Karla’s Kitchen returns after a pandemic panic

by April Lisante

Karla Salinas is a beacon of light for those who want real authentic Peruvian foods or comfort foods when they just can’t bear the thought of cooking one more night.

Tucked in the Acme shopping center in Flourtown, Karla’s Kitchen has been open there just shy of two years, but she has built quite a local following with her homemade, prepared cuisine.

So, when she was forced to shut down in March after the pandemic hit hard, her livelihood, and the beloved food the town had gotten so accustomed to, disappeared for a few weeks.

After watching restaurants open these past few weeks, and sidewalk dining take off on the Hill and elsewhere, I wondered how Salinas was doing. After all, her business depends heavily upon walk-in customers who order her food from a case, or order dinners to go for families or parties.

And I’m happy to say that this is a story that ends, well.

Like so many food businesses, Salinas fought back, and so far, she has won the fight.

The business she began in the Flourtown Farmer’s Market 15 years ago with her savings and a dream is alive and well, thanks to the loyal locals who stuck with her through it all.

“They were the best, my community,” said Salinas. “This community is a community that is very protective and supportive. They would always ask me ‘How are you doing’ and they were there for me.”

The months between March and now were not without tremendous difficulty. After shutting in mid-March, Salinas was panicked and afraid. By the end of March, her husband, who works in construction, was laid off from his job. She feared for the future and for her young son, who is in second grade.

By the beginning of April, she opened back up, employing her husband and one other worker to manage the shop in the morning. But she quickly discovered things would not be the same.

Customers texted in orders, giving her a list of goodies, like empanadas, crab cakes and pastas, for the week. They would then pull up in their cars and she’d load the trunk with the packaged foods. Or, they would ask her to deliver, too afraid to leave the house.

“People were scared, they didn’t want to come to the store,” Salinas recalled.

Some customers would call her to say they’d purchased salmon or other foods at the grocery store, and would she please share her recipes with them and tell them how to make it at home.

“I gave them the recipes and told them how to make it,” she laughed. “Anything for them.”

There were still those who came to the store to show their support. One customer, out of the blue, handed her a check up front for $1,000, saying it would go toward their purchases in the future.

“I cried,” said Salinas.  “I couldn’t believe it. These customers are the best.”

She finagled the schedule for her three cooks, alternating which days they would work so that they would remain employed, but not all be in the kitchen at the same time.

And she and her husband would toil away each night by themselves in the shop, to make food for the following day.

“Little by little, [we picked up business]. I would come in at night to prepare things. It was super hard.”

By May, the phone began to ring with orders for small gatherings. That trend has expanded in the past month or so, returning Salinas almost to her pre-pandemic catering schedule.

“We’ve been doing food for parties with social distancing,” she said. “We pack things in plastic round containers, and they are cold dinners, like flank steak or our signature Peruvian grilled chicken. It seems like everyone likes the idea.”

One of her customers even placed a catering order for the local Springfield Township Police Department, to send a thank you for all they do.

‘These customers are the best,” she said.

While her sales volume isn’t exactly where it was pre-pandemic, she has faith that things will one day return to normal. Fall is typically her busy time. Until then, she is hanging on, thankful for what she does have.

She recalls growing up in Peru in the 1980’s, a country rife with terrorism, where car bombs and water and electric rations were daily realities.

“Right now, we are saving every penny, because we don’t know what the fall and winter will be like,” she said. “We are trying to make people comfortable, having two customers at a time in the store, wearing masks. I won’t be focused on the bad. We are all going to be fine This is not going to go on forever. But we will all learn and appreciate how lucky we are to have everything we have.”

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