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Prairie Grass Cafe: Making Community Connections in the Midst of COVID

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Editor’s note: The series “Resilience and Reinvention” shines the light on the innovations of organizations in industries decimated by the pandemic. These adaptive organizations have retooled their business model and redirected their workforce to keep their doors open and workers employed.

It takes a community to save a restaurant — a community of customers, employees, fellow chefs and suppliers from around the corner and around the world.

Tapping into community is how Sarah Stegner, chef and owner of Prairie Grass Cafe in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, has kept her farm-to-table restaurant alive through a year of COVID-related shutdowns.

“You have to listen to people, you have to be open, you have to have conversations,” she said. “Restaurants are part of a community, and that community is with our customers, it’s with the farmers, it’s with other chefs and all of those people staying as connected as possible and really engaged gives you the access and the information that you need in order to do your job. We are not isolated individuals working in these industries. We are a community, and as long as we remain connected, we should have a platform for success.”

For many restaurants, though, success was elusive in 2020. The National Restaurant Association, in its “2021 State of the Restaurant Industry” report, said more than 110,000 eating and drinking establishments closed for business, either temporarily or for good, as of Dec. 1, 2020. The eating and drinking sector finished the year nearly 2.5 million jobs below its pre-pandemic level, the association said.

The Illinois Restaurant Association year-end industry review was equally gloomy. The organization expected at least 20% of restaurants in the state to never reopen. The sector lost 31,000 jobs in November alone, the association said, the most of any state in the nation.

Stegner and fellow chef George Bumbaris founded Prairie Grass 16 years ago, after working together at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Chicago. Their restaurant was successful and doing well at the start of 2020, Stegner said. Offering lunch, dinner and a bar, it could seat up to 180 people and hosted frequent events and parties in a private room. It had 44 employees, equally split between the kitchen staff and the servers, bussers and managers who worked the front of the house. Carry-outs were a small part of the business.

Then in mid-March, Illinois’ governor took aggressive action against the coronavirus, issuing the first in what would become a series of stay-at-home orders. Prairie Grass closed even before the March order, committing to health over profit. “If they were going to shut it, we were going to do it right away,” Stegner said.

She turned to what she calls her “three pillars of contact” — a weekly email newsletter, Instagram and a public relations firm — to get the word out and keep in contact with her guests and the public. It was good she had these resources in place, she said, as Stegner and Prairie Grass pivoted away from indoor dining and made their next moves:

  • Paring down the menu to a manageable number of items that included regular customers’ favorites but also could change with the seasons. Stegner then began offering weekly dinner packages for two and, using all her means of contact, built a strong curbside-pickup business. Prairie Grass’ wine club, curated by her sommelier husband, also grew during the pandemic and helped add to the carryout business.
  • Developing a meal relief program that featured products of local farmers who supplied much of her fresh produce, meat and cheese. Prairie Grass also began offering the meals to local hospitals and shelters. To cover Prairie Grass’ costs of the meals, Stegner raised funds from individuals and later from the LEE (Let’s Encourage Employment) Initiative, promising that as much of the donated funds as possible would go to support her farmer suppliers.
  • Partnering with other chefs, devising multicourse dinners that paired Prairie Grass’ fare with the others’ expertise in pastries, Southern cooking or high-end dining. The chefs held Zoom video calls with customers to discuss their dishes and restaurants, and they split the proceeds from meal sales. The partnerships enabled each chef to market to new sets of customers, building bonds in the chef community, Stegner said.
  • Capitalizing on access to fresh, high-quality fish that customers couldn’t get from typical supermarkets and that few knew how to cook at home, Stegner started taking orders for raw fish such as swordfish steaks, red snapper and char. The fish is flown in weekly from the coasts and available for customers to pick up on Mondays, when she runs a hotline to answer home cooks’ questions.
  • Adding a new air filtration system throughout the restaurant and promoting it extensively.

“Everything had traction. We put our energy into it,” she said of the multipronged efforts. “Some were more lucrative than others, but everything seemed to have traction and add to the overall messaging of ‘We’re here, we’re not going anywhere, we’re consistent, we’re safe.’ ”

By late January, the restaurant was operating with 14 people. Its kitchen staff had been halved, and those remaining had to adapt to a different pace and focus less on presentation and more on a carryout meal’s ability to reheat.

And instead of serving customers in person, the rest of the staff answered phones and put carryout orders in cars. The cafe had offered outdoor dining in the warm-weather months but opted not to set out tents and heaters in the Illinois winter, concerned about the expense and the chances of COVID-19 spread. Prairie Grass brought six employees back when Illinois reopened indoor dining in early February, but untimely snowstorms were keeping most would-be guests home.

Stegner worries that estimates of the number of restaurants that have closed for good are too low. Many restaurants that cut deals with their landlords to defer rent payments might not recover quickly enough to make up those payments, she said. And she doubts that workers who left the restaurant industry for higher-paying jobs with more attractive hours will come back, even if business rebounds.

On the plus side, she thinks the generation that has experienced the pandemic will have an accelerated interest in quality of life, which bodes well for restaurants such as hers that offer well-sourced, healthy and delicious food. Restaurants can remain places of indulgence, but the pandemic is forcing changes in the business model.

“Restaurants, in order to be successful, are going to have to diversify their stream of income,” she said. “Regardless of COVID or pre-COVID, restaurants were kind of struggling along because of the cost of labor, the cost of food, and add insurance and paid time off on top of that, and all of a sudden you’ve got an equation that doesn’t work. In general, I think the industry needed a change, and this is definitely a catalyst.”

About the Author

Jane Larson Bio Image

Jane Larson is a contributing writer to WorldatWork.


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