The calm exterior was deceiving. Peering through the service window, I was met by a bustle of activity – Anna and Sierra seemed to be on fire – working quickly and intently, answering phones, cooking food, and filling to-go boxes.
With orders stacked up on the front of the exhaust hood, I realized i was seeing a perfect example of a restaurant operating under the new pandemic paradigm.
With social distancing, closed dining rooms or reduced seating, and an emphasis on take-out or delivery being the new norm – most orders come in over the telephone, or are online orders from the website, announced by a chiming iPad.
I was contemplating the first article to write for this publication after our two-year hiatus. In addition to writing about food, it seemed appropriate to explore some of the challenges faced by restaurants during the ongoing pandemic. That’s when I came across a recent Facebook post entitled “Portrait of a Food Truck Lady on Fire“ written by Anna Poutous, New Public’s owner. In the post, she poignantly relates,
“These past few weeks have been the most challenging; I honestly didn’t think my job could get more difficult. … I realized last night when I was forced by time and “due dates” to stop cleaning the frier oil after a non-stop busy day (without even a bathroom break) to pay a bill, that’s maybe its okay to give myself permission to slow down a little.”
Intrigued, I contacted her to see if she was agreeable to talking with me about New Public’s food and some of the challenges she faces in the current operating environment.
Now standing in front of Anna’s trailer, I peered intently at the menu, and tried to make a decision. There was a lot to choose from, and the items have eye-catching names like the “Eggs Quarantine” (pictured left) and the “Hidden Dragon“.
I am of Greek descent, and when I was young, I spent a lot of time with relatives who to loved to cook. One of my favorite Greek foods is tzatziki sauce. Hence, the “Gyro Fries” with house-made tzatziki caught my eye – and that settled it.
The generous helping of fries (pictured at the top of the page) did not disappoint. They came topped with house-marinated soy curls, smothered with tangy house-made tzatziki, then garnished with (you guessed it) house-made pickled onions AND a pepperoncini. The order was a meal unto itself. I had been thinking about ordering an entree with the fries, and was glad I hadn’t. The fries were filling and I had a good excuse to return to New Public almost immediately – not that I needed one.
Anna’s passion is creation, and the wide variety of menu items with their colorful names, reflect that passion.
Of Greek descent herself, I asked Anna if her family history included restaurants. Many Greek immigrants went into the restaurant business so I assumed that might have been where her interests began. Her grandparents emmigrated from Greece to NYC in 1935 and her grandfather subsequently owned a number of restaurants in various parts of the country. One located in Houston was named ‘New Public” hence Anna’s choice of names.
But not wanting to get into the restaurant business, her father opened an automotive repair business still operated by family members to this day. Anna credits him as being one of her greatest inspirations.
Passionate about food from a very early age, Anna has fond memories of cooking alongside her two grandmothers – yia yia (her Greek grandmother) and “Mamma-Lee” – her grandmother on her mother’s side. She experienced the best of two different worlds – traditional Greek food and down-home southern comfort food. These experiences planted the early seeds for her creativity and love of variety.
Over the years, partially as a result of her 2008 rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis (RA – an autoimmune disease), she became more interested in food-as-medicine to heal the body and mind – while keeping animals off the plate. Anna had been a vegetarian for almost a decade when diagnosed with RA, which led her to a gluten-free diet. She will attest to the improvements in her health as a result of eating (and not eating) certain plant-based foods.
The actual decision to make food her livelihood crystalized around 2015 while working at an environmental company in southern California that increasingly felt out of line with her values. Looking to move in a different direction, the first, much smaller “New Public” trailer opened in Sisters, Oregon in 2016, and in March 2018 Anna moved to Bellingham. Finding the existing trailer did not have sufficient capacity, she bought the trailer she has now, opening in September 2018 operating at local breweries.
Operating any small business, especially a restaurant is a labor of love, and a challenging way to make a living in the best of times. Uncertain times present even greater challenges. The strain caused by the uncertainty of operating during a pandemic is reflected in Anna’s Facebook post,
“We are in uncharted waters and there is no map. I am navigating the storm as best I can to keep my business afloat.”
Her current COVID – 19 location in the parking lot of Evil Bikes is one of the adaptations forced by the advent of the current pandemic – and while she is doing well there, she looks forward to a time when the breweries re-open and she can return to some of her favorite locations like Wander and Stones Throw breweries.
The pandemic was also motivation to finally create a long delayed, much-needed website. In addition to increasing her online presence, it gave her a way to accept online orders.
In case you haven’t figured it out already, one of the things that make New Public unique is that all the food is plant-based. Anna’s creations and thoughtfully sourced ingredients are intentionally 100% gluten-free. The only gluten on the menu is in the Great Harvest bread she uses. Anna refers to her menu as “Indulgent Vegan Food.” She buys as many of her ingredients as possible from local suppliers including Rabbit Fields Farm and Pollen Folly Farm, but she admits that the pandemic has made it much harder to purchase these supplies on a consistent basis.
This writer freely admits that he is a broad-spectrum omnivore. I sample a lot of food writing this blog and often find the plant-based patties I try on various sandwiches not flavorful by themselves. I also rarely like their textures. When i do find a plant-based sandwich that I like, it is usually a result of the toppings, and not from the patty itself.
Returning to New Public for a second trip I tried the “Hen Solo Burger“, a grilled soy based patty, with melted “Follow Your Heart” provolone cheese, onion, tomato, and a house-made tangy dill sauce. (pictured right)
My experience with this sandwich was the exact opposite from most of the others I’ve eaten. The patty had a light, satisfying crunch on the outside and was very flavorful. The taste was distinct from the sauce and the fresh veggies piled on top. All in all – a great sandwich.
As our interview was winding down, I asked Anna to relate her favorite “customer reaction” story. She lamented that being as busy as they are (Anna and her associate Sierra), she doesn’t get to interact with her customers as much as she would like. In fact, it is pretty hard to hear people outside from inside the trailer – so one day when she could hear a customer scream, “I LOVE New Public” – she was able to pause and smile for a moment.
I then asked her to finish the sentence, “I love Bellingham, but in a perfect world I’d run my restaurant in_______?” Her answer, “Bellingham in the summer and southern California or Baja in the winter.” Many of us in living in Bellingham would agree with that sentiment.
On a final note, Anna wants to thank Kevin at Evil Bikes for his “generosity and support during these past few months.” She says that being able to park in their lot has made “my life and job much more manageable (and pleasant) having one spot to park at each day where customers can easily find us. The view is pretty great too!!”
I’ll quote Anna’s Facebook post one last time to close this story. To her customers and those who have supported her before, and all those who have been supporting her during these tough times, Anna says,
“Thank you while you wait for food deliveries. Thank you for understanding my rushed voice when you call & what you can’t see is people at the window waiting to order, people in their cars waiting for orders, the sound of online orders coming in on the iPad …”
Judging by her customers’ enthusiasm, Anna’s creations are well worth the wait.