It’s widely accepted that the restaurant industry is inhospitable to babies, with low hourly wages that won’t cover daycare, missing healthcare benefits for pregnancy and delivery, evenings and weekend shifts outside of traditional daycare hours, and no tolerance for “no shows” if a parent calls out with a sick kid. And yet, here in the Pastel family of food makers, it’s been a surprise and delight to discover a number of outrageously cute kids. There seems to be a new school of parents, finding less traditional tracks to either get or stay in the food industry, and successfully juggling both babies and small businesses. Does it sound relaxing? No. But is it possible? Yeah! We chatted with a few busy parents to find out how — to borrow a kitchen mantra — they’re making it work.
Rebecca Fineman and Chris Gaither of Ungrafted and the upcoming GluGlu are a master somm power couple juggling two wine bars and two daughters. Coming from fine dining at Michelin stars such as Gary Danko, Michael Mina, and Spruce, they’re known for pouring out deep wine knowledge, but Ungrafted also defies expectations as a chill neighborhood hangout with highchairs. Edith (five and three-quarters, she would like you to know) and Josephine (10 months, so just the three-quarters), like to swing through the dining room, with “Eddie” playing on an iPad at one of her favorite tables, and “Joey” strapped in for the occasional blind tasting. Fineman says she always wanted kids, but never expected to open her own business, and certainly never imagined doing both on the same timeline. But once she got her master sommelier certification — joining only a couple dozen women in the world to hold that distinction — it emerged as the career opportunity. “To get to another level, I had to own something,” Fineman says. “I had to do things my own way.”
These days, Fineman is the boss who manages the team, while Gaither is the personality behind the bar. They take it in shifts, so Fineman wakes up with the baby at 5, takes meetings and calls with “baby dinosaur noises” in the background, and logs back into email late at night. While Gaither does school drop off by 9, opens the bar at 12, and runs service into the evening. Fineman says the hardest days are when both kids are in tears by dinnertime, and she’ll get a text that the bar is slammed, and wishes she could run back to polish glasses. “Sometimes I feel like I’m failing at both.” But she loves seeing her kids grow up in the restaurant, and become comfortable and adventurous eaters.
Ditching a tech career to make freezer dumplings, Cathay Bi of Dumpling Club was originally inspired by her kids to launch a small food business. She introduced Dumpling Club during the pandemic, as a pickup and delivery hustle dropping fresh flavors of dumplings every week. Her two kids are now six and a half and four and a half (she prefers to not share names on social media). A product manager at Google for 11 years, she took two tech maternity leaves, with a promotion between. Her husband is Austrian, and they started to raise their kids speaking English and German. But when her first baby turned a year old, Bi suddenly felt devastated that she didn’t speak Mandarin. “That’s when I started cooking a lot of Chinese food,” Bi says. “I want my kids to know what century egg is and fucking love it. I decided no child of mine was going to be afraid of chicken with bones or a fish head.”
The dream with freezer dumplings is that she can set her own schedule. While there were plenty of sleepless nights in the early days, she’s now intense about only working weekdays, 8am to 5pm. Some customers complain. They’d rather pick up on the weekend. But that’s okay. Dinner time is the most challenging, because that’s when customers are cooking their dumplings, and it’s exactly when Bi wishes she could set her phone down and focus on her family. With her tech job, she felt like she could switch offline, but the dumpling ’gram never sleeps. “Entrepreneurship is like being a parent,” Bi says. “The buck stops with me. That’s the emotional burden you have.” But her kids love the dumplings, which are irresistibly easy to hold, fun to dunk, and jammed with veggies.
When glam former flight attendant Christna Lim got grounded during the pandemic, she and chef husband Yohanes Ng launched D’Grobak, the cool pop-up that slings Indonesian meatball nostalgia. These days, instead of catching flights and feasting at street markets, she’s loading up the car with noodle soup kits and an opinionated toddler. Her daughter Yonna — a mashup of both parents’ names — is turning three years old this week and swiping the frosting off cakes. Lim flew out of Hong Kong for 12 years, and planned to join Ng in Richmond when they started a family. Although she debated working for another local airline, she never expected to launch a side food business. The couple only started making bakso, the cloudy meatball soup, as a special treat for family and friends. But with few remaining Indonesian restaurants in the Bay Area, and many people craving comforts from home, the meatballs took off.
Ng just left his day job with a Japanese catering company in August, so he’s finally cooking for D’Grobak full time, after two years of side hustling on evenings and weekends. Lim is the hospitality pro, transferring her service skills to scheduling pop-ups, taking orders, and supporting customers. And she’s the full-time parent, covering all childcare. Yonna was in daycare a couple of days a week, but they pulled her out when omicron hit. Their families live in Borneo and Jayakarta, so they don’t have local support. “I feel jealous when [other parents] have the grandmothers, or the aunties, or any relatives … ” Lim says. “But we work it out.” When Yonna gets cranky, Lim bribes her with crackers and boba, and she’s eternally grateful to YouTube, which provides entertainment through calls. All social media content posts after bedtime. “The good part is the feeling [that] you can have more time with your daughter … ” she says. “Parenting is the most challenging job in the world, but at the same time it’s rewarding, too.”
These parents aren’t alone in raising babies and running nontraditional food businesses. We’ve heard similar stories across the Bay: There’s a sweet toddler running pastry pickup at Atelier PQ. A paella party baby was the whole inspiration behind Mestizo Paella. There’s a coconut curry pregnancy and delivery story at Love Khao Swe, a cinnamon bun babe at Astranda Bakery, and four conchas kids at Norte54, who kindly share family cars so their parents can run food delivery. The star chefs of Tarts de Feybesse are now expecting their third child, and they keep spinning tarts. Many of these chefs have remarked that they actually work harder than they did in traditional restaurants. But they were willing to make that trade off, in order to have more flexibility and proximity with their kids.
“I wish more people would stay in the industry when they have children,” Fineman says. From the front of the house, she says there’s a whole conversation about, “‘Why aren’t there more women going for the master sommelier exam?’ And a lot of it is due to them dropping out of restaurants, because … they’re trying to get pregnant, or they just had a baby, and they don’t feel like there’s a space for them when they come back.”
“I don’t know the solution, other than try to go your own direction, and carve a space out for yourself,” she says, while her baby caws cheerfully on the line. “But I wish more people would do it. If people saw more kids, they might be more inclined to try it.”
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