May 15, 2020 The Future of the Upham’s Corner Comfort Station: Catching up with The Comfort Kitchen Team
We caught up with Biplaw Rai and Nyacko Pearl Perry of the Comfort Kitchen team to talk about the Upham’s Corner Comfort Station project. Read the interview below for their take on the biggest challenges before them, and their growing excitement as they see their vision come to life on Columbia Road in Dorchester.
Where are things with the project now?
NPP: We’re in our design phase right now. Luckily there is a lot of work that can be done virtually, and adding things to the design right now that will make the space more functional in the post-Covid-era, like a pick up window.
What are the biggest challenges facing food services (restaurants and workers)? Have these influenced the way you pursue Comfort Kitchen?
NPP: Part of the reason we are starting Comfort Kitchen in the first place is that we have seen that the food industry has not made sense for a long time. There are only a few restaurants that have 2-3 months of capital in the bank. This is not feasible. It is not a feasible or just system, because it leaves the people working in the system vulnerable. As consumers, we want good food fast, but we aren’t always aware of the implications of that expectation. There are hundreds of people who get the food to your plate. Our model aims to make a shift to be more sustainable, and to bring the people in the back of the house into the forefront.
BR: Many consumers don’t know that supply chains for restaurants are long and multilayered. When you think about avocado toast for example, the avocado is grown in California or Mexico, often by farmers of color who are often migrants, and by the time the avocado is ripe and comes to you, it has changed hands at least 10 times: from farmers, to truckers, to grocery store workers, etc. This has laid bare the problem with relying on the corporate supply chain. In this time, we see the need for a change and the way we consume. Currently, most restaurants are not able to get what they want for the price that they want. Consumers will see a rise of prices. It will be interesting to see that trend going forward.
NPP: We want to be in dialogue with the community about these changes, explaining how the chain works, and how it is affected by these changes. Before we start pricing and even open, we want to make sure people know and understand the supply chain. We want to give people a picture of the reality. Most times, people see a busy restaurant and they think, “Wow, they must be doing great”, but that’s not always the case.
View this post on Instagram
These days, maintaining a connection to one another is increasingly important, but feels increasingly difficult, especially for businesses that rely heavily on communication, togetherness, and shared experience. So how can businesses overcome #socialdistancing to maintain a sense of community and connection? And what can we as individuals do to offer support? ? ? Hear the Comfort Kitchen team and Neoscape’s Art Director Rita Ferreira, as we discuss the implications of social distancing on businesses that are so reliant on social gathering. ?
What excites you about the Comfort Kitchen project?
BR: If you slice up the industry, it is a microcosm of American society. Everything intersects in a restaurant. From immigrant laws and foreign policy, at the state and federal level. If we were going to change society, it is an industry we need to change from the inside outside out. Communities of color have been the engine for feeding America, and they are always the last ones to be fed. It is a personal journey for myself, and CK is just a vehicle. It is an opportunity for all of the players involved in the industry to act on this.
BR: Comfort Kitchen is a vehicle for the kind of change we are hoping to see. It is about the people involved and the stories we can share. The food and the restaurant component is a given, but there are other things we want to do with this opportunity. It is a “place” to do storytelling and provide a community service as well.
NPP: We are excited by the development of our team dynamic. We are very deliberate about building our team, so that it is small and multifunctional. Where people are serving multiple roles. Once a week, we meet with Kwasi and Rita where we strategize and run down a checklist. Then we bring a bigger team with people who have been in our circles for years. They are the people we want to celebrate and build with. This has been a time to connect and collaborate deeply with them and fine tune our vision. We ask “How can this be a vehicle for you?” “How do we make the most of this place?” “Where is it adding the most to the community while being sustainable?” That’s the move. I think in making our business model, knowing what we know, we can pick and choose from a variety of different business models that we can use within this space.
What has surprised you through the COVID-19 shut down?
NPP: Resiliency – I am seeing a lot of that in the food industry. They are finding ways to pivot, Mei Mei and Fresh Food Generation, and Commonwealth Kitchen made the shift to help front line workers. There is agility and a dedication to their employees that is really apparent.
BR: I am surprised that people are trying to get back to normal. I know it is hard this way, but people are opening and on the way to reopening. Are people really not getting the message? What is going to change if people can’t change now? It baffles me that people are comfortable going out as if nothing happened. That is not being a responsible citizen. At the same time, there is an incredible coming together and excitement for the future. I have seen people aching for a kind of space that we are trying to create at Comfort Kitchen. We want to connect and address this situation as a collective. There is an energy for a place like this when the time comes.
What are you doing to reset and recharge?
NPP: There is one thing we always do: a 45 minute to an hour long walk around Franklin Park. Rain and shine we take the dogs out and take in nature. We have been doing this kind of walk since they were puppies. Being out in nature really changes your outlook. Most people in the city don’t have that luxury. We hardly used to see people, and now there are a few more people. That is our regular thing. There are some days where it is hard, we still do it.
BR: We do socially distant meetups. We were out in the park the other day to meet a few friends. It’s uncomfortable and a little weird, but we got to see them in reality and it brought us a little normalcy back.
View this post on Instagram
It’s been a while since the team has been this close physically… But our weekly virtual check-ins have allowed us to stay connected and continue planning for the future of Comfort Kitchen. Thanks to this beautiful weather ?? we finally did meet up in person (while keeping our distance) to enjoy some fresh air and each other’s company (and the dogs — look at MoMo’s happy face!) We hope you’re all staying safe and healthy!
How can people help?
NPP: You can follow Comfort Kitchen on Facebook and Instagram (@Comfortkitchenbos). It will be the way we communicate with people about how we open and opportunities to support us in the future.
BR: Since we are not open yet, we are not facing the same challenges as other local restaurants. We are sending a message to everyone to help their local restaurants: supporting undocumented workers. Check out Unsung Restaurants at: https://www.gofundme.com/f/unsungrestaurants