barriers to entry to contend with and start to connect. Generate a buzz with the tastemakers of this tiny city, which has drawn in on itself like the rest of the world during this pandemic. While I berate Instagram for eating up my time while I feed the algorithm beast, it makes things possible that were not before.
Using a traditional formula, making food for 20 orders a day, like The Dirty Vegans, currently wouldn’t be sustainable much less profitable. It’s unlikely that they could even break even on that volume. A micro business like that, formed by two women who sat side by side in a sales office in Poblenou two years ago would run out of steam before they got enough a loyal following to sustain them, to ensure a base level of living platform.
That would be tragic! Babs and Gigi are about the details. They use a special white loaf from Baluard bakery. All their filling elements including their vegan meat substitutes that are popular with their “dirty vegans” (customers who eat meat) like bacon or sausages are their own creations.
Five months in, The Dirty Vegans deliver directly or via partners that have shops like La Comunal in Poblenou. They sell their vegan salami to Narcisco to make the “Don Vegano”. Most recently they are popping up at Taos Living on Thursdays. Their customers are loyal and grateful.
These are micro-businesses. Closer to art than sustenance. The imagination, hard graft and love that is going into making it is special. They should be nurtured and encouraged rather than tangled up in red tape and pitfalls.
“Most nights I am up until 3 or 4 in the morning making dumplings,” Jenny tells me. “I’ve got my boyfriend helping me deliver them now.”
Jenny moved here from Las Vegas where she was working in night clubs as a bottle-service waitress. With Chinese / Vietnamese roots – she missed the food she was used to getting in the US. Covid restrictions and lack of funds led her to try selling her frozen dumplings via Instagram. A route that has zero risks. Starting a business or closing a business happens with the click or a swipe.
Jenny’s dumplings come frozen 30/50 pieces for 18€/30€. A pot of chilli oil is 5€ and comes with a handwritten card on how to make a chilli bath for the dumplings. My family and I wolfed these down, engaged in a battle of chopsticks.
Fast Eddy’s is nostalgic American fast food. Edward, Eddy, grew up in the US Virgin Islands and spent summers in Arizona with his father. Since his high-school days, he worked in front of house at restaurants. In Barcelona at Carlos & Matilda, he got his shot at cooking doing pop-ups there.
His reason for choosing this format? “Money, money, money. Well to be specific, the absence of it…” Eddy cooks a fiercely edited menu Wednesday to Sunday. He doesn’t use Deliveroo or Glovo as they would take 30% to 40% of his price.
His chicken sandwich and veggie pakora are 8€, fries are 3€. He is making 30-45 sandwiches a day, five days a week. And though having a shop is a dream, this interim idea has proved to be just what he needed to give him something to do during the pandemic and more importantly an income.
Maggie’s brainchild is called Queen of the Pies. Maggie moved from London at the start of the pandemic. There she was working in restaurants and owned a street food business as well as taking over kitchens for long term residences. She started with her idea a little over a month ago. Making pies once a week for delivery on Sunday. Maggie hopes to grow to twice a week to an order volume of 50 pies a week. Her friend Molly Blunt makes distinctive collages for her brand. When I ask her if she is considering opening a shop she says “When opening restrictions change every other week, what would be the point?”
She has a point.
The Chai Guy (I still don’t know his name) was born in Afghanistan at the start of the civil war. His family moved to Pakistan to escape the Taliban, then on to France and then the UK when he was 8 years old. He spoke 3 words of English, one of which was Coca Cola. He spent close to two decades there before moving to Barcelona. Here he has a full-time job, the chai cart is a weekend thing.
He started the Chai Guy by popping up outside La Femme Floral in El Born and handing out some chai. “Probably 15.” Two weeks later he did another pop-up. Now three months later he sells 200 cups of chai over the weekend. His last pop up was at Lulu cafe in El Born.
Though he thinks having his own shop would give him more creative freedom, he loves this format. Particularly being able to connect with people, from the cafe’s hosting him to the enthusiastic chai lovers that seek him out.
Angela runs the Rooftop Tea profile is from South London. From everyone profiled here, I know her story best of all. She has been here for over a decade teaching English at TV3 and baking on the side. She left her job before the pandemic was even a twinkle in the Universe’s eye and trained as a pastry chef at L’Atelier with Eric Ortuño. In September 2020, Angela found herself a little obrador in Grácia and launched her business. She publishes a box of the week every Monday, for collection or delivery every Friday from 3pm. Boxes are 16-20€. Alongside that are made to order celebration cakes.
The model works for Angela because she can grow slowly. Crucially allowing her to continue to love what she does.
If the pandemic has done anything, it’s exposed an outdated system. We are spending less and less time in the physical world. A trend that has been compounded by the many quarantines imposed on us. The real world is riddled with complex laws, pitfalls and tax implications. The individual is expected to know and abide by the rules and to pay the consequences if they do not. Online we are free to a greater degree to try and fail and try again. “Most of the time learning to ignore sunk costs is the single most useful thing I can say to people,” Seth Gordon said.
But are the sunk costs facing a young generation of small entrepreneurs still realistic?
While Google can offshore their earnings and big restaurants chains with lawyers on payroll can deflect any lame punitive attempts from the system. Where does that leave the micro business that wants to make something really good for people to eat?
Imagine if someone with vision saw the positives of knocking down these barriers of entry? If the empty storefronts invited in young entrepreneurs for a share of their income instead of rent? If tax and the stifling Autonomo fees started once turnover reached a certain threshold. Let’s arbitrarily say 15,000€ a year and then grew on a sliding scale? If young people up to 30 years old were given fiscal incentives? Can you imagine the outcome? Can you, like me, see the possibilities?
The New Food Business Model in Barcelona
BanhMi BCN – instagram.com/banhmibcn
Dumplings BCN – instagram.com/dumplingsbcn
Fast Eddies – instagram.com/fasteddiesfood
Queen of the Pies –instagram.com/queenofthepiesbcn
Rooftop Tea – instagram.com/rooftopteabarcelona
The Dirty Vegans – instagram.com/thedirtyvegansbcn / www.thedirtyvegans.com
More Small Delivery Pre-order Businesses :
Argenchef / Argentinian – instagram.com/argenchef
Good Things in Jars – instagram.com/goodthingsinjars
La Sandvitxeria / Sourdough bread – instagram.com/la.sandvitxeria
Oh So Plantiful / Vegan lunches – instagram.com/ohsoplantiful
Replicante BCN hotsauce – instagram.com/repicantebcn
More like this: Milla’s Lunch Barcelona