St. Louis neighborhoods rally to support local restaurants with dinner series
“Pivoting” was an important catchphrase in the restaurant industry this year. Chefs and business owners got creative to continue serving customers during the pandemic. In a handful of communities across St. Louis, restaurant diners have come together to support the industry with a hub of their own: neighborhood orders and deliveries from brick-and-mortar restaurants.
In late April, weeks after restaurants in the St. Louis area shut down due to the pandemic, Three Kings Public House owner Derek Deaver received a call from Chris Harris, then regional vice president of finance at Glazer’s Distributors. Harris told Deaver that the neighbors had begun coordinating with local food trucks in a safe, socially detached environment for monthly visits to his Chesterfield subdivision. There was only one problem: Three Kings doesn’t have a food truck.
“So we said, ‘Why don’t we bring food to each of your houses?’” Deaver recalls. “[Harris] said this was a great idea so he got us thinking about neighborhoods and the best way for brick and mortar to visit neighborhoods. “
Harris connected Deaver and his team, including bar manager Tara Byerley, to his neighbors who had organized food truck nights. Three Kings prepared orders for about 50 households on their first visit, Byerley says, which was an overwhelming success. This model also appealed to local residents who did not have to queue or leave their homes to enjoy hot, fresh food from a local restaurant.
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, Byerley focused on running fundraising drives for schools in the area and delivering food to hospitals for frontline workers. After the success of the first delivery in Chesterfield, she took over the leadership of the new initiative, which also included assigning orders by district in order to efficiently plan deliveries with her team.
“While [Three Kings] was closed, that was one of my main focuses: trying to help other people with this, “says Byerley.” So hospitals, schools and then neighborhoods help. There are many families who are still too scared to go out in public so the delivery system for the neighborhoods is great. “
From there, Bylerley began emailing other neighborhood associations and community improvement districts to see if they would be interested in ordering meals from Three Kings.
After hearing about the events in Harris’ subdivision, Deaver reached out to Christie Schweiss, a longtime friend who lives in the Hi-Pointe / DeMun area.
“Christie is a great doer,” says Deaver. “I said, ‘Christie, can you help me with where you live? ‘So Christie organized a Three Kings Night. We probably worked 12 to 15 neighborhoods throughout the process – and Christie took this to the next level. She has new restaurants every Wednesday. “
Like the monthly series in Chesterfield, Sweat developed a plan to deliver groceries to their community. Schweiss called the Wednesday events dining-in and has been holding a weekly event with local restaurants, food trucks and brewpubs since April 29th. Schweiss said she had expressly decided to host the events on Wednesdays, as this is often a slow day for restaurants.
Schweiss and board member Janet Brundick email residents every Sunday with instructions for Wednesday dinner. The emails are thoughtful and usually include descriptions of the restaurant, its owners and menu items, as well as some photos of food. On Wednesdays, orders are delivered between 5:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
“My neighbors recommend restaurants, I accept their suggestions and put them on a rolling list. Then I contact the restaurants and find out whether they are ready to work with our platform, ”says Schweiss. “I try to involve everyone – I want it to be neighborhood cooperation.”
This dialogue with their neighbors has also resulted in more diversity and inclusion among the restaurants featured in the series. The collaboration has resulted in more black-owned and colored-owned restaurants being supported. According to Schweiss, up to 34 households have participated every week since the end of April, which corresponds to more than 400 orders so far. The series featured a number of restaurants including the Sultan Mediterranean Restaurant, Sauce on the Side, Krab Kingz, Little Saigon, Adams Smokehouse, Poke Munch, and Wing Ding Dong (a new ghost kitchen by Dave and Kara Bailey who live nearby) . Sidney Street Cafe, Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co. and many more.
“People try so many different new restaurants and look forward to it,” says Schweiss. “You will see me on the street and say, ‘Hey, what’s next week?'”
What was particularly important, says Schweiss, is to see, in addition to supporting local restaurants, how the series has met with approval from its neighbors. For example, in addition to sweat, a married couple used the Wednesday dinner to get in touch with their adult daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. “He places an order every week,” says Schweiss. “He waits for the food to come and then drives it over to you, comes home and eats his dinner. It’s really cute. “
Supporting local restaurants is personal for Schweiss, whose brother Matt Schweiss owns two restaurants in the St. Louis area: Cafe Telegraph in South County and Cafe Smok N Pi in De Soto. The latter opened just two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing her brother to temporarily close the restaurant and pivot operations.
“The whole reason I started doing it was because I saw how it affected my brother,” says Schweiss, “and I wanted to make sure that the restaurants in my community were supported.”
This is what the series has achieved for local restaurant owners. Kevin Nashan, head chef at Sidney Street Cafe and Peacemaker, first heard about the weekly dinner series in DeMun from Pi Pizzeria Chris Sommers, who had worked with Schweiss on the Wednesday Dining-In series.
Nashan has since participated in the Sweat series as well as neighborhoods like Hillcrest, a community that has households in Clayton, the city of St. Louis and beyond, who commission both of its restaurants.
Some of the gatherings resembled food truck events, with neighbors picking up orders from Nashan’s team at a specific location in a subdivision within a certain time frame, while other orders were delivered door-to-door by restaurant staff.
“It was a unique way to expand your arm to customers who really don’t want to get out, and you can do it safely,” says Nashan. “You can also employ more people, so it’s a win-win situation. In many of these parts of the city you can do them in dead ends where 60 or 70 people pick up in a window of 30 to 40 minutes. It’s really fun and a little bit social too; it breaks up the monotony. “
Nashan says he’s worked with friends and local restaurant owners on a variety of neighborhood dinner series over the past few months, including Gerard Craft from Niche Food Group, Qui Tran from Nudo House and Mai Lee, and Michael and Tara Gallina from Vicia and Winslow’s Table.
The model was not without its challenges, however, notes Nashan. Much like the restaurants that changed their menus in March to serve a more portable cuisine, Nashan says neighborhood events are meticulous and thoughtful from a chef’s perspective.
“They’re hoping to have a good product because it’s hard to get food from the restaurant to some of these places,” says Nashan. “It’s a completely different game and very easy to screw up. Not everything is going well, so it needs a lot of thought. We want to offer a great product at an affordable price that we stand behind. “
Deaver says a dinner program has also debuted in his Claverach Park neighborhood, including meals with Three Kings. As much as Deaver loved dining from a business owner’s point of view, he was also happy to be residents and patrons of other local restaurants, including Nashan’s Spots.
“It was so great for business,” says Deaver. “We already have a few thousand dollars in sales [the meals are delivered]. And then, on the other hand, all of my neighbors say, “Oh my god. We get peacemakers delivered. ‘Tomorrow night my neighborhood is hosting a socially distant concert with food from Vicia. “
Deaver and Nashan believe this model will be sustainable even in winter, perhaps especially for restaurants without a terrace or outside dining. “I think when it gets colder people will use it even more,” says Nashan. “That is my hope. I think this is a really good tool. I just want everyone to win and customers to be happy. ”
Changing seasons can help these dinner events evolve, but some have already started to expand. Although the idea for the dining-in on Wednesdays was originally intended to support stationary restaurants, Schweiss has expanded its series to include a food truck, Havana’s Cuisine, and take-and-bake pizzas from The URB after 20 dinners were held – Schweiss hopes that the series can serve as a model for other parts of the city on Wednesdays and at a socially distant block party last Saturday to support local restaurants.
“I would like to see how other parts of the city do this,” says Schweiss. “The most important thing is to support the restaurants. They have always given back to the community, and now it is time to make sure we give them back. “
For more information or to book a restaurant evening near you, you can reach Schweiss at [email protected]