One day Bluestem, which Megan runs with husband and fellow chef Colby Garrelts, was celebrating its fifteenth anniversary, with regulars dropping in to toast the couple's culinary journey. The next day, the rug was pulled out from under them as the governor ordered a lockdown of all businesses. However, top of mind for Megan was her staff's wellbeing.
“Keeping insurance intact was my number one priority, especially during a healthcare-related crisis,” she said. "Our staff is extremely important to the sustainability of our companies and without a team we cannot do what we love,” said Megan.
In an industry where the daily grind can compromise the mental and physical wellbeing of staff, health is always a primary concern. But in a country like the US, where basic healthcare can cost an arm and a leg, it was doubly important for Megan to secure her team's health insurance. Across the Garrelts' three restaurants, there were immediate problems of fridges full of freshly delivered ingredients, bills, rent and wages. Yet for Megan, the health and safety of her staff came first - she just wasn’t sure how she could cover it financially when the lockdown news broke.
“We knew there would be some kind of restrictions but to hear it like that the next morning took us by surprise,” she said. “The best way I can describe it to people is that it was like a car accident. There was no time to brace for impact. You’re done until further notice. And when you have people’s livelihoods in your hands you start to panic.”
Luckily, Megan became aware of the James Beard Relief Fund. As the recipient of the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest, she is well connected to the organisation and keeps up with all the news. With her application for a grant of $15,000 relief successful, she decided to spend the majority of it on healthcare insurance for her staff.
“When we reviewed payables we prioritised invoices due and other overhead expenses. We were extremely fortunate that our landlord gave us 2 months of rent relief which assisted us greatly to allow for our grant funds to be used where we first needed them to go.
“Rent, vendors, and utilities, in our opinion, could wait 30-60 days until we had a clearer picture of what was going to happen, and as we got organised financially with the shutdowns."
Megan's creation of a cohesive ecosystem of landlord, restaurant and suppliers working together was an example of excellent leadership in a crisis. The aim was to support the staff and the business through a tough time, with good communication and the best of intentions.
“We reached out to all vendors very early in closure, to ensure them we would be circling back once we reopened to follow up on payment plans for invoices due, which expanded our vendor client trust and bought us some time," she explained.
“Never have we ever had to furlough our entire team, and as an extension of our care & loyalty to our staff, healthcare was a number one expense to maintain.”
Thanks to the Garrelts' strong leadership, and with help from the James Beard Foundation, the three restaurants in the group are now open. Megan says that the atmosphere is tense - people definitely want to go out and enjoy themselves, but they’ve been under a huge amount of stress recently.
“We’ve had a couple of fistfights already,” she says. “People are on edge. They’re tired of being pent up, and when they go out they’re tired of being told what to do.”
It’s a very different environment to operate in than just a few months ago, and yet restaurants seem to be put under a lot more pressure to get everything right than other businesses.
“I feel like restaurants have to carry the torch in being perfect throughout this pandemic and we’re not,” she said. “I’m not a medical professional, I’m a restaurant owner. The other businesses that are open, they’re not held to the same account as restaurants, and restaurants have always been doing their best in terms of hygiene and keeping customers safe.
“It’s a little frustrating when you look at grocery stores, for example. They don’t have anything like the levels of control we have. You don’t know how many people have been through the aisle and picked up every piece of fruit, whereas with a restaurant we can limit touch-points. We don’t have people walking into our walk-in freezer touching our ingredients.”
Despite all the challenges, Bluestem has survived the crisis so far. While so many restaurants have succumbed to the coronavirus crisis, Bluestem, with its strong leadership and a helping hand from the James Beard Foundation Relief Fund, has a healthy chance of survival.
S.Pellegrino, with a donation of $1 million, was the biggest donor to the fund that has to date disbursed $4 million to independently owned restaurants around the country. This month, we'll be profiling some of the restaurants that benefitted from the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund grant as a snapshot of how the coronavirus pandemic affected the US restaurant industry. The series will focus on those who, even before this pandemic, were operating with exciting, new and innovative business concepts, making up the rich and diverse fabric of a hospitality industry that came together in a time of need.
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