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Matters of Taste: Hallmarks of goodwill and resiliency: Locals help buoy the restaurant community

Matters of Taste: Hallmarks of goodwill and resiliency: Locals help buoy the restaurant community

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Finding stories of goodwill during such tentative times has not been difficult as communities have been supporting each other in newfound ways during the COVID-19 pandemic. The people behind these good deeds, however, have proven a little more difficult to pin down. They are busy, making positive strides in any way they can. When they sit down to share stories of comfort and compassion, they largely demure and talk about others.  Jamie Thousand, owner of Satchmo’s BBQ, is fond of saying, “No one loves Flagstaff more than Flagstaff.”

Like many of his fellow small business owners, Thousand received endless encouragement from others in the midst of lockdown. Weekly customers, who had forgone logging into Yelp under normal circumstances, wrote rave reviews and hopeful messages.

“There has been a challenge around every corner and curve balls thrown at us,” Thousand said, “and we adapt as quickly as possible.”

With owners nowhere near in the clear yet, and the hopeful summer boom ahead, the waters are uncharted. Planning is tenuous and preparation is dynamic, with more safety measures, more space, but less confidence.

Along the way, Zoom conference calls and text strands buoyed and informed restauranteurs. State, city and chamber members exchanged ideas on how to interpret loose re-opening guidelines and implement safe practices, like implementing the use of face shields over face masks to provide those with a hearing deficit the opportunity to continue lip reading. Scores of accepted human behaviors no one had previously second guessed needed to be considered, such as the potential risks posed by a self-serve soda station.

John Conley, owner of Salsa Brava and Fats Olives, coordinated a multi-party Zoom call to share ideas and exchange information on new protocols. Tinderbox Kitchen’s Kevin Heinonen, Oregano’s David Kennedy and Thousand began a discussion of vital topics, among those the issue of liability.

“Never before in my 32 years of cooking in this amazing mountain town have I witnessed such unification, a fellowship of sorts,” Conley said, “where restaurants united and embraced one another, when a true sense of ‘no one is left behind’ prevailed.”

The crisis brought forth clear priorities.

Jamie Drayton of Brandy’s Restaurant & Bakery has seen much grace from landlords and creditors in addition to patron shout-outs. Financial direction from a Foothills Bank representative was a great help as well.

“There is an underlying tone that we are all suffering together and want to bounce back together, which is palpable,” Drayton said.  

Firecreek Coffee Company Sales Manager Ian Holiday noted the steady stream of first-responders and front-line healthcare workers at their cafes before or after a shift. The coffee shop closed in early April for safety’s sake, but in order to continue supporting these workers, Holiday connected with Andrew Esmeier at Flagstaff Medical Center and sent bags of coffee to employees there.

“We were looking for ways to help support our community, and it was the perfect opportunity to share our coffee with the folks who are working day and night to keep our community safe and our loved ones alive,” Holiday said.

Wendy Kuek of Cedar House Coffee discovered kindness to be a bright silver lining in an unprecedented situation. After a temporary closure, a local church bought gift certificates from the small east Flagstaff shop, friends supported bake sales and a customer even made masks for Kuek’s family. Staff stuck by her, vendors made supportive social media videos and landlords came to their aid.

Cedar House has paid the kindnesses forward, with Kuek sharing the axiom, “We are here because of our community, and in turn, they motivate us to keep pushing ourselves to rise above the challenges.”

Georgette Quintero, owner of Alejandro’s Mexican Food, which has a longstanding contract feeding school children in town, understood the closures could mean hunger for some families. As a 14-year veteran teacher, Quintero coordinated donations to provide food for every child who needed it. It stretched the Alejandro’s funds thin, but Quintero said she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Anytime a child shows up and we’re open, they leave with a meal,” she said.

Larger companies also supported local eateries. Nestle Purina PetCare Company has been purchasing meals three times a week in a show of faith. Dawn Graham, partner at Tortilla Lady, twice supplied lunches for 300 employees.

“It’s [either] a fire we’re putting out or good news every day,” Graham said of the wild ride. Tortilla Lady has also donated cases of tortillas, beans and tamales to food banks. “It’s a ‘goodness of our hearts’ time.”

For Chef Lisa Dahl, the trials have been enormous. The Sedona-based chef has been navigating no less than five restaurants doing curbside pickup, in addition to personnel issues. She also recently launched Dahl-to-Door Provisions, a service that delivers her addictive dishes nationally.

“It was a push to keep people working and supply the community,” Dahl said.

A full line of soups, sauces and comfort foods gained sales momentum, and a steady stream of reorders stamped approval on the venture.

A little farther south, Brenda Clousten of COLT Grill in Cottonwood, who opened a second location in Prescott Valley with others in the works, found support in her regular customers.

“COLT is a comforting, homey place that’s found its way into peoples’ hearts. Knowing we are overcoming the effects of the pandemic makes them feel that they can, too,” she said.

Like other restaurant owners, she is supremely grateful for staff and has a strategic, energetic outlook.

There is no new normal for the service industry yet, but together all things are possible.

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