March 2020, Nick and I had just returned from racing bikes at Andes Pacifico in Chile when our world, in fact, everyone's world, came to a screeching halt.
We were only home for ten days before we not only closed our doors for dine-in as required by the State of Oregon, but to all dining. COVID had made it to the US and spreading rapidly amongst the population.
Based on the information we had, the timeline associated, and the seriousness of the matter, we had no idea when we would be able to re-open to dining - we made the dreadful call to each and every one of our employees to share the news. Fearing for the livelihoods of our staff, we made the difficult choice to officially lay off everyone so they could receive unemployment benefits (the only way people can access these benefits in Oregon), otherwise there was potential they wouldn't qualify. Never in my life did I think I'd have to make that sort of phone call, let alone 25 times over, to some of my most favorite people - everyone had a job as soon as we were able to re-open, but we had no timeline when this would happen, and little to no information. The only thing we could do was assess state rules & regulations, and reopen when we were allowed to.
That night Nick and I went through all the emotions - sadness, anger, anxiety, frustration, confusion... The restaurant and community we had worked so hard to build was forcibly closed to any and all dining. While we had hopes it would only be a few weeks, and thought perhaps we take a few weeks to "Go Ride Bikes in Moab", we decided we at least needed to try to make rent - let's sell some milks and toilet paper - as we truly had no idea when we could reopen to in person dining! We were not going down without a fight! We decided to give it a go with TO GO dinner service seven days a week, just Nick and I, until COVID went away or until we were able to bring back staff.
Within a day we had built an Online Portal for online ordering for KickStand, and created a "socially responsible pick-up" zone. What is the normal now was brand new and even foreign back then - place your order online via our website, and pickup at the stated pickup time. We would package up your order and put it on a table outside in the parking lot with your name on it. We asked that you did not come inside, per State regulations, and wear your mask, keeping proper social distancing in the parking lot as you waited for your order. Our first night was a catastrophic failure with a major printer error - luckily we live in an amazing community of patient humans. Our second night we could hardly keep up - Nick solo in the kitchen, myself packaging orders and managing the phone. The third night we were even busier - every to go order had a note of encouragement with it, encouraging us to keep at it, to not give up. Some reminded us of their favorite meal or experience at KickStand while others came alongside a gift card that would never get picked up - a gift of financial support in difficult times, so to speak. While we would end each shift in tears not knowing what our future would look like or if KickStand would be in existence at the end of all this, or when we could bring our staff back, we fell asleep exhausted every night knowing that we were trying as hard as we could for the community and our future.
After a few weeks, we realized we needed help and were able to bring a few staff back to work - we wore masks and kept our distances. We sat around post shift in our corners of the restaurant sharing stories of the crazy world we live in: the lack of toilet paper at the store, the "shelter in place" orders asking people to stay home and stay safe. Luckily, we were considered a vital business, and "allowed" to go to work. In time, we began rotating our menus weekly, taking our local community on various "worldly travels" as no one could travel for spring break - Spain, Mediterranean, Hawaii, Cuba & more! It kept us busy, and provided us all with purpose and distraction in such a challenging time.
I believe it was July before we were able to properly open our doors to indoor dining again and bring back all our staff. At this time, we were able to bring back lunch as well, with breakfast still very much behind a locked door, key thrown away.
Over the course of the next few months, restrictions would change almost weekly based on COVID prevalence in Hood River county - how many people allowed per table, how many people allowed in the building, masks not required at tables, but are required if you stand up. Some weeks we would move forward as a county, and other weeks we would take two steps back, especially challenging as a tourism-based town where as a business we were dying and needed sales to survive, however were emotionally torn knowing the tourism might potentially affect our COVID numbers as a county, meaning we might have to close to indoor dining the following week. Despite these challenges, we had a successful summer.
In November, per the state, we were closed to indoor dining again due to a re-surge in COVID numbers in Hood River county. We found ourselves going through all the emotions yet again, however, took the pivot in stride, and got creative serving tables under a tent outside. Mind you, it was winter and may I remind you we were serving tables OUTSIDE in the SNOW while it's 31 degrees - with only ONE WALL on our tent (thanks Oregon!). I thought we'd seen challenging before, but this was a whole new kind of challenge. However, we made it work with 3 fire sticks and 3 firepits adding a bit of ambiance to the tent. Blankets were encouraged. Once again, the community surprised us and came out in full force, booking all five tables in our tent almost every night.
Fast forward a few months and we were able to reopen to indoor dining in March or April 2021- we strategized from every direction what COULD happen and what was more LIKELY to happen. We had every mask related sign possible you could imagine (wear inside, but not outside & wear at all times expect if you're seated at your table, etc. etc). COVID was re-assessed bi-weekly, with us being notified at the end of the week as to change in service structure, or restrictions - some weeks were a ridiculous challenge pivoting, others simply required taking down signage. We made moves, and planned ahead as though by July we could expect normalcy. What we didn't expect however were extreme staffing shortages - we simply didn't have the staff to reopen for breakfast, let alone be open for our normal counter service lunch. We pivoted and introduced QR codes - Simply scan the code, place your order, and we brought your food to your table. Culture and atmosphere were not ideal & while this was not our preference, it was a necessary evil to even entertain serving lunch.
Unfortunately, while we were taking slow but steady steps forward as a business, the industry we loved so much became extra challenging, as in guests' minds, everything was normal, but within the industry it was the farthest from it. What is normally a "Yes" industry had turned into a "no" as we were so often having to say "no". No, I'm sorry per the state of Oregon we cannot have more than 8 people at a table. No, I'm sorry, our menu is not as elaborate as it has been in the past because we don't have the staff to run a full menu. No, I'm sorry, we don't have donuts - we don't even have staff to open for breakfast. No, I'm sorry we are still closed for breakfast. No, I'm sorry, I need to ask you to keep your mask on unless you are seated at your table. The service industry was beyond exhausting and took its toll. Yet we fought hard every day and never gave up.
In November 2021, we reopened for coffee & breakfast - a small, simple, executable menu. Rolling into winter, while low staffed, the menu was manageable, and it was now or never. We were able to move away from QR codes for lunch, and revert back to counter service for breakfast and lunch. The bar was fully back open, no more plexiglass, and things were feeling even closer to normal.
Fast forward to July of 2022 and we were finally fully staffed. Although, to be honest, even now I'm afraid to say we are fully staffed. What I can say is that we have an amazing team of big-hearted lovely humans in our KickStand family, and it is only growing.
While it's been a few years since COVID, it feels like it was just yesterday. What was the most challenging moment in our lives became even more challenging the following year due to staffing shortages, and even more challenging returning to normal operations even now. It has taken every ounce of grit & hustle in every cell of our bodies to keep moving forward. Most days we didn't even know what we were working towards, or to what end, but we were not about to give up. Even when we were at our wits end, knocked down and run over, we found the strength to get up and fight knowing that even if we didn't make it out alive, we'd die trying. GRIT & HUSTLE - courage & resolve, persistence & drive, has become our daily mantra - no matter how hard or challenging something is, if you put your mind to it and never give up, you can get there. You may get knocked down in the process, but if you keep getting up and taking small steps forward, eventually you will reach your goal.
It feels strange writing this three years later, but it's about time I share a snippet of the COVID years, however abbreviated it may be. Every industry faced its challenges, and while ours is one of many, perhaps it can inspire you.