A meal drive has kept this fast-casual restaurant on the front lines

The Celiac Community Foundation of Northern California is highlighting regional gluten-free small businesses, how they are supporting the community and how we can support them in turn during the pandemic.

By Carolyn Neff

What do you love most about your family kitchen?

Adriana Lopez Vermut grew up with a family in the kitchen in Venezuela, including a father who ran two restaurants.

Born out of a love for family time in the kitchen and the opportunity to share little bites of their heritage, Vermut and her father, Leopoldo Lopez Gil, founded Pica Pica Arepa Kitchen in Napa in 2008. From the very beginning, they were very intentional in creating a hand-crafted menu based on family recipes.

The result? Traditional home-cooked Venezuelan food with “a little bit of spice,” says Vermut, who has been stateside since college. “Hot is not common in Venezuela.”

The restaurant’s San Francisco Mission District location opened in 2010 and the Napa location was closed several years later to focus on it. Food traffic has grown significantly since, as they “quickly realized we were servicing a community” flocking to the restaurant for playful spins on Venezuelan classics—all of which happen to be 100% naturally gluten free.

With a fresh take on Venezuelan dishes, the Pica Pica menu boasts a spirited selection of sweet, savory and spicy dishes centered on four core ingredients: corn, plantains, taro and yuca root. The slow-cooked family recipes blend ingredients and flavors. Staple items include yuca fries, sweet plantains, coconut rice, nacho taro chips, and of course, signature crispy grilled corn arepas. All can be stuffed or topped with layers of pickled jicama, black beans, avocado, guasacaca sauce, and prepared to accommodate dietary preferences.

“Not overcomplicating the production of our dishes has allowed us to grow our business to be diversified,” says Vermut.

From Pica Pica’s start in Napa, where Vermut canvassed local markets, food events and concerts early on, to catering outdoor events and the modern-day app delivery, Vermut and her team have “always been experimenting with different ways of sharing our food.”

And now creativity is put to the test as shelter-in-place orders have presented unforeseen challenges. Vermut has been determined to keep a team of 16 staff working and sustained.

“There is a whole world out there to make this work,” describes Vermut.

While dine-in options are not anticipated anytime soon, Vermut stresses the importance of integrating systems into businesses to enable agility and adaptation of both employees and vendors during trying times.

Instead of closing, the Pica Pica team pivoted to their catering experience and essentially turned their Mission District restaurant into a soup kitchen.

By March 18, they had already begun crowdsourcing a meal drive with friends, family and foundations to support local business, frontline workers, families and people in need during this crisis.

“For anyone ordering food online, think about how important it is for people showing up to work,” says Vermut.

The drive resulted in the delivery of 21,000 meals in two months. And delicious ones, too! Individually packaged meals of coconut rice, chicken, pulled port, grilled tofu and lots of spiced veggies are bagged, boxed and delivered in the mornings before Pica Pica turned their tables at noon to prepare app orders.

Over the last few months of raising money for free meals, the Pica Pica team served over 1,100 people twice a week across 22 sites throughout San Francisco.

“Realizing you’re asking people to come to the front lines, you ask yourself if this is the right thing to do,” notes Vermut.

“It’s a way to survive and give back.”

A big shout out to the Pica Pica team and all of those who supported the meal drive!  While the fundraising and meal drive wrapped up last week, you can continue to show your support to this dedicated, community-minded team.

Place an order for pickup or takeout today.

[Feature photo above is arepas; below, an employee prepares for meal drive delivery]

Pica Pica employee prepares donated meal delivery