Published March 20th, 2020 at 1:00 PM
It’s been a week like no other in Kansas City.
Restaurant and hospitality industry workers are reeling, and there is no telling how they will fare when we get to the other side of the coronavirus pandemic.
But chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, distillers, artisan food makers and more are not giving up: They are fighting for their passions, their livelihood and their community.
You can help them out, if you can, by ordering take-out as often as you can and buying gift certificates to use in the future. You can also donate time or money to Harvesters the Community Food Bank, which has seen demand surge 20% in a week. And, whether your plate is full or your cup is half empty, be kind.
Last Friday night, Danielle Lehman began texting friends in the Kansas City restaurant industry about the possible effects of COVID-19.
The host of the Open Belly Podcast feared the mom-and-pop, immigrant-owned restaurants that she routinely features were in for a rough ride. Many she contacted said they were working on ways to switch up their service style to curbside delivery.
Lehman volunteered to start a website. She began with a list of 25 restaurants. In less than a week, Curbside KC has become the go-to place for to-go information, listing more than 1,000 restaurants, breweries, distillers and liquor stores for consumers who want to support their favorites.
“I was expecting it to slow down, but it hasn’t,” says Lehman, who is running the database solo. “It’s crazy how critical this tool has become…If this continues to be a long-term service offering, we’d have to scale this up.”
While chefs and restaurants strain to keep up with changing government regulations and the most updated best practices issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “people are kind of scrambling to see what consumers want right now,” Lehman said.
Dining seems decidedly less casual. At Bay Boy Specialty Sandwiches, business is bullish and they are selling out of the Dutch-crunch sammies. Meanwhile, finer dining, sit down restaurants that rely on ambiance have pivoted to delivery, sometimes offering a la carte items, in other cases shifting to family style meal options. The Restaurant at 1900, for example, has remade itself into 1900 at Home.
New to use: In conjunction with Square One Small Business Services, Lehman will host a Virtual Event about Curbside Pickup and Best Practices for Restaurants, 4-5:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 22.
J. Rieger & Co. opened an expansive new entertainment venue built around whiskey in the East Bottoms last summer. Revelers christened a 40-foot adult slide and were treated to free cocktails and fireworks to celebrate the historic brand.
Now the company is pumping out hand sanitizer as fast as they can.
“Our first instinct was cocktails. That’s what we do, and we do it well,” says marketing and events manager Lucy Rieger. “Our to-go has been wildly successful, and that’s been awesome.”
But then she received an email from a woman who works in a nursing facility who was desperately seeking hand sanitizer, a product that has all but disappeared from store shelves.
“It’s terrifying when a hospital is calling a distillery to produce alcohol for sanitizing,” Rieger said.
The distillery, which has nearly 100 employees, quickly switched gears to become what Rieger, who is six-months pregnant and was labeling the first batch while on the phone, calls a “hand-sanitizing factory.”
The distillery stocks over-proof gin for cleaning, so armed with a recipe from the World Health Organization and a few tips shared by fellow distillers in Seattle, the company began making sanitizer on Wednesday and distributing on Thursday.
J. Rieger & Co. is supplying the sanitizer at no cost to institutions in need, including Children’s Mercy Hospital, the Kansas City Transit Authority and the Kansas City Fire Department. More than 100 regional agencies have reached out in search of sanitizer.
“We plan to do this as long as needed,” Rieger said. “We hope the Purells of the world catch up. We don’t necessarily want to be in the hand sanitizer business.”
The J. Rieger & Co. Gin Sanitizer is 72.2% alcohol; anything over 60% is considered antibacterial. The most difficult part of going into the sanitizer business has been finding bottles to fill. Lucy Rieger has been hitting up every craft store in town and heard from a man in Lee’s Summit willing to donate 2,000 bottles to the cause. The company also had to order glycerin, an emulsifier.
The cost for consumers is pay-what-you-can, with a suggested price of $5 for 2-ounce bottles and $30 for 2-liter bottles. Sales are limited to five bottles per customer.
“This is by no means coming close to making up for normal revenue,” Rieger said, “but it’s something to keep our employees busy.”
And the sanitizer bottles include labels with the Rieger logo.
“The world may be ending,” Rieger joked, “but we’re keeping this on brand.”
If you go: The distillery is located at 2700 Guinotte Ave., Kansas City, Missouri. But due to an extremely high volume of traffic on the first day of sales, police will be helping to regulate traffic flow. All roads other than Guinotte will be closed. Take Front Street or East 3rd Street to Guinotte. Sales start at 11 a.m. and will go until supplies are sold out. Sales are first-come, first-serve. Please stay in your vehicle. A tweet from the distillery pleaded for customers to be civil. “…And for the love of god, stop yelling and cursing at our staff. We are doing everything we can….”
To place orders for to-go cocktail kits (ice included), bottles of spirits, KC Canning Co. shrubs, Andre’s Chocolates or Savory Addiction nuts, and sandwiches with chips. Order 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and allow 30-45 minutes for pickup. Order after 8 p.m. will be ready the next day.
Beer doesn’t grow on trees. You can’t pull it out of the ground. But imagine a farmer’s market full of beer you can drive your car through.
The idea is to bring microbreweries in eastern Jackson County together for one-stop shopping so beer lovers can support their favorite taprooms, which are now closed until May 15.
Lamken put the call out and nine breweries jumped on board. “Beer people are some of the best people,” he said. “The KC beer community rallies as a team, that’s for damn sure.”
If the event is a success, Lamken plans to expand with more local brewers. He’s already seen a brewery in Arkansas say they are mobilizing to try the same type of event.
In terms of the legality of pop-up beer sales, the event has the green light. “The State of Missouri is bending over backwards to help us do it,” said Lamken, who spent four hours on the phone to get clearance from appropriate agencies and paid a $10 catering fee.
Breweries are suffering along with others in the hospitality industry, but they’re also helping one another get through the challenges. Diametric Brewing gave its crowler stock to Alma Mader Brewing so they could keep selling beer. Crane invited Diametric to use its canning machines, a huge time-saver.
“We’re all trying to find a way to stay open. My motto is ‘we win as a team and lose as a team.’ I’m not going to be selfish about crowlers or a bag of grain if someone needs it,” Lamken said.
Lamken personally hopes to sell enough beer (tips also accepted) to keep his brewery’s taproom manager – the only employee with a paycheck — for as long as possible.
And if you’re wondering about the beer supply out there, well, so far so good. Diametric Brewing has two full tanks and a bit of grain stored up.
If you go: “Stay in the car and be patient. This is our first time. We hope to get the kinks worked out in the future,” Lamken said. The event starts at noon and continues until 8 p.m., or until sellout. Diametric Brewing has a loop drive that should facilitate easy access. An electronic board will have a list of beer choices sold a la carte by the can, 4- or 6-pack and crowlers, so mixing and matching between breweries is encouraged.
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Among her many food-related pursuits, she is the co-host of the Chew Diligence podcast and works with Harvesters the Community Food Bank. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.