What It Feels Like to Run Your Own Delivery During a Pandemic

These small food makers have some wild stories from the road, from frosting cinnamon rolls in the trunk to noodle soup spills around tight curves

A compact car in a parking lot with palm trees in the background
The Volkswagen Golf that first delivered wedding cakes for Butter& | Pastel

While many chefs shut down their restaurants or downloaded third-party delivery apps during the pandemic, a small but scrappy crew of food makers decided to do the damn thing — their own delivery. Cooking out of home kitchens or shared kitchens, they double-parked the Prius, flipped down the seats, loaded it up with takeout containers, and hit the pothole-riddled roads of San Francisco. On the one hand, many say they enjoyed meeting diners face-to-face — albeit behind masks — and gained a new appreciation for the city. On the other, doing delivery opens up a whole new landscape of logistical snafus. Chatting with a few small and local food makers, here are some of the wildest stories from the road, from frosting cinnamon rolls in the trunk to noodle soup spills around tight curves.  

A tray of cinnamon rolls pulling up to the front driveway of a house
Coffee Cinnamon Rolls | Astranda Bakery

Eric Chow of Astranda Bakery frosts cinnamon rolls out of the trunk of his Honda CRV. He’s a pastry chef coming from Tartine and Bar Agricole, and when he began baking out of the kitchen at Elda cocktail bar in fall 2020, he quickly gained a following for his pillowy buckwheat cinnamon rolls, which are both glazed in chocolate caramel and smothered in coffee cream cheese frosting. Chow started with a combo of pickup from the bar and local delivery, but within a few weeks, the buns blew up, when he discovered a voracious demand for pandemic pastry delivery. He leaves the cinnamon rolls in the trays, adds the glaze to help keep them from drying out, and stacks them sometimes literally to the ceiling of his car, until it’s hard to see out the rearview mirror. When he pulls up to your house, he pops open the trunk, and has a “frosting setup” with a cooler full of frosting to finish the buns on the spot.

A spiral notebook with a drawing of a map
A hand-drawn delivery map from December 2020 | Eric Chow

Bun delivery surged during the second lockdown in December 2020, when Chow found himself with 31 deliveries to run within four hours on a Friday — all across San Francisco. Up to this point, he had been using Google Maps, but the platform couldn’t hack so many destinations. His wife tried to group zip codes. Chow drew a rough map that spiraled through the city. He clocked okay through Bernal, Mission, and Noe Valley, but fell behind in Corona Heights, and by the time he reached the Marina, was dropping off cinnamon rolls in the dark. Customers were kind. “They were very nice,” Chow says. “I offered them a refund. I gave them some extras.” But he learned his lesson, and now limits orders and has switched to Mapquest these days, the millennial throwback, which surprisingly better fit his needs.

A concha and several other pastries on a plate at the Ferry Building
An assortment of pastries at the Ferry Plaza farmers market | Norte54

Raquel Goldman of Norte54 rolls up and down the hills of San Francisco in a Land Rover full of conchas. A former pastry cook at Nopa, she crafts conchas inspired by summers with her grandmother in Mexico City, but swirling real butter and seasonal flavors into a richer brioche-crossover dough. She specifically launched with weekend delivery only, baking out of her home kitchen in summer 2020, when pandemic pastry boxes were hot. By the holidays, she started sharing the production kitchen with Nopalito in Mission Dolores, and has been running delivery ever since.

Raquel leaning on a counter in the kitchen
Raquel Goldman | Norte54

Backing the truck up, if you’re wondering who owns a full-sized SUV in San Francisco, the answer is a working mom — Goldman has four kids. She says her favorite part about Saturday morning deliveries is the quiet. “The alone time is kind of nice … ” she confides. “You get to do your own thing and listen to podcasts.” The downside is the hills. Thankfully, there haven’t been any major tumbles, but when she rolls down a steep incline, she can hear the boxes and pastries sliding around a little bit, and instinctively throws out an arm. Sometimes she pulls over, because, “All of my boxes are sealed with washi tape, so I’ll peek open, and I’m like okay, everything is still intact, nothing is broken,” Goldman says. “When you hear the sliding, there’s that dread.”

A table full of takeout boxes with noodles and curry sauce
Ohn No Khao Swe (Coconut Noodle Soup) | Love Khao Swe

Mary Wong of Love Khao Swe reports delivery can literally be “a hot mess” in a Prius filled with noodle soup. Growing up, her mom Tin Tin Aye had a catering business and reputation as the split pea fritter lady of the Burmese community. At the beginning of the pandemic, Mary started simmering coconut curry noodle soup out of her in-law unit in the Sunset. Originally it was pickup only, but after many requests, she started free delivery in the neighborhood, which spun into a family affair. Her older brother Kevin ran deliveries in SF, before Mary relocated to Pittsburg in the East Bay. Now her younger brother Robin runs deliveries in the East Bay, and her little sister Kay helps out occasionally (she’s still in school). They’ve changed tactics at least six times to keep up with demand, gone from three or four personal cars to a rented van and back again, and the delivery zone keeps creeping south to Daly City, San Bruno, even Pacifica.

Delivering everything from iced drinks to hot soups requires a range of containers that don’t necessarily stack well. “There were definitely a lot of spills. There was one rose milk boba jelly drink — that was a huge spiller right there.” Mary laughs. They’ve since switched to a pouch, but back in the day, “It was like uh, ‘Here’s your drink!’ And it was half missing.” (Refunds, credits, and apologies ensued.) And all of the aromatic oils in the soups — which make them so fragrant! — tend to seep out of lids. Now the siblings double bag soups and shove empty egg cartons into the nooks and crannies of their cars, in order to keep containers upright. Add to this image that Mary continued running deliveries well into her pregnancy, so she’d show up on a doorstep, and the customer would ask, “Mary, are you sure you should even be delivering right now?”  

A baby reaching for a beautiful birthday cake
An Exposé Birthday Cake from Butter& | Charlene Hsieh

Even before the pandemic and starting Pastel, our founder Amanda Nguyen experienced her fair share of cake deliveries. A former data analyst turned baker, Nguyen is also the owner of Butter&, the boutique bakery known for its stunning cakes with exposed sides and never-too-sweet buttercream. Pre pandemic, she mostly relied on pickups, but occasionally offered delivery out of her sometimes hilariously small Volkswagen Golf. Nguyen exclusively delivered “higher stakes” wedding cakes, the custom orders where if anything went wrong, she could pack a buttercream emergency kit and personally patch the cake back together until flawless.  

Amanda on a doorstep with a takeout bag
Amanda Nguyen of Butter& and Pastel | Pastel

Nguyen says she’ll never forget the experience of delivering a cake to a wedding on a yacht: Shoving three tiers into the trunk. Searching for parking at the pier. Finagling those tiers out again and onto a dolly. Rolling a quarter mile down a rickety and swaying dock. And finally foisting boxes across a watery gap and up several steps onto the boat. The cake was fine. Nguyen was a wreck. “I was like, ‘That’s it. I’m never doing this again,’” she says. By the time she got back to her car, “There was so much adrenaline in my body …. And no one was really around. No one saw me struggle.”

All the makers interviewed for this story say they love the face time with customers: The sweet lady who would pop her head out the door. The kids who would clamor for conchas. The friends who would send texts overflowing with emojis. “That’s kind of the connection that I love about baking and making food,” Goldman reflects. “I’ve always been a maker, but baking, you really reach people in a deeper way.” Perhaps less expected, they also enjoyed the actual driving. Especially for a cook and especially during quarantine, running deliveries opened up a whole new relationship with the city. “I just love driving around the city,” Chow says. “I really do …. It’s so beautiful. I love seeing the houses and streets and landmarks and getting to know it better.” Wong echoes the same sentiment: “I’ve lived in the city pretty much my whole life, and I was delivering to parts of the city that I never even knew existed. So that was kinda cool.”

Ted Moran sitting in the trunk of the Volkswagen Golf filled with orders
Ted Moran, co-founder of Pastel, out on one of the first deliveries | Pastel

Doing delivery pulls cooks out of the kitchen, and several described working double duty and extra long days. Of the early rising bakers, Goldman describes starting work at 4 a.m. on Saturday mornings, baking pastries and assembling boxes, running deliveries from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., then coming back to the kitchen to mix her (much larger volume) of dough for the rest of the week. At one point, Mary was serving both lunch and dinner, which meant she might start simmering at 5 a.m. to cook, pack, and deliver lunch, then turn around and do it again for dinner, and finish scrubbing down by 9 p.m. Nguyen, the former data analyst, crunched the numbers and could never make it pencil. “Even a wedding close to the city, like the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, would take a cake maker at least two hours,” she says. “You could probably [decorate] another wedding cake in that time.”

But even as their businesses have shifted, all these small food makers still want to keep doing their own deliveries — at least locally, at least a little bit. Astranda cinnamon rolls are now available at Excelsior Coffee and out for delivery just one day a week in SF. Norte54 conchas are on the menu at Nopalito and selling out at the Mission farmers market, but a couple dozen boxes keep rolling around on Saturday mornings in SF — Raquel finally hired a daughter’s friend to help. Love Khao Swe still delivers a few days a week to SF, the East Bay, and slightly beyond, with the family pitching in while Mary is up at night with her newborn. And of course, all of these food makers are available on Pastel — the distinction is that while they like doing their own local delivery, they say Pastel helped them reach the broader geography of the Bay Area.

But when it comes to loading up the car on Saturday mornings, “I don’t want to fully let go of that piece of the delivery box and outsource it,” Goldman says. She wants to keep it local and familiar for her regulars. “It’s a very personal thing. You’re trying to do your best. It’s very human.”