Published April 16th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Fill in the blank: Adversity is… “the parent of virtue,” “the fuel of greatness,” “the first path to truth,” “the best teacher” or “the crucible of greatness.”
For the restaurant and hospitality industry, the saying “adversity is the mother of invention” has never been more apt. Over the last month, Kansas City’s small, local restaurants have been remarkable in their resilience and innovation a month into a mandatory COVID-19 stay-at-home order that closed all dine-in operations.
Flatland decided to sample some of the most creative strategies:
Not every Kansas City restaurateur gets a shoutout during a pandemic from “The Last Man on Earth” star Will Forte.
“You in KC? My bud Beth for @succotashme-great restaurant still open for pickup-is doing something cool. Go to succotashkcmo.com & select “pay it forward” – every $10 donated sends a meal to a badass healthcare worker on the front line at Children’s Mercy & Truman Med Center!”
Earlier this week Beth Barden’s popular Hospital Hill breakfast-brunch-lunch spot Succotash converted its service from curbside takeout menu exclusively to a pay-it-forward model. Managing the inventory to serve even an abbreviated menu — and the worry that one misstep could make a customer or employee sick — made her rethink the restaurant’s style of service.
“I’m driven through the desire to protect as many people as I can and feed as many people as I can,” she says. “But every decision I have made is a group consensus.”
A core staff of eight have decided to go forward while the remaining employees chose to furlough to avoid infecting others, such as their elderly parents or a newborn baby.
Barden has never had investors or partners. She opened her restaurant 19 years ago on a shoestring with a $25 consumer-grade electric stove and mismatched furniture and dishware.
“I’ve always been cheap and cheerful,” she says.
Her scrappy attitude and a pre-COVID-19 passion for providing a safe space for her employees has allowed her to respond in the way she thinks best, but she applauds those in the hospitality industry who have adopted other models of service.
“So many people are doing remarkable things, but what (the best ideas) have in common is that they are all people focused,” she says while ticking off efforts by Crossroads Community Kitchen, Black Sheep, Ravenous and Crane Brewing Co.
Barden is disturbed by leaders who have been “willfully ignorant” about closing down churches and she worries about the soaring need for food assistance.
“The first step to civil unrest is hunger,” she says.
Meanwhile, she’s dreaming of hugging people again and suggests buying stamps to keep the post office afloat so that everyone can vote by mail come November, if need be.
“I just hope people are taking the time to evaluate the kind of life they want after this,” she says.
Normally, Brett Atkinson is a one-man show operating his popular stationary food truck Wilma’s Good Food as an adjunct to the taproom at Crane Brewing Co., a locally owned brewery in Raytown.
But in mid-March Atkinson began to worry his solo-employee model couldn’t adequately serve the public safely. He was juggling food, money and credit cards while tending to a cold – and all the while washing his hands so often his skin was cracking and starting to bleed.
“I had this ethical dilemma…,” Atkinson says. “It was just exhausting to operate in a 100 percent safe manner. And for what? A few bucks? I decided I’m not going to risk the health of myself or my patrons.”
Atkinson turned to Operation BBQ Relief, a Kansas City-based non-profit that deploys to natural disaster sites offering hot meals to those in need. He had deployed most recently after a hurricane in Florida.
Soon he was working a stint at Food Truck Central, a food truck commissary kitchen in the West Bottoms that is serving as a command post during Operation BBQ Relief’s first Kansas City deployment.
The operation fed 500 homeless veterans a day and even fed some meals to the 1,500 employees at the Kansas City Police Department. At the end of two weeks, Atkinson handed off the baton to Plowboys Barbeque and stayed employed doing tile work for a friend.
Starting Saturday, Atkinson will be back running the commissary kitchen as part of the Restaurant Relief Program operated by Operation BBQ Relief. The goal is to serve 2,500 meals a day. This week Sporting Kansas City announced the organization would help distribute 1,000 of those meals.
Atkinson is “vigilant” when asked about his role on the front lines fighting against what he calls “an invisible enemy.” While at work, he wears a mask, gloves and constantly sanitizes surfaces, but he caught himself without gloves at a toll booth.
To avoid possible spread, he got out of his car and donned his gloves to pay the toll, then placed the gloves and change in a plastic bag to be sanitized when he returned home. He wishes others would take coronavirus more seriously. When he pulled into a gas station earlier this week, he observed no one had gloves on to avoid possible contamination.
“I see too many idiots in this world. People not being responsible,” Atkinson says. “It’s always been a problem, and now it’s serious…I treat every surface as if it is contaminated and every person as if they are sick.”
Atkinson says he is working too hard to be sad, mad or depressed about what his chosen profession might look like on the other side of COVID-19. He considers himself financially stable right now because he doesn’t have rent, a lease or employees. But he worries that the economy may be “such a wreck” that many mom-and-pops like him may never reopen.
John Kennebeck used to laugh at the insurance company’s pandemic exclusion clause in his insurance policy. “When I was signing off…I chuckled at that,” says the owner of 3Halves Brewing Co. in Liberty.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the brewery, which opened in September on the city’s historic square, has focused on new styles of beer sold in crowlers and, soon, in 12-ounce cans that can be sold as six-packs. Online ordering is encouraged, and customers can also pick up Jousting Pigs BBQ curbside seven days a week.
3Halves Brewing Co. has bundled the crowlers with #supportlocal t-shirts by local design company Made Mobb, and included a charity, with proceeds going to Feed the Kids Northland. The brewery is also participating in “We Can”, a Saturday beer farmers market hosted by Diametric Brewing Co. in Lee’s Summit to help all local breweries stay afloat.
“It’s been adapting and overcoming for sure, trying to think of different ways to stay open,” says head brewer Rodney Beagle.
“We’re not necessarily trying to make money. We’re just trying to spend it efficiently,” Kennebeck adds.
So far, there have been few sourcing glitches affecting their ability to brew, other than yeast. The commercial company that makes its yeast initially shut down but has since reopened and the 3Halves Brewing Co. order was in “the hour that they opened.”
Fans can expect to try a raspberry sherbet sour in the next few weeks. But another regular brew, the Civic Duty (4.5% ABV), might better reflect the state of mind Kennebeck and Beagle are in during these strange and challenging days.
“We got into this not just for the beer but for the community,” Beagle says of craft brewers, who have been banding together throughout the city to help one another stay open. “We’ve kinda been practicing for our whole career for something like this…(and that) philanthropic mindset is completely getting to shine at this moment.”
Chrissy Nucum is a chef and owner of a mom-and-pop Filipino restaurant KC Pinoy in the West Bottoms. But she is thankful that Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucus shut dining rooms across the metro.
Nucum has diabetes, which means she has a compromised immune system. Her physician told her she should stay at home to avoid possible coronavirus infection and complications.
“I think this whole pandemic, it brings to the forefront what Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were talking about with universal health care,” she says.
Nucum considers herself lucky. She has health care, but “a lot of people in this country have health care but can’t afford the out-of-pocket.”
To stay healthy, Nucum has been taking walks with her dogs for exercise, but she is not getting anywhere close to the 24,000 steps a day she typically logs daily in her restaurant kitchen.
Nucum shut her restaurant down on March 18. After a tough January and February, she paid her employees their last full check, liquidated her inventory and shut down her popular Filipino restaurant.
She has three full-time employees besides herself, and she was in the process of hiring two seasonal food truck employees.
Last week Nucum was one of the chefs featured in the successful popup event hosted by Little Asia KC Pop-Up, a group of Asian chefs coming together to create curbside takeout menus featuring food from Thailand, Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.
“It was good to have something to take our minds off the unknown and just cook our food and put smiles on other people’s faces,” Nucum says.
Nucum focused on her native country’s Spanish traditions, creating a menu of beef stew with potatoes, carrots and green olives, deep-fried pork belly and flan.
“I wanted it to be a comforting menu,” she says.
She’s making it through April but things “get dicey” in May. She’s currently contemplating ways to re-open KC Pinoy with no-contact pickup, offering cooked and frozen Filipino menu items.
The biggest hurdle to restarting is that she is off the beaten path. Only The Campground remains open, so there is little traffic coming her way. On the bright side, there’s no rush hour traffic to deal with when she leaves her kitchen to head home to the Northland.
Nucum remains hopeful she can continue to adapt and figure out a way to keep her restaurant open.
“If there is any industry that can adapt to something, the service industry is made for it,” she says.
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 Network. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.