Hallmarks of Goodwill and Resiliency: Locals help buoy the restaurant community

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, June 2020

Written by Gail G. Collins

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 talk about others. Jamie Thousand, owner of Satchmo’s BBQ, is fond of saying, “No one loves Flagstaff more than Flagstaff.”   That’s a strong statement about the real character of our mountain community.

Like many of his fellow small business owners, he received endless encouragement from others in the midst of lockdown. Weekly customers, who had forgone logging into Yelp when business was thriving, 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. More processes, 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 face shields over face masks to counter asthma or a hearing deficit to continue lip reading. Scores of accepted human behaviors no one had previously second-guessed needed to be considered, such as the potential risks of 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 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 church bought gift certificates from the small east Flagstaff shop, friends supported bake sales and a customer 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 kindesses forward and 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, who 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 Alejandro’s funds thin, but Quintero 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 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,” said Graham of the wild ride. Tortilla Lady has 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 owners, she is supremely grateful for staff and shares a strategic, energetic outlook.

There is no new normal yet, but together all things are possible. NAMLM