Entrepreneurial Inspiration, Nature Coast Style
What do you do when your livelihood is completely disrupted?
Even with an emergency plan, many small businesses on Florida’s Nature Coast were unprepared for the changes brought about by the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, to our area in mid-March.
On March 20, 2020, Governor Ron DeSantis ordered all Florida restaurants to shut down their dining rooms and stop in-house consumption alcohol sales. On April 29, Florida’s Governor gave restaurants permission to open at 25% capacity inside and utilize outdoor dining options.
Some businesses closed, some changed their hours, some changed to a completely virtual system, and some found new ways to keep their doors open and their teams active with the new normal.
Restaurants, in particular, were hit hard by the order to stop selling alcohol, close bars, then close indoor dining. These three local restaurants have impressed me with their ingenuity. May their stories inspire you also.
Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters
James and Heather Cook opened the doors to their first Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters in Hernando, Florida on February 23, 2009. They met in college and shared a passion for roasting coffee, going back to when they first began experimenting with roasting in a popcorn popper.
James is a national award-winning chef who graduated from Johnson & Wales University after growing up in California’s restaurant business.
Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters has expanded to five locations in Citrus County, offering the most varieties of coffee available in the U.S. as well as custom k-cups, loose leaf teas, and some of the finest breakfast, lunch, and bakery foods daily to their guests. Their online menu is here.
With the COVID-19 restaurant dine-in options put on hold by the Governor, James and Heather went into overdrive.
“Our first thought was how can we keep our employees working. They depend on us like we depend on them,” James shared with NatureCoaster. “I love to cook and create meals, so we came up with the idea of offering 3-course dinners to our customers Monday through Friday. A salad, entrée and dessert for $15 with a menu that changes daily. We are having a lot of fun doing this and 20 dinners pays for two employees 8-hour shifts.”
This year they installed a large coffee roaster in a 7000 square foot building on Florida Avenue, which was the old “Lucky Diamonds Club.” This allows James and Heather to roast 150 pounds of fresh coffee beans in 1-1/2 hours! This is important because their coffee business is growing despite the challenges.
During Cattle Dog Coffee Roaster’s first year in business, they roasted and sold 500 pounds of beans. In 2020, they expect to roast and sell over 31,600 pounds of delicious, fresh-roasted beans.
“We hope to reopen following the Governor’s direction, providing outdoor options and safe distance seating in our Hernando, Inverness, and Crystal River locations,” James said, “Our customer and employees safety are #1 and our desire to serve delicious coffee, tea, and creative, delicious food is right there too.”
The Pop-Up Dinners have been a great success, allowing 4 of the 5 locations to remain open, so they may continue as COVID-19 State restrictions ease up, or James and Heather may open a more formal restaurant.
Chop Block Grill
Eric Gallery and Todd Smith moved to Brooksville in 2017. They leased a retail location at 691 South Broad Street to open their dream steakhouse restaurant. After months of construction chaos, they chose to lease a historic location across from the Hernando County Courthouse and opened Broad Street Market.
They were quite successful in the year building the business at Broad Street, which continuing buildout on the Chop Block Grill they dreamed of.
In September of 2019 they held their soft opening of Chop Block Grill with its new booths, fresh paint, and large, easy-to-manage kitchen.
Most of their customers followed them over to the new location although it took a while for the word to get out, the staff to get settled and the kinks to get worked out with the new menu. When “season” hit, Chop Block was poised to take in locals and visitors. And everything was working well until the end of March 2020.
“COVID-19 and the Executive Order forced us to lay our entire staff off. We moved to a to-go only menu and two of our former staff are volunteering to help us out,” Eric shared with NatureCoaster.
Ann takes orders on the phone and takes care of all the public-facing activities wearing a mask and gloves. She volunteers to help at the restaurant she helped open and manage so the rent can still be paid while Eric cooks, Todd cleans, and Mandy volunteers with expo.
“We created a smaller menu for our to-go operation, as well as a $5 half-pound Angus Burger Box special. We added a $5 pasta special also, selling over 500 burger specials and over 200 pasta specials,” Eric said. “We stopped the specials last week and went to our regular menu. It got people to notice us and get in the habit of considering Chop Block Grill when they order food for pickup. I am working on our plan to reopen with the new restaurant guidelines, although who knows how long it will take to get back to where we were.”
Small restaurants are truly a labor of love and their staff often become like a family. Chop Block Grill is planning to stay in the game and grow their To-Go while COVID-19 concerns keep American society from returning to its previous state.
“Customers health is our main priority and I am still concerned about this virus continuing to infect our population, so we may take a more wait-and-see attitude than some others,” Eric shared with NatureCoaster.
White Heron Tea & Gifts
The White Heron Tea and Gifts opened in January 2016. Kelly Maki-Hackman grew up in New Port Richey, Florida and, with her husband, Bryan, always dreamed of opening a small business in it’s historic downtown.
She opened the tiny tearoom adjacent to Karen’s Gifts which was an established gift shop with 20 years longevity at 6228 Grand Boulevard. There were originally 4 tables. Kelly took over the gift shop and its owners retired. She updated the product lines and added her own touches, including macaroons and fresh-made chocolate delights.
With a passion for tea that extended to education and a desire to create new recipes and entertain guests, along with some fine business acumen, Kelly and her staff have grown The White Heron Tea & Gifts to three formal seatings in the Tea Room Tuesday through Saturday, while adding a Tea Parlour for guests to stop in for informal tea and scones during business hours.
Then came the State of Florida Executive Order 20-71. The Tea Room and Gift Shop were shut down and Kelly worried about what to do for her staff. Online tea orders were now a priority. “I decided to promote our tea company, Driftwood Teas, which supplies the Tea Room,” Kelly shared.
Driftwood and The White Heron offer seasonal teas and it was time for the Spring Tea Collection. Packaging and shipping were worked out and some promotion was sent out to their customers. A bit of advertising was added. “The tea shipments helped us stay afloat,” Kelly said.
Shortly thereafter, The White Heron Tea & Gifts began offering scones and tea to-go. On April 15, full tea kits were added and Prince and Princess Tea packages. “The additional offerings helped us retain a sense of normalcy. We missed the interaction with our customers and each other. We are able to bring in some income while maintaining our community relationships,” Kelly shared.
She met with her team this week, allowing them to express their feelings about the COVID-19 situation, working with the public, not working, their families and more. They discussed options for reopening when the State gave its ok and how they might serve outside and with limited seating.
“It felt really good to talk with the team. Hearing everyone’s perspective on how this unprecedented situation had affected them and how we might overcome it together was good for us,” Kelly told NatureCoaster, “Now we will make plans to follow the new guidelines and do what we need to so we can weather the storm.”
Kelly began creating new scone recipes, with a blueberry lemon, a savory and a strawberry lemon making it to the test kitchen so far. She began making tea cocktails with help from the bar and restaurant next door, Boulevard Beef and Ale and she is working on a cookbook.
Nature Coast Leaders
All three of these Nature Coast Restaurants have inspired me with their quick reactions to a frightening, rapidly changing environment. Each one took their staff, their customers and their passions into account to find a creative solution to a new problem.
What local businesses have impressed you with their response to the American COVID-19 pandemic? Please share in the comments so we can spread the word.