Author: grievingferret73


For China’s Business Elites, Staying Out of Politics Is No Longer an Option


Internet infrastructure operators like Didi must now prove their political and legal legitimacy to the government, Ma Changbo, an online media start-up founder, wrote on his WeChat social media account.

“This is the second half of the U.S.-China decoupling,” he wrote. “In the capital market, the model of playing both sides of the fence is coming to an end.”

Didi, Ms. Liu and Mr. Liu didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

China’s internet companies have benefited from the best of two worlds since the 1990s. Many received foreign venture funding — Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, was funded by Yahoo and SoftBank, while Tencent, another internet titan, was backed by South Africa’s Naspers. They also copied their business models from Silicon Valley companies.

The Chinese companies gained further advantages when Beijing blocked almost all big American internet companies from its domestic market, giving its home players plenty of room to grow. Many Chinese internet firms later went public in New York, where investors have a bigger appetite for innovative and risky start-ups than in Shanghai or Hong Kong. So far this year, more than 35 Chinese companies have gone public in the United States.

Now the Didi crackdown is changing the calculations for many in China’s tech industry. One entrepreneur who has set her sights on a listing in New York for her enterprise software start-up said it would be harder to go public in Hong Kong with a high valuation because what her company did — software as a service — was a relatively new idea in China.

A venture capitalist in Beijing added that because of China’s data security requirements, it was now unlikely that start-ups in artificial intelligence and software as a service would consider going public in New York. Few people were willing to speak on the record for fear of retaliation by Beijing.

At the same time, the United States has become more hostile to Chinese tech companies and investors. As Washington has ramped up its scrutiny of deals that involve sensitive technologies, it has become almost impossible for Chinese venture firms to invest in Silicon Valley start-ups, several investors said.

2021-07-06 18:26:37


China Called Finance Apps the Best Thing Since the Compass. No Longer.


When the coronavirus jammed up China’s economy last year, Rao Yong needed cash to tide over his online handicrafts business. But he dreaded the idea of spending long, dull hours at the bank.

The outbreak had snarled delivery services and made customers slow on their payments, so Mr. Rao, 33, used an app called Alipay to receive early payment on his invoices. Because his Alipay account was already tied to his digital storefront on Alibaba’s Taobao bazaar, getting the money was quick and painless.

Alipay had helped Mr. Rao a few years before as well, when his business was just starting to expand and he needed $50,000 to set up a supply chain.

“If I’d gone to a bank at that point, they would have ignored me,” he said.

China was a trailblazer in figuring out novel ways of getting money to underserved people like Mr. Rao. Tech companies like Alipay’s owner, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, turned finance into a kind of digital plumbing: something embedded so thoroughly and invisibly in people’s lives that they barely thought about it. And they did so at colossal scale, turning tech giants into influential lenders and money managers in a country where smartphones became ubiquitous before credit cards.

But for much of the past year, Beijing has been putting up new regulatory walls around so-called fintech, or financial technology, as part of a widening effort to rein in the country’s internet industry.

The campaign has ensnared Alibaba, which was fined $2.8 billion in April for monopolistic behavior. It has tripped up Didi, the ride-hailing giant, which was hit with an official inquiry into its data security practices just days after listing its shares on Wall Street last month.

This time last year, Ant was also preparing to hold the world’s biggest initial public offering. The I.P.O. never happened, and today Ant is overhauling its business so regulators can treat it more like what they believe it is: a financial institution, not a tech company.

In China, “the reason fintech grew that much is because of the lack of regulation,” said Zhiguo He, who studies Chinese finance at the University of Chicago. “That’s just so clear.”

Now the question is: What will regulation do to an industry that has thrived precisely because it offered services that China’s state-dominated banking system could not?

With Ant and other big platforms cornering the market, investment in Chinese fintech has fallen in recent years. So Ant’s chastening could make the sector more competitive for start-ups. But if running a big fintech company means being regulated like a bank, will the founders of future Ants even bother?

Professor He said he was mostly confident that Chinese fintech entrepreneurs would keep trying. “Whether it’s hugely profitable,” he said, is another question.

For much of the past decade, if you wanted to see where smartphone technology was making China look most different from the rest of the world, you would have peered into people’s wallets. Or rather, the apps that had replaced them.

Rich and poor alike used Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat messaging app to buy snacks from street vendors, pay bills and zap money to their friends. State media hailed Alipay as one of China’s four great modern inventions, putting it and bicycle sharing, e-commerce and high-speed rail up there with the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing.

But the tech companies didn’t enter the finance business to make it easier to pay for coffee. They wanted to be where the real money was: extending credit and loans, managing investments, offering insurance. And with all their data on people’s spending, they believed they would be much better than old-fashioned financial institutions at handling the risks.

With the blessing of China’s leaders, finance arms began sprouting out of internet companies of all kinds, including the search engine Baidu, the retailer and the food-delivery giant Meituan. Between 2014 and 2019, consumer credit from online lenders nearly quadrupled each year on average, by one estimate. Nearly three-quarters of such platforms’ users were under the age of 35, according to iiMedia Research.

Last year, when Ant filed to go public, the company said more than $260 billion in credit was being extended to consumers on Alipay. That meant Ant alone was responsible for more than 12 percent of all short-term consumer lending in China, according to the research firm GaveKal Dragonomics.

Then in November, officials torpedoed Ant’s I.P.O. and got to work taking apart the plumbing that had connected Alipay with China’s banks.

They ordered Ant to make it less convenient for users to pay for purchases on credit — credit that was being largely funded by banks. They barred banks from offering deposits through online platforms and restricted how much banks could lend through them. At some banks, deposits offered through digital platforms accounted for 70 percent of their total deposits, a central bank official said in a speech.

In a news briefing last week, Fan Yifei, deputy governor at the central bank, said regulators would soon be applying the full Ant treatment to other platforms.

“On the one hand, the speed of development has been astonishing,” Mr. Fan said. “On the other hand, in the pursuit of growth, there have arisen monopolies, disorderly expansion of capital and other such behaviors.”

Ant declined to comment.

As Ant and Tencent scramble to meet regulators’ demands, they have pared credit services for some users.

One big hit to Ant’s bottom line could come from new requirements that it put up more of its own money for loans. Chinese regulators have for years disliked the idea of Alipay’s competing against banks. So Ant instead played up its role as a partner to banks, using its technology to find and assess borrowers while banks staked the funds.

Now, though, that model looks to Beijing like a handy way for Ant to place bets without being exposed to the downside risks.

“If problems arise, it would be safe, but its partner banks would take a hit,” said Xiaoxi Zhang, an analyst in Beijing with GaveKal Dragonomics.

When Chinese regulators think about such risks, it is people like Zhou Weiquan they have in mind.

Mr. Zhou, 21, makes about $600 a month at his desk job and wears his hair in a swooping, reddish-brown mullet. After he turned 18, Alipay and other apps began offering him thousands of dollars a month in credit. He took full advantage, traveling, buying gadgets and generally not thinking about how much he spent.

After Alipay slashed his credit limit in April, his first reaction was to call customer service in a panic. But he says he has since learned how to live within his means.

“For young people who really love spending to excess, this is a good thing,” Mr. Zhou said of the clampdown.

China’s brisk recent economic growth has most likely made officials more comfortable with reining in fintech, even at the expense of some innovation and consumer spending and borrowing.

“When you consider that household debt as share of household income is among the highest in the world right now” in China, “then more household debt is probably not a good idea,” said Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University.

Qu Chaoqun, 52, was thrilled a few years ago to find he had access to $30,000 a month across several apps. But he wanted even more. He started buying lottery tickets.

Soon enough, Mr. Qu, a takeout-delivery driver in the megacity of Guangzhou, was borrowing on one app to pay his bills on another. He borrowed from friends and relatives to repay the apps, then borrowed again on the apps to repay his friends and relatives.

When his credit was cut by almost half in April, he fell into what he calls a “bottomless abyss” as he struggled to pay his outstanding debts.

“People inevitably have psychological fluctuations and impulses that can bring great harm and instability to themselves, to their families and even to society,” Mr. Qu said.

Albee Zhang contributed research.


Inside a Turkish Camel-Wrestling Festival


The arena was filled with raucous spectators who, in tiered seating, surrounded the wrestling pit below. Camels were paraded in and out of the ring, dolled up in their best regalia, their elaborate saddles noting their names, origins and their trainers or owners.

Held in mid-January on Turkey’s Aegean coast, the annual camel-wrestling festival near the town of Selcuk almost overpowers the senses. When I attended the event in 2017, sausages sizzled on stalls surrounding the arena; old men chain-smoked cigarettes while sipping down beer or raki, a traditional Turkish drink made with aniseed. There was the low din of chitchat, the occasional collective gasp and, of course, the smell of damp camel’s hair and excrement. (The festival was canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.)

Camels naturally wrestle in the wild, and staged matches aren’t allowed to get too boisterous. A camel wins by making its opponent scream, fall or retreat, and trainers remain close at hand to ensure neither party is injured. Winners are rewarded with a mass-produced Turkish carpet, and, despite betting being illegal, low-level wagers often take place between fans, either in the form of a few drinks or a few Turkish lira.

Well suited to desert conditions, camels were used in medieval times as pack animals along the Silk Road. They’re still used by nomadic tribes in much of Central and South Asia — in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Occasionally they’re still used in Turkey.

With a legacy rooted in ancient Turkic tribes, the community of Turkish camel owners, trainers and dromedary lovers is still vibrant and competitive. But the festival has become something of a niche expression in modern Turkey. These days, it seems to be as much about socializing, gossiping and drinking as it is about the camels battling it out in the sand.

As a former camel owner myself (more on that later), I was particularly eager to attend the festival since moving to Turkey almost a decade ago. Hip young Istanbul friends moaned that the practice was an obscure and mawkish event, similar to Turkish oil wrestling, something that only tourists know or care of. To my surprise, though, the spectators were almost all Turks.

The camel men are a lively bunch and care deeply about their animals. Several trainers, such as Yilmaz Bicak, slept with the camels overnight in a barn on the outskirts of town, to ensure their well-being and deter thieves.

The animals used in wrestling events are known as Tulu camels — a breed that results from mating a Bactrian (two-humped) camel with a dromedary (one-humped) camel — and are bred specifically for the competitions.

The camels wrestle once a day, and each match lasts around 15 minutes — again, to protect the animals’ welfare. Before entering the ring, the male camels are brought close to a female camel, but the animals are not allowed to touch, resulting in a sexual tension which the trainers say provides the males with extra strength.

Camel wrestling has fallen in and out of favor over the years. Largely discouraged in the 1920s, the practice saw a rebirth in the 1980s, as interest in Turkey’s traditional cultures grew.

More recently, the events have come under criticism by animal rights activists, who persistently claim that the event can be harmful to the camels.

As for my camel story: Back in 2007, as a young and carefree backpacker, I spent several months traipsing through Syria, my heart set on exploring the barren lands and ancient archaeological sites in the east of the country. Along the way, I bought Alfie, a gracious and handsome dromedary camel.

I’d initially planned to ride to Petra, in southern Jordan, but, shortly after reaching Damascus, I struggled to obtain paperwork for Alfie to cross the Syrian-Jordanian border. Alas, Syrian bureaucracy prevailed, and, after declining an offer from a Russian circus visiting Damascus, I was forced to sell Alfie to a Bedouin family. (Alfie has since been renamed Bradley and, last I heard, continues to roam the eastern Syrian desert.)

As the festival draws to a close, the stall holders selling photos, calendars, videotapes and general camel paraphernalia pack up for the year. The animals are loaded up onto large trucks and driven back to their corner of the Aegean region, or further afield, to prepare for the next set of competitions.


The Gospel of Rebecca Minkoff


The designer Rebecca Minkoff takes issue with the widely accepted image of self-care: the turmeric lattes, the face masks in salt baths, the aromatherapy and massage, as she puts it.

“Work can be self-care, too,” she writes in “Fearless,” a book of business advice she drafted during the pandemic, published last week.

She’s particularly resistant to the notion that self-care can solve burnout — the feeling of acute exhaustion that has gained more attention recently. “There is no scented candle in the world that will make that feeling go away.”

Ms. Minkoff’s authority on burnout and lattes comes from working in fashion for two decades. In 2005, she founded her label with her brother Uri, after designing a purse called the Morning After Bag. The popular carryall became a fixture of countless mid-aughts paparazzi photos, hanging from the spindly forearms of starlets who wore low-rise jeans and accessorized with Starbucks cups.

Since then, Ms. Minkoff’s line has expanded from boho party-girl accessories to a full collection of clothing and shoes, priced accessibly. It has maintained a steady presence in American department stores and developed a reputation for embracing new technology — putting futuristic twists on runway shows (using drones or virtual reality, for example), selling wearables (before the Apple Watch) and opening a smart store. In 2019, before Covid-19 upended the fashion industry, the company said it brought in more than $100 million in retail sales.

But a few years ago, Ms. Minkoff found herself dreading returning to the office after maternity leave. People told her she was experiencing burnout (a “pseudo diagnosis,” she writes). Her solution: After little introspection about where her passion really laid, she dived even further into her work.

“The times that I’ve experienced burnout is when I hate what I do,” Ms. Minkoff said in an interview last month at her office in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, near the Home Depot where she once bought brass hardware for the Morning After Bag.

Thus she created rule No. 19 of her 21 rules “for unlocking creativity, courage and success,” presented in the new book: “Go beyond burnout.” Self-reflection cures burnout, she argues, not self-care.

Ms. Minkoff’s position won’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads rules 1 through 18, which chronicle how she built her company without any formal design education — moving to New York from Florida after high school without any significant connections or financial support from her parents — and how she has handled criticism and apathy from the “elite fashion clique,” an amorphous but influential group of editors, designers, buyers and executives who hold power in the industry.

Once, the owner of a popular showroom eviscerated the Morning After Bag in a meeting with Ms. Minkoff.

The owner, Cynthia O’Connor, told Ms. Minkoff it was the wrong size, made with the wrong materials, and its quality failed to justify the $600 price tag. (“I literally tore her bag apart with my words,” said Ms. O’Connor, who acknowledged, 15 years later, that she could “be a little harsh” about handbags.)

Ms. Minkoff offers details of these setbacks with humor and candor. But one aspect of her life goes unaddressed: her membership in the Church of Scientology, which was founded upon another self-help book, L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics.”

While she hasn’t spoken publicly about them before, Ms. Minkoff said she does not hide her beliefs. “I’m totally open,” she said. “But it’s not my job to proselytize.”

Over the years, she said, people have expressed confusion that she identifies as both Jewish and a Scientologist.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion when people hear the word ‘religion’ — immediately you hear that I pray to L. Ron Hubbard,” she said. “I study it, I take classes and that’s the extent of it, and it’s helped me stay centered. I don’t have all the answers. When I needed someone, it was a place for me to go get some answers.”

Like other prominent Scientologists — some, such as the actress Jenna Elfman, are mentioned in “Fearless” as Ms. Minkoff’s early supporters — the designer refers to what she believed to be “horrific misinformation” about the church and its belief system, which she considers “more of a self-improvement philosophy.”

But her interest in self-improvement is also one reason her book exists, with assurances like: “Fear can be overcome. You have the power to take action.”

Over the years, Ms. Minkoff has embraced the world of entrepreneurship, gradually identifying more as a woman in business than a woman in fashion — the kind of woman who imbues her tough-love “real talk” with business-school vocabulary and Girlboss aplomb.

She hosts “Superwomen,” an interview podcast with guests like Jessica Alba and Barbara Corcoran, and in 2018 she co-founded a network of business owners called the Female Founder Collective. She once tried, unsuccessfully, as she writes in her book, to create a label to stamp on products made by women, inspired by those that certify products as cruelty-free or organic. (When the effort stalled in state government, she said, she ended up creating her own symbol through the Female Founder Collective.)

In 2018, she also released an ad campaign around female empowerment, featuring Women’s March organizers, the actress Zosia Mamet, the former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, and, somewhat controversially at the time, Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Ms. Minkoff is still the creative director and face of her brand; she oversees the design of all collections, models products on its Instagram and writes online marketing. (She took on the copywriting role in the pandemic, after the company laid off half of its staff in March 2020.)

But aside from planning New York Fashion Week events, which she oversees entirely, she isn’t much involved in daily design decision-making. Uri Minkoff, her brother, runs the company as chief executive. And he shares a similar sense of pride in how they’ve survived the odds of being the overlooked kids in fashion’s cafeteria.

“There weren’t editors or stores waiting in line, glowing upon us as the next great ‘it’ thing. We got to go to the party and stay at the party because we were performing and because it was successful,” said Mr. Minkoff, who came to fashion from the tech world, and who peppers conversation with quotes from Marc Andreessen and “Animal Farm.” “Looking back, there was this trial by fire every step of the way, and fighting tooth and claw.”

It is that fight — not feeling “cool enough or connected enough or successful enough or rich enough” to be in the inner circle of fashion, as Ms. Minkoff puts it — that helped turn her into the striver she presents in her book.

It is why she believes burnout can be eradicated by working harder. It is why, when that showroom owner tore apart the Morning After Bag, Ms. Minkoff did not defend her artistic vision but followed Ms. O’Connor’s advice, making changes to her design. It is why she pivoted to entrepreneurship, a world where being cool mattered less than having ideas and confidence.

It is why she titled her book “Fearless,” even though she still feels fear around fashion weeks, and the future, and raising three children in a pandemic, and the rising cultural backlash against female founders.

“My view with calling it ‘Fearless’ is, it’s not like you’re not scared,” Ms. Minkoff said. It’s more like: “‘I’m scared. I’m terrified. But here we go.’”


Grocery-to-Table Is a Challenge for Restaurants in the Pandemic


By last summer, Nick Wiseman, a founder of Little Sesame, a small chain of hummus shops in Washington, D.C., had made all the expected “pivots” to save his business. He’d offered delivery, meal kits and pantry items, and worked with local nonprofits to feed the hungry.

But with both of his shops in downtown business districts — and no signs that office workers would be returning — he needed something else to keep the business afloat. The obvious solution: selling his hummus in grocery stores. “We have a great brand and a great product,” Mr. Wiseman remembered thinking. “How hard can this be?”

As it turns out, it took almost a year for three chefs at Little Sesame, each with experience cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants, to make a hummus that looked and tasted the way they wanted it to, with the necessary shelf life and food safety certifications. Along the way, they created a mini-food laboratory, equipped with a magnetic stirrer (to draw uniform hummus samples) and a pH probe, and became experts at the art of high-pressure pasteurization, which kills bacteria by applying isostatic pressure at levels six times those found at the bottom of the ocean. This month, their hummus finally arrived on the shelves at Whole Foods Market.

The bumpy path from restaurant dishes to retail products — often paved with trial, error and some compromise — is one that many chefs and food entrepreneurs have traveled over the past year as they searched for ways to diversify their businesses or reinvent themselves in the pandemic.

Carbone Fine Food, a retail division of the New York City restaurant company Major Food Group, debuted a line of pasta sauces. Another New York business, Levain Bakery, is selling versions of its famously gooey chocolate chip cookies in the freezer aisle of Whole Foods. Independent restaurateurs across the country are hawking everything from jars of hoisin sauce to salty snacks on their websites.

“If you are a proud chef and your soul is dedicated to making food that smells and looks and tastes wonderful, it’s a tricky transition to the world of food manufacturing, where taste doesn’t always come first,” said Bob Del Grosso, a chef and former professor at the Culinary Institute of America who has consulted with a wide array of food manufacturers. “The hope is that new higher-quality and unconventional products they bring to market could bring a new set of values to the business.”

If Mr. Wiseman was surprised by the challenges involved in making retail-ready hummus, another of Little Sesame’s chefs, Ron Even, was not. A double major in biochemistry and food science, Mr. Even first thought that he would have to employ powdered stabilizers and acidifiers that increase shelf life and, more important, help to stave off dangerous bacteria like salmonella or Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism. The risks are real, and recalls are not uncommon. The big hummus producer Sabra issued one for possible salmonella contamination as recently as March.

But the Little Sesame team disliked the sharp, sometimes sour aftertaste that such additives produced. Mr. Even began to search for ways to increase acidity without affecting the flavor. Over a period of weeks, he used a Bluetooth probe, which sent data to his iPhone, to test the acidity of every ingredient, including chickpeas, tahini and lemon juice. He even compared the pH of tap water with purified water. (Tap water was less acidic.)

Surprisingly, the solution was found not in the ingredients, but in the process of making the hummus. In its restaurants, Little Sesame cooks its chickpeas with baking soda, which helps to break them down and results in a creamy spread. But baking soda is naturally alkaline, and this added to the challenge of bringing the overall pH to a safe level. After hundreds of iterations, the chefs found that using a pressure cooker sufficiently broke down the chickpeas and allowed them to use fresh lemon juice rather than commercial acidifiers.

Some things did have to change, though. Grocery-store hummus must be pasteurized. Little Sesame chose high-pressure pasteurization, which employs intensity, rather than heat, to preserve fresh flavors. (It is often used in cold-pressed juices.) But the extreme pressure squished Little Sesame’s containers, pressing its toppings against the lids and leaving an unappealing slick. The company now places its jammy tomatoes or caramelized onions under the hummus. The chefs hope that this has the added benefit of ensuring the toppings (bottomings?) last beyond the first serving.

The realities of selling retail also forced the founders of Levain Bakery, Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald, to adjust their plans drastically.

Originally, they envisioned their brand in the cookie aisle. But the qualities that define a Levain Bakery cookie — a buttery mound that is crusty on the outside and moist and chewy inside — were impossible to recreate in a cookie that could sit on the shelf for months.

“The moisture levels in our cookies are really high,” Ms. McDonald said. “After not a very long time, even two weeks, it all sort of reverses and becomes wet and mushy on the outside and hard on the inside. So that was really unpleasant.”

Consultants whom the women had hired recommended that they make a thin, crisp cookie instead. A series of very awkward phone calls followed, Ms. Weekes recalled: “They were the experts, and we didn’t know what we were doing. But we knew we didn’t want to do what they said we had to do.”

Last fall, some two years after they began, Levain delivered a retail cookie that is smaller but otherwise identical to what they sell in their eight bakeries. They are prebaked and frozen.

The freezer aisle is not where many people look for cookies, but Ms. Weekes and Ms. McDonald are thrilled. “When people would come to the bakery and ask how they could save cookies for later, we’d always tell them to freeze them,” Ms. McDonald said. “The solution was right under our nose.”

This was not the case for Emshika Alberini, who wanted to radically remake the Thai iced teas and coffees she sold at her restaurant, the Chang Thai Cafe, in Littleton, N.H. The drinks were incredibly popular, and profitable. But like many Thai teas and coffees, they contained artificial coloring and plenty of sugar from the condensed milk.

“You have to know the Thai tea at the restaurant has coloring. How else would it be super bright orange?” Ms. Alberini said. “Somehow people don’t think about that in a restaurant. But they do when they’re shopping in a store.”

She was fortunate to find a New Hampshire company that made canned iced coffee, and had a chemist on staff. Together, they experimented with plant-based milks (to make the product vegan) and with various sugar substitutes (to get a zero-sugar nutrition label). It took three months before Ms. Alberini settled on oat milk for the lattes and 32.5 grams of monk fruit per can for sweetness. The final products are sold at independent retailers and online.

For every chef who has made the jump to retail, there are many still trying. Ash Fulk, culinary director at Hill Country Barbecue Market, in New York and Washington, has been at work for nearly a year on a line of sausages, though he is also exploring barbecue sauces and rubs. Carbone Fine Food’s line of pasta sauces does not yet include its signature spicy vodka because, its new chief executive Eric Skae explained, “as soon as you introduce cream and cheese, it gets that much harder.”

As the demand for restaurant-quality food at home has soared during the pandemic, restaurateurs like Little Sesame’s Mr. Wiseman hope the hard work will pay off.

But on the culinary side, solving the riddles of retail products is its own kind of reward. Even after the months of toil on its hummus, the Little Sesame team is already back in the food lab, at work on new retail products.


Weddings Took a Big Hit in 2020. Enter the Micro-Wedding.


Rocket Science Events, founded in 2010 in Minneapolis, specializes in elaborate, imaginatively designed weddings held in nontraditional venues, like an airplane hangar or boxing gym. At the start of 2020, Gretchen Culver, its founder, had three part-time employees, a handful of independent contractors working events and revenue projected to be slightly below $500,000. Then, the lockdown hit Minnesota.

“It was terrible for us,” she said. “All my weddings postponed and I waived the fee for changing a date. That meant, essentially, zero revenue for Rocket Science in 2020 and most of 2021.”

A few years before the pandemic, however, Ms. Culver began noticing that guest counts for many weddings were decreasing. Instead of 200 to 300 people at weddings, many clients wanted 100 or less. “I could sense priorities were shifting,” she said. “In the back of my head I’d been wondering if there was a way to make small weddings, with a smaller overall budget, work for my business.”

The pandemic offered an opportunity for her to find out. She consulted a planner in Birmingham, Ala., doing multiple micro-weddings a day and that conversation sparked a light-bulb moment for Ms. Culver. She created a separate business, Minne Weddings, which offers highly stylized, all-inclusive wedding packages on Sundays.

Several time slots are available on each date for a 90-minute wedding that can accommodate up to 32 guests. The package includes the venue, rentals, décor, digital invitations, flowers, photos, videography, cake, sparkling wine and an officiant; prices range from $5,000 to $7,000. Couples booking the last slot of a particular day can pay to extend the wedding to three and a half hours and add extras like special dances, speeches and more food. Everything is done through the website; in most cases Ms. Culver doesn’t even meet the couple until the day of the wedding.


Crook’s Corner, a Landmark North Carolina Restaurant, Has Closed


Crook’s Corner, the restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., that helped spark a renaissance in Southern cuisine starting in the 1980s, has permanently closed, Shannon Healy, an owner, said Wednesday.

Mr. Healy said the business, which shut down in the spring of 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic, struggled to regain its footing after reopening last fall. It served its final meals on Sunday night.

“The pandemic kind of crushed us,” he said. “We were trying to reorganize some debt, and we just couldn’t get it done.”

Crook’s Corner was opened in 1982 by Gene Hamer and Bill Neal inside a former fish market. Mr. Neal had made his name locally as a chef with the French restaurant La Résidence, which he opened with his wife, Moreton Neal. He envisioned Crook’s as a new kind of Southern restaurant: a place where the region’s food would be treated with reverence.

This was unusual in the early 1980s, said Bill Smith, a longtime chef at the restaurant. “Crook’s treated Southern cuisine like it was delicious cuisine instead of the food of the Beverly Hillbillies,” he said. Mr. Neal “insisted Southern cuisine belonged in the pantheon.”

The restaurant caught the attention of Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor, who was himself a Southerner. In a 1985 article, Mr. Claiborne called Mr. Neal “one of today’s finest young Southern chefs,” and praised Crook’s versions of hoppin’ John, shrimp and grits and muddle, a fish stew from the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Crook’s, as locals referred to it, became part of a national movement of chefs and restaurants focusing on local cuisine and ingredients, said Marcie Cohen Ferris, an emeritus professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“It was one of those sites — and there weren’t many around our country in 1980s — where restaurateurs, farmers, food entrepreneurs and local craftspeople were starting to come together,” Dr. Ferris said. “Then Crook’s becomes this incubator of new Southern cuisine, because so many young people come through there.”

The James Beard award winners John Currence, of Oxford, Miss., and Robert Stehling, of Charleston, S.C., are among the prominent Southern chefs who worked with Mr. Neal early in their careers.

Mr. Neal died of AIDS at age 41, in 1991. Mr. Smith, who worked with Mr. Neal at La Résidence, took over the kitchen at Crook’s, and continued to introduce signature Southern dishes, like fried oysters with garlic mayonnaise and Atlantic Beach pie, a lemon pie with a saltine cracker crust.

The casual restaurant, known for its fiberglass pig statue and hubcap collection outside, never relied on the trappings of European fine dining. And the menu was always seasonal. “If you could get soft-shell crabs and honeysuckle sorbet on the same night, that was reason for celebration,” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith retired soon after Mr. Healy and his business partner, Gary Crunkleton, bought Crook’s from Mr. Hamer in 2018. Carrie Schleiffer took over as chef from Justin Burdett, Mr. Smith’s successor, in April.

Mr. Healy was a bartender and manager at the restaurant for years before he became an owner. He said he was drawn to the restaurant in part by its lack of pretension.

“Instead of making simple things sound fancy, they did the opposite,” he said, like using the words “garlic mayonnaise” on the menu instead of aioli. “The tables looked like an old diner on purpose. When it opened, the idea that you were doing excellent food in a non-white-tablecloth environment was very different.”


A Black Whiskey Entrepreneur Will Help Bankroll Others Like Her


In 2016, Ms. Weaver, then a Los Angeles-based author and real estate investor, traveled to Lynchburg, Tenn., to research a potential book about Nearest Green, an expert distiller whose real name was Nathan. Mr. Green, while enslaved there, had mentored a young Jack Daniel.

Ms. Weaver’s ambitions quickly grew; she persuaded Brown-Forman to formally acknowledge Mr. Green as the brand’s first master distiller, and the following year she created the whiskey in Nearest’s name.

She said her fruitless search for a Black master distiller led her to fully comprehend the overwhelming whiteness of the world of American spirits. Margie A.S. Lehrman, the chief executive of the American Craft Spirits Association, said that the lack of diversity has long been an issue for the industry, and that only a handful of American distilleries are Black-owned or Black-run.

“It’s not that people of color don’t have an interest. It’s that we find that they have no path of entry into the industry, no connections where others may,” Ms. Lehrman said. “It’s a very, very tough industry to break into, and if you’re a woman or a person of color, it’s even harder.”

In the summer of 2020, Uncle Nearest and Jack Daniel’s announced a joint $5 million initiative intended to bring more Black entrepreneurs into distilling, in part by offering resources and mentorship to one Black-owned spirits company each year. So many Black entrepreneurs reached out for help that Uncle Nearest began its own side project, the Black Business Booster program, to help 16 companies at once.

Ms. Weaver said she quickly realized that no amount of support with branding, strategy and publicity would make a difference if these entrepreneurs continued to be shut out from capital. “Fund-raising is all about relationships,” she said. “If you don’t have those relationships, only a tiny fraction of people pitching investors will see funding.”


Still Here and Still Queer: The Gay Restaurant Endures


Scott Frankel’s favorite memories of New York gay restaurants aren’t about food.

Universal Grill cranked “Dancing Queen” on birthdays. There was that incredibly hot Italian waiter at Food Bar. Florent was around the corner from a notorious sex club in the meatpacking district. Manatus was so gay, it had a sobriquet: Mana-tush.

Gay restaurants, said Mr. Frankel, the Tony-nominated composer of the musical “Grey Gardens,” “made you feel like you belonged.”

But all those places he so fondly remembers are long closed, as are Harvest, Orbit’s and several others listed in an article, headlined “Restaurants That Roll Out the Welcome Mat for Gay Diners,” that ran in this newspaper 27 years ago. It now reads like an obituary.

Restaurants fold all the time, perhaps nowhere more so than in New York, and perhaps never as much as during the Covid era. The pandemic hit the country’s urban gay restaurants especially hard, said Justin Nelson, the president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. MeMe’s Diner, a popular queer restaurant in Brooklyn, permanently closed in November, citing shutdown measures and a lack of government support.

Gay restaurants, like gay bars, are also facing crises of identity and purpose in a time that is in many ways more welcoming than the past, when gay people sought out gay restaurants because they offered safety and acceptance that couldn’t be found elsewhere.

Lesbians went to Bloodroot, a still-busy vegetarian restaurant in Bridgeport, Conn., that sprang from the lesbian feminist movement of the 1970s. Gay men frequented places like Orphan Andy’s, a campy diner from the same decade that’s still in business in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. Atlanta had Waterworks, which a 1992 newsletter for the group Black and White Men Together called the city’s “only Black-owned gay restaurant.”

Today, many L.G.B.T.Q. Americans feel free to be their full selves in almost any setting. And shifting conceptions of sexuality and gender extend beyond what words like gay, lesbian, male or female can accommodate. A gay restaurant can just sound fuddy-duddy.

“Many of the more privileged young queer people have grown up with inclusion, so they don’t feel the need to be in a place where you’re sheltered from heterosexism,” said Julie Podmore, an urban geographer at Concordia University in Montreal.

That may be the case in New York City, where gay restaurants are going the way of dinosaurs (if not yet extinct — Elmo and other spots are still keeping their gay fan base fed).

But elsewhere in the country, many gay restaurants are thriving — as treasured local businesses, de facto community centers, refuges from continuing anti-queer violence and potential paths forward for a restaurant industry in recovery.

On a recent Saturday night in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, Annie’s Paramount Steak House was busy, and it was gay. Two dads and their two kids ate at a table in an outside area festooned with rainbows. Three 20-something gay men shared fries. An older couple smiled as they watched a clip from the movie musical “White Christmas” on a phone.

Overseeing the hubbub was Georgia Katinas, the general manager, who is 33 and straight. Her grandfather, George Katinas, the son of Greek immigrants, opened Annie’s in 1948 at a different location as the Paramount Steak House. Ms. Katinas says nobody in her family is gay, yet Annie’s surely is. That seed was planted by her great-aunt Annie Kaylor.

Annie was beyond supportive of the gay community and became, for many of the restaurant’s racially diverse diners, a mother figure before her death in 2013. In 2019, when Annie’s received an America’s Classics award from the James Beard Foundation, the restaurant critic David Hagedorn wrote of how, in its early days, Annie “went up to two men holding hands under the table and told them they were welcome to hold hands above it.”

Now that indoor dining has resumed, Ms. Katinas said, “people are coming back with tears in their eyes” because they “missed being in a space where they’re not the only gay people.”

Derrin Andrade and Zack Sands weren’t looking for a gay restaurant when they moved to Dupont Circle four years ago. Now the biracial married couple are regulars at what Mr. Sands, 30, called “a home more than a restaurant.”

“You can sense the loyalty at Annie’s, and it makes you want to concede to that,” he said. “You want to be part of it when you see people are coming back for a reason.”

For Steve Herman, 79, who has eaten at Annie’s since 1976, that reason is the fact that Dupont Circle isn’t as gay as it once was.

“I think it’s a great thing that gay people are more mainstream and comfortable going other places,” he said. “But I miss having one neighborhood and one restaurant that was mine.”

Carla Perez-Gallardo, 33, never intended to create a queer destination when she and Hannah Black opened Lil’ Deb’s Oasis five years ago in Hudson, N.Y. But the restaurant, which serves what it calls “tropical comfort food,” has become a favorite among queer residents and visitors even though it doesn’t advertise, relying instead on word of mouth and social media.

“I happen to be queer, and it unfolded that way and it feels joyous,” said Mx. Perez-Gallardo, who with Ms. Black was a semifinalist for the 2019 James Beard award for Best Chef: Northeast.

The restaurant is set to reopen its dining room on Friday night after a six-month hiatus, serving sweet plantains, pork tamales and lamb skewers in a bright, playful space that Mx. Perez-Gallardo calls “campy and kitsch.” It sells shirts emblazoned with the words “Tasting Good” and “Tasting Gay.”

“If there’s a way food is queer, it’s in being non-homogenous, in being lateral and multiple,” Mx. Perez-Gallardo said. “That’s also fully definitive of our space and ethos.”

The historian George Chauncey traces gay eating places in New York City back to the cheap urban dining halls that catered to unmarried workers in the late 19th century. In the 1920s and ’30s, the police often raided cafeterias like Horn & Hardart, where gay men gathered to “ridicule the dominant culture that ridiculed them, and construct an alternative culture,” as Mr. Chauncey writes in his book “Gay New York.”

In 1959, 10 years before the Stonewall riots, what historians consider the first queer uprising in modern America broke out at Cooper Donuts in Los Angeles, where L.G.B.T.Q. people pushed back against a police roundup by using coffee and doughnuts as projectiles.

In the 1980s, Florent was a refuge for gay New Yorkers during the worst years of AIDS. The owner, Florent Morellet, recalled in a recent interview that after learning he was H.I.V.-positive in 1987, he posted his T-cell counts on repurposed menu boards that faced the dining room — a coded message of solidarity to his customers.

“I have met many times people who said, ‘Florent, you don’t know me, but at that time I was positive and in the closet and didn’t tell anybody,’” said Mr. Morellet, 67. “They said, ‘When I came to your restaurant where you put your T-cell numbers on the board, I felt everything was OK.” He tried to say more, but choked up.

In Green Bay, Wis., Napalese Lounge and Grille looks as gay as a cheese curd. When straight couples bring children to the unpretentious brick building for chicken tenders on weekends, the place feels more like an Applebee’s than the Mineshaft.

Now almost 40, Naps, as regulars call it, is the oldest gay bar and restaurant in Green Bay, according to Arnold Pendergast, 61, who has owned it with his husband, Stacy Desotel, 56, since 2012. It’s where L.G.B.T.Q. locals gather for charity drag shows and to watch Packers games over baskets of fat and crispy beer-battered cod because it’s one of the few gay options in town. (You don’t hear “queer” much in Green Bay.)

Mr. Pendergast, who goes by Butch, calls his place “a comfort.”

“The prices are reasonable, and you can grab a burger or play Donkey Kong or cribbage,” he said.

Martha, who asked that her surname not appear in this article because she’s not entirely out as transgender, used to drive to Chicago “to avoid violence by people who lack any understanding of what it means to be transgender.”

She now hosts a monthly get-together at Naps for trans people from the region who she said “desperately need to be safe.” She is part of a group working to bring a new outdoor mural to Naps this summer that will herald it as an L.G.B.T.Q. space.

Jeremiah Moss, the author of “Vanishing New York,” said restaurants like Naps counter the notion that queer people “don’t need spaces anymore because we have the internet.”

“If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that connecting digitally is not enough,” particularly for working-class gay people, he said, like those at Naps. “We need to be in spaces with each other because otherwise we don’t quite exist.”

If there’s a restaurant that points a way forward for queer dining, it’s Laziz Kitchen, in Salt Lake City. Moudi Sbeity founded the Mediterranean restaurant in 2017 with Derek Kitchen, then his husband, who was elected to the Utah State Senate a year later.

Mr. Sbeity, 33, prefers to call Laziz a queer, not gay, restaurant to signal “that we are inclusive in love.” The Pride flag flying outside is the redesigned version with stripes added for the trans community and people of color. The bathrooms are all-gender. A poster at the entrance welcomes refugees.

Not even red-state politics comes between a customer and Laziz’s grilled halloumi. “We’ve had plenty of people who support Trump and have worn Trump hats, and we don’t skip a beat in welcoming them in and offering them food and kindness,” said Mr. Sbeity, who grew up in Lebanon and moved to the United States in 2006.

Nan Seymour, a regular, swears by the hummus, beet and muhammara trio. She dines there often, sometimes with her trans daughter, and feels she should support the restaurant’s mission.

“The default in our current culture is cisnormative, heteronormative white supremacy, and it’s not safe for people who aren’t in those majority privileged groups,” said Ms. Seymour, her voice breaking. “It’s essential for us to know that we can be at a restaurant and not worry about how it will go for my daughter when she goes to the bathroom.”

Jen Jack Gieseking, an urban cultural geographer at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, said that like Laziz, future queer restaurants will be intersectional, especially about gender. Servers won’t assume pronouns. Men won’t necessarily be given the check.

“We’ll see more consideration for how to create an antiracism space,” said Mr. Gieseking, the author of “A Queer New York.” “People will consider who’s delivering your food and who made your food.”

“Not all of these restaurants will be great,” he added. “But they will be projects that make change, and that’s exciting.”


How Food Trucks Endured and Succeeded During the Pandemic


This article is part of Owning the Future, a series on how small businesses across the country have been affected by the pandemic.

The Covid pandemic hit California hard. It has seen well over 3.5 million cases and over 60,000 deaths. Scores of businesses have closed. But for Ana Jimenez, the owner of Tacos El Jerry, a small fleet of food trucks in Santa Cruz County, it provided an opportunity to bring her business into the 21st century.

Ms. Jimenez’s four trucks began taking orders through an app and a website, delivering directly to customers, and cultivating a customer base through a new social media presence. All of that added up to a significant increase in sales.

“Our business grew,” said Ms. Jimenez, 50. “We even added a new truck. Credit goes to my son, Jerry, who is 23. We didn’t have anything on social media. He said, ‘we’re going digital on all of this, Mom.’” Half of her orders are now placed online, she said.

Ms. Jimenez’s son created Facebook and Instagram pages for the food trucks and a social media advertising campaign, and the trucks began accepting credit card purchases. “Each truck is now serving around 300 people per day, which translates to roughly $5,000 in sales daily,” Ms. Jimenez said.

Food trucks — kitchens on wheels, essentially — are flexible by design and quickly became a substitute during the pandemic for customers who couldn’t dine indoors and coveted something different than their mainstream carryout options. That, in turn, has delivered a new client base to add on to an existing cadre of loyal followers. In a very real sense, food trucks are vehicles for equality in the post-pandemic world.

“While the pandemic has certainly hurt the majority of small businesses, it has also pushed many to be more innovative by looking for new revenue streams and ways to reach customers,” said Kimberly A. Eddleston, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University.

Like Ms. Jimenez, some businesses have “focused on ways to maintain their customer base by, for example, delivering products directly to customers,” Prof. Eddleston said. “While others have created products and services that attract new customers.”

Luke Cypher, 34, for instance, expanded the already eclectic selections at his Blue Sparrow food trucks in Pittsburgh, adding pizza, four-packs of local beer, gift cards and five-ounce bottles of housemade hot sauce.

Mr. Cypher’s main fare since he hit the streets in 2016 has been global street food. His menu carries a heavy Asian inspiration. There’s made-from-scratch kimchi on the menu daily. Dishes can include rice bowls, Vietnamese banh mi, falafel burritos, and a burger made with a ramen bun.

During the pandemic, Mr. Cypher’s business took a hit when 24 festivals and over a dozen weddings where he was booked were canceled. “I switched gears to keep things as lean as possible,” Mr. Cypher said.

He temporarily shut down a second food truck — a retrofitted 35-foot, 1956 Greyhound bus that he used for the big parties — and introduced a website to interact with his customers and an online ordering system for his smaller truck, which he usually parked at a neighborhood brewery.

“I switched the menu to focus on soups, noodles, burritos and pressed sandwiches, so that the things that we were handing our customers would make it home and still be a good experience after they opened up the bag and took it out,” he said.

And he began to make and sell pizza one day a week at the kitchen where he used to do his prep work for the trucks before the pandemic. (The pizza, too, has an international flair: a banh mi pie, for example, made with pork or tofu, miso garlic sauce, mozzarella, pickled carrots, cucumbers, and cilantro.)

Customers can order and pay online or by phone and schedule a time to pick up; they receive a text or an email when their order is ready.

The kitchen “was already in place, so we turned around and said, well, what can we offer our customers in this unknown time that would be comforting,” Mr. Cypher said. “We had a wood-fired oven there that we use for bread baking, but basically it wasn’t being utilized.”

Before the pandemic, Mr. Cypher was serving roughly 1,500 customers a week from his food truck. A weekly festival on weekends, with 5,000 people stopping by the bus, of course, ramped up that number.

“The cool part is I was able to stay afloat because, unlike a restaurant with traditional seating, it was just myself, my sous-chef and his wife, who worked part-time,” he said. “We ended up serving roughly a hundred people a day, four or five days a week. So it wasn’t the numbers that we did before, but our lights were able to stay on because we had reduced a lot of costs that we had involved in running multiple rigs.”

Mr. Cypher, however, opted not to use delivery apps like Uber Eats or Grub Hub. “I don’t want to hand my food off to somebody else,” he said. “If we weren’t going to have the one-on-one conversations with our customers, we were at least going to give it to them directly.”

And like Tacos El Jerry, social media became a huge part of his marketing platform. “The pictures that we take and post on Instagram and Facebook let people feel like they’re a part of our truck family,” Mr. Cypher said.

“Food trucks were well-equipped to withstand pandemic restrictions, as they’re naturally to-go and socially distanced businesses,” said Luz Urrutia, chief executive of Accion Opportunity Fund, a nonprofit organization providing small-business owners with access to capital, networks and coaching. “Many food truck owners stepped forward to seize opportunity during a time of great uncertainty,” she said.

As Pittsburgh emerges from the pandemic, Mr. Cypher is adding a twist at his kitchen location. “We have licensing to offer beer on draft from our local breweries, so we’re going to have a small beer garden,” he said. “And that’s a revenue stream that we’re going to kind of lean into that we probably never would have done if not for Covid.”

In 2020, Mr. Cypher’s food trucks had $200,000 in gross sales, down about 40 percent from the previous year, he said. “But with the new offerings, more efficiency and only running one rig, we were actually able to net enough to keep the business moving forward,” he said. “This year we’re already up about 30 percent from where we were at last year at this time.”

For Ronicca Whaley, the chef behind the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based truck Shiso Crispy, timing was much tricker: she opened her first truck in November 2019, just a few months before the pandemic. And yet Ms. Whaley, 35, who offers handmade gyozas, bao buns and their signature dish, dirty rice, now has two trucks because of a strategy of regularly parking in certain neighborhoods and offering discounted and free meals outside a nearby Ronald McDonald House. (She added the second truck in January.)

One challenge: “The internet here is shoddy. And cellphone service in different areas out here just doesn’t work,” she said. “During the height of the pandemic, I was consistently losing two or more transactions at my point of sale every shift.”

Luckily, she was offered a special initiative for small business owners by Verizon Business: a year of complimentary connectivity and a 5G iPhone, as well as tools such as the Clover Flex point of sale program for touchless transactions. “It has digitally transformed my business,” Ms. Whaley said.

She also signed on to an app, called Best Food Trucks, that allows customers near her to pre-order once they know her location for the day.

“The inextricably connected stories of food trucks and Covid are a perfect microcosm of the undeniable reality that women, immigrants and people of color, historically relegated to the edges of the economy, are actually the foundation upon which the next economy must be built,” said Nathalie Molina Niño, author of “Leapfrog: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs.”

But the silver lining from the pandemic for some operators is more personal — including bringing families together. “I have a ton of wisdom about how to operate food trucks and cooking,” Ms. Jimenez said. “It’s the coming together of the generations that made the business stronger now and for the future.”