Community is Key
For many local businesses, responding to changing directives from governments and medical experts regarding COVID-19 presented a number of new challenges. For RDC alum and local restaurateur, Rieley Kay (Hospitality & Tourism, 2010), whose business mission begins with fostering community, responding to these challenges has been hard. Here, he shares the story of how his team has navigated this incredible situation for his Lacombe restaurants, Cilantro and Chive and Moe’s Pizza Co., and how the support of community has shone a light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, just this week, Cilantro and Chive was voted Best Pub/Restaurant in the Alberta Small Brewers Association’s AB Beer Awards, for the third year in a row!
We made the decision to close our doors for dine-in guests early on in the COVID pandemic. I say "we," as decisions are made among our management and ownership team. We are all in this together and every one of their opinions are important to the day-to-day operations here.
We started by planning to reduce capacity in our restaurants, but the situation evolved very quickly. Over a weekend, schools were closed, and we knew we had to do more. On Monday afternoon, we closed our doors to regroup and to set up shop as a pick-up and delivery location only. The response we received from our community was overwhelming. We were only hoping to cover wages but the response was so much more.
As you know, every day the risks have grown and the cases have continued to rise. We have since closed entirely. Our team has been able to take some time to themselves and look after their needs and their families, ensuring they are doing their best to help flatten the curve.
The decision to close was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make. The thoughts and feelings of failing... uncertainty... being scared... All of it is out of our control. Out of my control. I couldn't protect the 60 plus people who we call a team. It sucks. The comfort comes in knowing that we are all in this together. I know that many other business owners are in the same boat, and this situation has brought us closer together. It has put our priorities into perspective. Quickly.
In the past, when I’ve thought about the worst case scenario for our restaurants, my mind has always gone to physical problems. A fire. A flood. Structural. Personal harm. I had never thought of an invisible challenge. I come in and everything is there: The coolers are there. The oven is there. The tables, the chairs, the beer fridge is all there. We can touch it all. We can use it all. But we can't at the same time. That is the biggest challenge to overcome right now.
Kim, my wife and business partner, left her full time job last year to work in the restaurant. She has taken on a role of community relations. She sets up the conversations with the charities, the community engagement piece, researches events and a lot of the back-end administrative work that keeps things moving along as smooth as they can be. With three small kids at home now, Kim has been able to transition to stay at home with our little ones and do some work from home as well. It hasn't been the easiest, but we are in the fortunate position to be able to continue to doing what we do.
We are now planning to reopen, and we are putting the finishing touches on our new menus and new systems. Obviously, these plans are fluid as our current situation evolves. But, with the time we have now, we’re able to implement online-ordering and other back-end systems. We have been able to look at our pricing, our suppliers and our products to ensure that we are able to offer the best to our guests. We’ve put our values on paper and created better processes to tackle this current challenge, but also, moving forward. While both restaurants operate independently of each other, the morals and the values are the same: We always want to ensure the safety and security of our team, our guests and our community.
I know that we will get through this together. Knowing the organizations that are in our community, hearing the stories of their successes and their challenges, I know that we can overcome what we have in front of us right now. The world will be a different place, but we will adapt and evolve as we need to. Seeing businesses change and adapt to offer support for our front line workers, or those who are vulnerable in our community and still doing it with the same passion and drive, helps me know that we are better together and that we will get through this.
My family also gives me hope, and knowing that there are many other families out there going through the same thing that we are. We are all adapting as best we can. Coming home to see three small faces filled with excitement to tell me about their day, show me what they have been working on and genuinely ask me about my day, gives me the drive to keep doing what we can to ensure they have the best future ahead of them.
Seeing posts from our team and their families, knowing they are doing what they can to help and support each other, gives me the hope and drive to get things back on track so that we can get them back to doing what they LOVE. It isn't easy right now for anyone. We are better together!
Collaborating to support community organizations
Cilantro and Chive’s community connectedness has provided the opportunity to raise more than $60,000 over 3 years for local charities. They’ve also created some unreal burgers with ingredients like Granny Smith apple slices, gummy eggs, PB&J, and hot wings! Guest chefs collaborate with the Cilantro and Chive team to create a unique Burger of the Month, and the restaurant donates $2 from the sale of each burger to a charity of the guest chef’s choice. Here, Rieley Kay shares the origin story of this fun and creative campaign that has made a real difference in our community.
Our Burger of the Month kind of just happened. Laurie MacIntosh, a local kindergarten teacher, invited me to come and read a story to her class for National Literacy Day. I responded with an enthusiastic “HECK YEAH!” and then realized kids are incredibly honest and I better not screw this story up or they'll hold me accountable. I stressed about it for a while. Weird right? Anyway, she had picked a book called Hamburger Heaven, which is about Pinky Pig and her employment at a local diner. Business was slow and her hours were being cut, so she took the initiative to create a new burger menu. She created and advertised her new menu to rave reviews. Ultimately she was able to keep her job and with her new raise, *spoiler alert* she was able to afford a new clarinet.
After the story was done, the kids created their very own burger with a sheet of paper. Their imaginations ran wild! Cheese, eggs, gummy bears, spaghetti, Chinese food and even mud found its way onto some of the kids’ imaginary burger creations. At the end of my time there, Mrs. Mac gave me the booklet of their creations and they sent me on my way.
It was such a fun morning full of imagination. I sat down and had a look through their creations before starting the rest of my day, and some of their ideas sounded pretty good. We created a burger from some of their ideas, and it was really good! We had a winner, and we decided to put it on our menu for the month of February. I went back to the class to let them know and to tell them that we would donate $2 from every burger sold to a charity of their choosing. These kids, 5 and 6 years old, decided to donate to the funds to our local food bank. They also raised money and collected dry goods through the month. In March, they took their proceeds to the food bank with cheque in hand. It was absolutely incredible!
Half way through the month of February, we knew we needed to continue this idea and we haven't stopped since. Thirty-eight months in and we are still amazed by the support we receive for this campaign. Along with our Ice Cream Sandwich Program and other similar initiatives, we have raised over $60,000 for local charities and organizations in our community. It is crazy to think that this all started with an amazing lady, some little imaginations and a dream!
When we started the Guest Chef's Burger of the Month, it was about creating new and epic burgers. While that is still part of it, getting to know our guest chefs, their passions and the organizations they choose has given us a greater understanding of our community. We have been privileged to meet the faces behind the scenes at these organizations and what they do, and the challenges they face. We would have never known some of these organizations were there, but we sure are thankful they are there to help support those in our community that need them and rely on their services.