For the past three months, Ihsan Akbar and Jonathan Ruiz have been creating buzz on social media with their photos of the sandwiches they serve for their business Stuffed Custom Catering. The difference is, unlike many Instagrammers, they invite their followers to stop by Ruiz’s yard in Irving Park and taste the cevapcici pitas, spam banh mi, and chopped cheese sandwiches they’ve been preparing in their kitchen.
But catering is just the beginning. Stuffed Catering, as it is now, is a warm-weather business, geared toward festivals and other outdoor events, and not very well-suited to winter in Chicago. By the end of the year, Akbar and Ruiz plan to open a delivery- and take out-only restaurant. They have space in a commissary kitchen in Logan Square, and now they’re sorting through available options with various delivery services to determine which will take the smallest bite out of their profits.
Since the start of the pandemic, the two friends had been discussing starting a catering business, but it began in earnest one day last May when Akbar found himself in line at a department store waiting to buy a pair of pants. He’d shown up for work in an Italian restaurant in the Loop in the wrong clothes, and the sous chef had sent him out shopping. While he was waiting, he got a call from his sister, an event coordinator at Stanky Farms, a cannabis dispensary in Baroda, Michigan, about 90 miles from Chicago and an hour south of Saugatuck. The caterers for an event she was planning that weekend had dropped out, and she wanted to know if Akbar was willing to fill in.
Akbar, 35, asked for a few minutes to think things over. If he took the gig, he would have to quit his job. It wasn’t a bad job; it paid good money — but being there made him feel agitated. He’d been working restaurants for more than 20 years, knew how to cook many cuisines, and had the experience to prepare meals for 100,000 people over the course of a week. Now, he was making the same pizza over and over again: “I could do anything,” he says, recalling the moment. “So why am I doing this?”
As he waited in line to pay for a pair of pants that would cost as much as what he would make during his shift, something snapped: “I decided I was going to do my own thing if it killed me,” he says. “[This job was] a slow death.”
He called up his friend Ruiz for advice. Ruiz, 30, himself had turned down a 9-to-5 job as a prep cook a few days earlier. He, too, was tired of traditional restaurant life: the long hours, other chefs taking credit for dishes he created. “Do what you gotta do,” Ruiz told Akbar on the phone that day. Forty minutes later, Akbar showed up at Ruiz’s house, and Stuffed Custom Catering was in business.
Quitting their jobs and opening a new business during a pandemic may not have been the best idea but, Akbar says, “If we had to worry about money, money would always be a factor. It shouldn’t be a factor. We know how much we’re worth.”
The decision to serve their works in progress was a spontaneous one, but word quickly spread through Chicago food social media and soon visitors from outside the immediate neighborhood were showing up to try their cevapcici (the increasingly popular Balkan lamb sausage served at Chicago street fests), and N.Y.-style chopped cheese sandwiches: “We didn’t tell people at first that it was a New York bodega thing,” Ruiz says. “When we did, they were like (he sniffs dramatically)... ‘Well, it’s still good.’”
Initially, Ruiz and Akbar requested donations to cover the cost of ingredients, but some people gave more, enough to cover the prep for their catering jobs. As interest grew, they began announcing tastings on Instagram.
They both prefer catering to the traditional restaurant environment. “Fifteen years ago, the international food movement came to Chicago,” Akbar says, “but restaurant culture never changed. People were still doing things old school: working tons of hours with no break, working until you dropped. Now, with corona, that era is dead.”
During the pandemic, Akbar and Ruiz saw other chefs all over the city start up their own low-overhead virtual restaurants with the independence to cook the food they wanted. They saw an opportunity to go out on their own without leaving the business altogether.
Neither of them misses restaurant kitchens. Akbar was tired of the whole thing: the people crammed into loud, tiny rooms to eat meticulously composed plates prepared by overworked line cooks, and the veteran chefs relegated to working long hours at grunt jobs because of the labor shortage. He wanted a chance to cook without getting bored. Ruiz, for his part, relishes the chance to spend an hour planning new dishes and refining old ones.
But they realize that once they start a virtual restaurant with a set menu, they’re going to have to specialize. Ruiz is lobbying for pitas with a variety of fillings. “They’re stuffed sandwiches,” he says. “Like our name!”
For now, though, they’re continuing to do catering jobs and announce tastings on Instagram. And they’re happy they found a way to stay in the restaurant business in a way that satisfies them. “I have too much love for restaurants to leave,” says Akbar. “I don’t want to look back and see that I never opened a restaurant or helped change the industry I love so much.”
Stuffed Custom Catering, 3705 N. Troy Street, Tastings announced on Instagram.