If you’re a local with even one toe in the food scene, odds are you know the name Cynthia Wong. Perhaps you’ve marveled over a Not Fried Chicken drumstick after dinner at sustainable seafood joint Chubby Fish or City Paper’s Best New Restaurant 2022, Pink Bellies. Maybe you’ve snagged a pastel-hued ice cream bar from the Life Raft Treats truck around town. Helmed by Wong, former Butcher & Bee pastry chef and six-time James Beard Award semifinalist, Life Raft has been delivering “weaponized mouth joy” to the Lowcountry since 2018. The last few years, however, have ushered in a new era for the business.
By 2020, Life Raft was primarily events-focused, distributing to various Charleston restaurants and hosting pop-ups with the truck. When everything came to a halt that spring due to the pandemic, Wong found a surprising opportunity to take stock. “We were incredibly lucky that we were still operating out of a commissary kitchen, and my husband (co-founder Jon David Harmon) wasn’t working for the company full-time yet,” Wong said. “I could just kind of roll into a ball and take the blows.”
Emerging from that initial lockdown, Wong took advantage of a suddenly-sparse calendar to reassess what Life Raft was all about. “Originally, we’d been doing a lot of scoops out of the truck, but I was never really excited about that,” she said. “I’d always wanted to get into novelties, but it seemed people didn’t quite get it.”
The pandemic, it turned out, created the perfect moment — and a hungry audience — for Wong’s creative vision. “We finally had the time to make these really interesting treats, and people responded,” she said. As Wong experimented with ingredients and textures, her double-take-worthy creations (like “ham sandwiches” on hyper-realistic brioche) were gaining traction. “We weren’t making things for Instagram, but they really took off there. Maybe because they were bright and captivating when times still felt pretty bad,” she added.
Wong was approached by Goldbelly that summer, the online marketplace for local, artisanal foods. Goldbelly’s co-founder had stumbled upon Not Fried Chicken and, stunned by the product, immediately got in touch. “When we started talking, I didn’t think we had the capacity for something like this,” Wong said. “But I knew I wanted to find the capacity.” Come October 2020, the partnership was in full swing, and Life Raft came to a nationwide audience, aided by additional distribution deals with Whole Foods and FreshDirect. After three years working from the SaltHouse Catering kitchen on James Island, one thing became clear: Wong needed more space.
In June 2021, Life Raft took over a portion of the former Paolo’s Gelato showroom in North Charleston, a 2,500-square-foot production space that the business quickly outgrew. Today, Life Raft claims more than half the warehouse, and employs a small but growing team of F&B veterans. All too familiar with the typical restaurant grind, Wong takes pride in creating a different kind of environment for her crew. “These are highly skilled, motivated people who truly love the work, but are just done with those settings,” she said. “We’re all tired of the F&B scene—endless hours, working the line.” It’s a refreshing shift with a four-day work week and high value on life outside of work; Courtesy and compassion are baked into the Life Raft ethos.
Even with the extra hands, churning out thousands of drumsticks each week is no simple feat. The team still works primarily by hand, though Wong admits this may not always be the case. “There are definitely days when we say to ourselves. We’ve got to get more automated than this,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a very specific process, and we haven’t found machinery that can imitate the motion of someone’s hand.”
While Not Fried Chicken production can feel like a well-oiled machine, Wong still finds time to play. Any one of her mind-boggling creations demands far more work than your average pint, but it’s worth it, she said. “I like a scoop as much as the next person, but I’d much rather eat a bar,” Wong added. “From the ice cream to the filling and shell, it feels like a little story, and I love telling stories with food.”
As far as what stories to tell, the pastry chef lets whimsy and nostalgia guide her, experimenting with molds and flavors that capture her imagination. The result? “TV dinners,” where gravy-smothered mashed potatoes are really peanut butter ice cream with caramel sauce, or marshmallow- and pistachio-studded strawberry ice cream masquerade as sliced mortadella. “Desserts don’t have to be pretentious or annoying, with someone lifting a dome or blowing smoke in your face,” Wong said. “Some things are just fun.”
At Life Raft, visual splendor (and the occasional optical illusion) doesn’t come at the cost of quality. “No one in their right mind would have food class as high as ours, but I refuse to give up on that,” she said. Life Raft uses grade-A milk from Lowcountry Creamery, as well as local, seasonal produce as available. “We try not to let form overtake function and flavor. If we’re using strawberries in something, it’s really going to taste like strawberry, even if it looks like ham.”
Some of Wong’s favorite projects have been commissions — the zanier, the better. This past spring, a Columbia couple contacted Life Raft about their vision for a nontraditional wedding cake. “They wanted a giant sub sandwich, but couldn’t find a deli to take it on. When they asked if we could make it out of ice cream, I was like, ‘Say no more. When do you need me to be there?’” Wong said.
With Life Raft’s growing profile, the pastry chef feels she’s finally found her tribe. “The people who think what we’re doing is weird just don’t matter anymore,” she said. But those who want a multi-foot ice cream “sandwich” for their wedding? That’s another story.
“The weirder the request, the more likely I am to say yes,” Wong said. “If you’re really weird, we’ll get each other.”
Though locals may have heard rumblings of a Life Raft brick-and-mortar, Wong said she’s still waiting for the right moment to make that leap. For now, the team is staying the course, and growing to keep up with a national craving for Not Fried Chicken. Still, Charlestonians get first dibs on the coveted creations — just duck into Renzo for the novelty du jour, Pink Bellies for a Yuzu Taco or Not Fried Chicken or look out for the mint green ice cream truck.
On a steamy summer day, an ice cream treat is a life raft indeed.
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