Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: A page-turner

November/December 2020 California Bountiful magazine

Culinary bookstore pivots to online sales

Former chef Ken Concepcion and his wife, Michelle Mungcal, shown with daughter Frankie, transformed their popular LA cookbook shop into an online operation during the pandemic. Photo: © 2020 Silas Fallstich

Now Serving, a tiny culinary bookstore in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, has been a popular gathering spot for cooks and food lovers since opening in 2017. Last spring, when social distancing guidelines interrupted in-store customer browsing and the ability to host talks by authors in the 500-square-foot space, owners Ken Concepcion, a former chef, and his wife, Michelle Mungcal, wasted no time in converting their business into an online shop. Focusing on cookbooks, food-focused writing and culinary objects, Now Serving is one of only two such specialty stores in California. California Bountiful recently spoke with Concepcion.

How have you pivoted from a brick-and-mortar shop to online sales and curbside pickup during COVID-19 restrictions? We've essentially transformed the shop into a warehouse and shipping hub. Logistically, it's been a ton of work getting a fraction of our 2,000-title inventory online and figuring out the shipping aspect of this new business model.

You're known for hosting in-store conversations with food-focused authors. How have these events evolved? Since March, we've presented virtual author talks as a way to keep some "normality" for authors, our guests and ourselves during what would be a busy cookbook season. But with so much uncertainty about the coronavirus and what the rest of the year will look like, we might not be able to do much more than that. We have to put safety before anything, and we'll just keep adapting.

How do you maintain the spirit of community and advocacy you've built during the past three years? Social media has been important for staying in contact and in sync with our community, especially during these unprecedented times. It's critical for sharing what we offer online as well as maintaining the dialogue that our guests are accustomed to.

What are some of your hottest cookbook categories, and why do you think people are drawn to them? Our popular genres include bread and baking, plant-based cooking, fermentation and preservation, and international cuisines—especially Mexican, Japanese, Korean and Middle Eastern. People are not only drawn to the aesthetics of cookbooks, but also to the way they trigger memories, connect cultures and inspire.

Since people have been staying at home, do you think cooking and access to local ingredients have become more appreciated? Food availability, resources and equality have all come into sharper focus. The silver lining could be that a whole generation may come out of this pandemic knowing how to cook for themselves and, more importantly, acutely understanding how much money and resources go into your favorite restaurant, bakery or farmers market.

Frankie visits the shop frequently. Photo: © 2020 Silas Fallstich

Pre-pandemic, your shop was described as an intimate gathering spot, a place to learn and a shop where chefs like to hang out on their days off. How did you make that happen? Since our space is so intimate—less than 500 square feet—we've had to be very selective about what we carry. Michelle and I don't come from retail backgrounds, so we've built a space that appeals to us as much as our guests. We also spend a lot of time talking with our guests and hosting events that they might be interested in.

Earlier this year, you presented "Frankie's Furloughed Sale," an online sale named for your young daughter. Was it successful? We usually throw two big sales a year—summer and winter. They're fun ways to connect to our guests and make room for new stock in the spring and fall, when we are fighting for merchandising and display space for everything. With safer-at-home measures, we decided to throw our first online sale. The response was overwhelming and really saved the next two months for us, by giving us some breathing room for paying vendors, staff and everything else that comes with owning a business.

You carry items for the food-obsessed, including exotic spices and sauces from around the world. What are some of your popular items from California? We've begun expanding our nonbook inventory with shelf-stable grocery items such as Boon sauce (a chili oil made in small batches) and Brightland olive oils, which are both made in Los Angeles.

What other goods do you offer online? While a fraction of our inventory is listed online, we also offer culinary items such as aprons, knives, cooking tools and kitchen workwear.

How does Now Serving stay connected to the state's food and agriculture scene? Our main channel to the food scene is really a local one—from our relationships with the LA restaurant community to being customers at our favorite farmers markets and supporting small businesses such as ours. With our events—especially now with virtual author talks—we are enjoying being able to reach out and connect with authors and chefs around the country or even those internationally who want to talk about their books and share their perspectives.

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