Comfort food has taken on a profound significance during this pandemic. For people who have suffered through inevitable change or loss, food has provided a much-needed sense of relief. For one mother-daughter duo, sharing their own particular comfort food has brought about not just momentary solace, but the start of a new life. Seattle-native Catherine Gerlach and her daughter Niki decided, in the midst of a global pandemic, to do what many would probably say is a terrible idea. They launched a business. The impetus for launching “Setolicious,” was a simple one; to share their most prized comfort food with their community. The duo hand make thousands of wontons each week and deliver them directly to people in Seattle and on the Eastside.
Catherine and Niki finally decided to start Setolicious, an idea they’d been talking about for years, after Catherine was furloughed in April. “My daughter really was the one who figured this all out and made it happen. We talked about it for so long and then after I went through my work transition she said, ‘Mom! We need to do this now,!” relates Catherine, who notes between peals of laughter that she is no longer addressed by her daughter as Mom. “Yes, I’m officially called Catherine now by my daughter! I’m not Mom anymore, now that we’re business partners, especially when she’s frustrated with me.”
The duo make each wonton by hand, and there’s an art to filling and folding them in just the right way, a kind of culinary origami. They buy the wonton skins from a specialty purveyor in the International District, Rose Brand, where they are made fresh every morning. Then Catherine and Niki fill the wontons with pork and chives using family-honed techniques to get the consistency and texture just right, so that the filling is almost silky and full of flavor from the fresh, simple ingredients.
People are typically accustomed to getting just two or three small, limp wontons thrown in a bunch of broth when they order wonton soup from an average Chinese restaurant, but Catherine and Niki explain that they wanted to share this delicacy, and the true traditional style of wontons that they were raised on. “We grew up eating big bowls of them, so we include twelve wontons per order,” Catherine says. “Sort of like eating a bowl of pasta, these are the main course.”
They serve the wontons with a slightly spicy homemade sauce and some light chicken broth, and always make sure to provide a hefty dose of white pepper, which is the crucial finishing touch. They make the wontons in huge batches and freeze them, a tactic they learned from their Grandmother. They also deliver them for free to their customers in Seattle and on the Eastside.
Both Niki and Catherine have worked in sales, and attribute that to the initial success of their budding business. While they just launched in May, word has traveled quickly, and even without a website, they’ve made and sold over 10,000 wontons, have more than two dozen repeat customers, and typically sell out at least a week in advance.
They credit the unique time of the pandemic to helping their business grow organically, which they launched via Facebook and Instagram, and a Smartsheet document that Niki made for processing orders. At a time when everyone is home and social media is a lifeline to friends and the external world, Instagram and Facebook have been effective platforms to spread the word about their authentic, handmade wontons. They also believe that people are especially drawn to comfort food right now, and looking to support local businesses.
This is not the first time that Catherine and her daughter Niki have worked together. The two got their start at a nonprofit “WE” that brought both of them out to Kenya for almost a year, so working side by side feels natural. They currently prepare the wontons in Catherine’s kitchen, have the appropriate health permits, and wear hairnets, gloves and masks when prepping, making and delivering the food.
When asked if they have titles, Catherine quickly defers to the expertise of her daughter, “Niki is definitely CEO. She’s got a great work ethic and does 95 percent of the back-end stuff. I’ve learned so much from her. But we have so much fun. There’s a lot of humor and laughter. She’s the organized one, and I’m definitely the talker. I learned that from my dad. He talked to everyone.”
The recipe Niki and Catherine use for their Mandarin-style wontons was passed down to them from Catherine’s mother, and the recipe goes back generations. Catherine’s parents both moved to Seattle from China when they were young adults and attended university here. Her Mother, despite having a job and four children to care for, cooked copious amounts of homemade, traditional Chinese food every night, often with five or six courses. It wasn’t until Catherine and her three siblings left home that they realized that the delicious, ultra-traditional homemade Chinese food they grew up with just wasn’t available elsewhere. So the four siblings began returning home for cooking lessons. One of the lessons that stuck for Catherine was, of course, her favorite comfort food, wontons. She later taught her own daughter Niki to make them when she was just eight years old.
Niki moved around a lot in her twenties, so making wontons and the traditional food from her heritage was a way to connect with herself and her family no matter where she was. “I lived in Oklahoma City for a time after college, and would make wontons for my friends there whenever I was missing home. Word got out about my wontons, and people literally asked to come over so they could eat them again. Once people try them, they crave them,” explains Niki. That was the first time that glimmers of a potential business opportunity took shape in Niki’s mind.
The mother-daughter duo appreciate the new connection they now have with one another, especially in this time of social distancing, but also the connection they’ve been able to foster with their community since launching Setolicious. When they drop off orders they are granted unique glimpses into their customers’ lives, and are sometimes even invited to chat (from a safe distance) in backyards or on doorsteps. People are eager to hear their story, and how they started this little business against all odds, in the middle of a pandemic. They are also not reluctant to talk about all the possibilities they’re considering, and it’s clear this is just the beginning.
Seto is Catherine’s maiden name, hence the namesake for “Setolicious.” When asked if they’ll be bringing Setolicious wontons to their next family dinner, whenever that day should come, I’m met with a resounding yes. It will be the talk of the table. For now, during quarantine, disparate Seto family members are happy to recieve a batch of their handmade and hand-delivered wontons instead.
If you’d like to try them out yourself, you can order the wontons here.
Amy Musser is a guest contributor who also writes about local arts & culture for The Cloud Room.