Twin sisters LaShone and RaeShawn Middleton had always told themselves they’d stop waiting tables by age 30. Suddenly in March 2020, the 29-year-old culinary-school grads didn’t have any choice. Within hours of each other, they lost jobs at high-end DC restaurants—Bresca and Cranes, respectively—due to Covid.
They moved to their mom’s Laurel home and started brainstorming possible businesses. But it wasn’t until a rainy August day when they were craving crabs that an idea struck.
“I was like, ‘Wait! Rae, we have cars,’ ” LaShone says. “The fact that no one delivers crabs in Maryland—that’s insane. Why don’t we create a steamed-crab delivery service?”
A few days later, the pair made fliers, which they brought door to door. At the last house, a neighbor bit. One problem: They hadn’t actually come up with any prices. The sisters ended up offering a dozen large male crabs for a mere $30. They soon got savvy (those crabs now go for $75), and orders started rolling in.
The Middletons’ venture is just one of the underground restaurants born of the pandemic. In need of income and something to do, laid-off industry vets started cooking in the only places they could—their homes. Orders from friends and family expanded to loyal followings developed through word of mouth or Instagram. Some, like R&L Crab, have become wildly popular.
In March of last year, John Snyder’s kitchen job at the modernist tasting room Minibar had been put on hold, and his fiancée, fellow chef Kiran Saund, had just finished a sommelier certification she suddenly wasn’t able to use.
The duo watched upscale restaurants fail to convert their luxury experiences to carryout and heard cries that fine dining was dead. They disagreed. In the basement of Saund’s parents’ Fairfax home, they started making macarons and chirashi arrangements with delicacies such as Hokkaido uni and Wagyu beef arrayed over vinegared rice. The couple delivered these “treasure chests” in wooden boxes with handwritten notes and a rose. The business, called Saund & Snyder, was a fast Instagram hit.
But it wasn’t always easy. They sometimes spent ten hours a day delivering meals. One time, Saund slammed on the brakes, flipping and ruining all the boxes. Now there are pickup locations, including a Fairfax shopping-center parking lot, where they dole out the $210 feasts from the back of their silver Camry.
Most chefs rarely cook at home, so not having the walk-in fridges and professional ranges they’re used to has been a rude awakening. After being let go from Neighborhood Restaurant Group last fall, former Birch & Barley chef Jarrad Silver bought a wood-fired smoker and started making barbecue with a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern twist from the driveway of his Kensington home. His family kitchen quickly transformed, too: Silver bought some folding tables at Costco for prep space and scored a free fridge on Craigslist.
Silver and Sons Barbecue offers beef ribs, fennel-crusted lamb shoulder, and sides such as Brussels-sprout tabbouleh for pickup on weekends. Silver’s goal is to have the barbecue be one component of a neighborhood market where people can grab coffee, groceries, and prepared meals.
Alex Bookless and Michael Turner were days away from signing a lease for a new pizza restaurant called June when the world shut down. Turner was laid off from his chef job at Danny Meyer’s Thompson hotel, and Bookless lost her gig as beverage director for downtown DC’s Eaton hotel.
Initially, the couple figured they’d use the time to perfect their naturally leavened, local-grain pan pies. But by November, they needed income. They offered their pizzas on Instagram for suggested donations. Even though once-a-week porch pickups have been tricky with a single oven and two young kids at home, Turner says the venture has given him a chance to fine-tune the couple’s vision for a future restaurant.
Some of the entrepreneurs who started cooking at home have since graduated to more official digs. Saund & Snyder now operates out of a commissary kitchen in Arlington—and finally has a website. As for the Middleton twins, a local news story about their burgeoning business went viral in January, and Kelly Clarkson invited them on her show. They’re doing 30 to 35 deliveries a day out of the Northeast DC food incubator Mess Hall, have hired drivers and a cook, and are in talks to open their own takeout restaurant in Columbia. They’re 30 now and have no plans to wait tables again.
This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Washingtonian.