The week before the country shut down, Marlee Blodgett was excited. She and her partner Zach Swemle, founders of La Morra Pizzeria, had launched a temporary residency slinging pizzas at Texino, a business that refurbishes and rents camper vans in L.A. “Our [pizza] oven was going to be parked there every weekend for the foreseeable future,” she says. The pop-up was a success on its opening weekend, but Blodgett remembers how, even “in weekend one, a couple of our customers were being funny about shaking hands.”
Still, like nearly everyone else in the country — unable to fathom a future where masks would become as ubiquitous as wearing shoes and every human interaction calculated for its capacity to further propel a life-ending virus — they prepped, albeit with some variations, for the week ahead. “We were going to stop accepting cash and shift to takeout only, and just be really sensitive to what was going on,” she says. “Then at the last moment, things were just rapidly unfolding.” And so, with hundreds of pizza doughs prepared and ready to be baked, they, like every other food establishment in the country, were left to navigate a most uncertain future.
“At that point, we were like, what if we just freeze these and sell them as pizza kits?” says Blodgett. “We may have been one of the first people to do the pizza kits, simply out of desperation.” Fortunately for Blodgett, their business was unique in that, “being mobile, most of our business has completely relied on the support of other businesses,” she says, referring to the fact that their entire concept operates by being welcomed into other people’s spaces. The nature of their business, in short, is based on collaborating with other restaurants. “Zach and I, as business owners, have gotten very comfortable and very used to working cohesively with other businesses,” she says. “We know how to do it at this point because we’ve done it so many times. We don’t want to be a burden.”
With that in mind, Blodgett sent an email to a few friends in the restaurant community, curious if there was a way for them to all come together to offer their customers an even more innovative dining experience amidst the slow recovery to opening back up. “I said, ‘What if from the get-go, instead of us all competing about who was going to have the most revolutionary new ideas — because it did kind of feel like that initially — what if we all just banded together from the beginning and uplifted what each other offered, and didn’t give people another option but to support all of us?’” Blodgett tells me.
The united front became known as La Morra with Friends Fridays. “We reached out to the various establishments and gave them the opportunity to design their own pizza reminiscent of their menu classics,” says Blodgett. “And something that speaks to what they do.”
In addition to having the other dining establishments design the pizzas — “they basically had a couple of days of phone calls with Zach, who’s our chef” — La Morra gives each partner the opportunity to purchase the pizza from them at wholesale cost, then resell it in their establishment. “So not only are they just involved with their names, but they also can have some additional revenue generated from it by offering the product to their customers.”
Their first pizza collaboration began last week in conjunction with the chefs at Kismet, a Mediterranean restaurant in the same neighborhood. The pizza — from Sarah Hymanson and Rachel Kramer, the chefs and co-owners of Kismet, advertised as “a pumpkin spiced pie” and featuring spiced kabocha squash, Moroccan olives and feta cheese — is already sold out.
Obviously, a few hundred pizzas are hardly enough to keep a dining establishment from folding, but Blodgett says it’s all part of a desperate, ongoing effort to pool their resources in an attempt to reinvigorate a diminished consumer base. “Consumers were really overwhelmed earlier on in quarantine,” she says. “Restaurants were just throwing things at consumers. It was like, one day we’re a pizzeria, another day we’re a sandwich shop and another day we sell groceries or we make ice cream.” This, she thinks, led to diners “continuously wanting to be intrigued by something new and exciting.”
In some respects, these restaurant mashups build on the foundation of mostly defunct fusion food experiences that were popular in the 1990s. “The 1980s were a boom time for such experiments, but fusion cooking began going off the rails in the 1990s as more and more European-trained kitchens started throwing around flavors in a hackneyed effort to sell exoticism,” my colleague Eddie Kim wrote in 2018. “By 2001, even New York magazine was warning readers to forget fusion joints, noting that ‘self-consciously crossing borders rarely creates something fresh and delicious.’”
The important difference here is that this recent collaboration is less of a concerted effort to mix foods from different cultures, as it is to recast the restaurant industry with a focus on the community, in the hopes that everybody makes it to the other side intact.
It’s no secret that, even as dining establishments continue to open, the small business side of the food industry is in free fall. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, while chain restaurants like Chipotle, Papa John’s and Wingstop reported double-digit increases in the third quarter compared with last year, the mom-and-pop restaurant is failing. Per the Wall Street Journal, “Three-quarters of the nearly 22,000 restaurants that closed across the U.S. between March 1st and September 10th were businesses with fewer than five locations.” In addition, data from the National Restaurant Association reports that restaurant sales are down by about a third, and “nearly 40 percent of operators say their restaurants will likely be out of business in six months if economic conditions remain,” reports CNBC.
Chris Amirault, co-owner and chef of Parm Boyz, another pop-up restaurant selling East Coast-style Italian fare, tells me that in the months preceding the lockdown, his business was thriving. “Our reservations were booked out a month in advance,” he says of their residency at Ronan, an Italian restaurant in West Hollywood. Then came the shutdown, and after that, disillusionment. “Everyone was honestly depressed and we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. After about a month and a half, they were itching to just be out of the house and trying something, “so we started doing takeout chicken parm dishes.” But that, he says, was short-lived. Thankfully, it was around this time that he reached out to Corner Door, a restaurant in Culver City that had been completely shuttered for months. “I reached out to them because they had an extra kitchen that wasn’t being used,” he says. “They actually came up with the idea of like, ‘What if we did something in the space?’”
Amirault says that they weren’t even “really thinking about doing an outdoor dining concept at all.” “Just because we were like, ‘Well, the safety is intense, and how much does it cost to build out and do all these things?’” he tells me. But with a willing partner in Corner Door, they began to build out a small outdoor dining space in the restaurant’s parking lot. “There’s a revenue share deal that we have with them that’s mostly food-based,” says Amirault — essentially, Corner Door makes money off of the drinks they sell and takes a share of Parm Boyz’ profits, in exchange for space for the Boyz to sell their chicken parm on Thursday through Saturday nights. “They have a space that was very near and dear to the neighborhood, that they wanted to infuse some fresh energy into,” he says. “It’s a really good, mutually beneficial agreement where, if we’re doing well, everyone’s doing well.”
Mutually beneficial agreements like the one between Parm Boyz and Corner Door, as well as those between La Morra and their collaborators, though rare, do offer a different way forward for an industry still trying to navigate its own survival. It’s possible even that, in an industry where ghost kitchens are primed to overshadow more traditional dining experiences, these organic collaborations between two small businesses could emerge as an antidote to an all but certain corporate takeover of the food industry.
“You’ve got to get creative,” says Amirault. “We’re still in the middle of the biggest pandemic we’ve ever seen. So how do you make it safe and sexy at the same time? How do we get [customers] to feel compelled enough to really dive into the vibe?”
While some of those questions remain unknowable, one thing appears certain: Small business owners are less likely to find their way through the dark days if they try to do it alone.