Dani Leiran Stays Busy With Juniper's To-Go Crowd

For Dani Leiran, staying busy is the key to getting through the COVID-19 crisis. - ANDY PAULISSEN
For Dani Leiran, staying busy is the key to getting through the COVID-19 crisis.

When Juniper's (4101 Laclede Avenue, 314-329-7696) Dani Leiran first heard rumblings about the threat of COVID-19, her instinct was to hope for the best. Then the mobile payments company Square cancelled its regular catering gig with the restaurant. Next, weekday lunch business started to dwindle; dinner service followed suit. It didn't take long for her to realize that the restaurant industry was in for a hit — but she didn't expect how busy she'd be in the midst of it.

"At first, I thought Square was being overly dramatic and blowing things out of proportion, but it turns out, they were foreshadowing a future we didn't expect," Leiran says. "Eventually, we made the decision to do delivery, and now we are curbside only, but we are so busy on the weekends I feel like I am in the weeds every night. We had all of these special deep-cleaning projects we thought we were going to get to because we'd have all this time on our hands, but we've been too busy to get to them — and I'm very grateful for that."

Leiran does not take for granted the fact that she has been able to keep her job as sous chef at Juniper. Like so many of her colleagues in the restaurant industry, she's seen her professional world turned upside by the pandemic. However, because Juniper has remained open during the entirety of the crisis, Leiran has remained steadily employed. It's given her a unique vantage point to watch as people's dining habits — and what it's like to work in a restaurant — change in response to COVID-19.

"People are eating up chicken and burgers, but they also throw us so many curveballs," Leiran says. "Also, in a restaurant you can visualize and expect what is about to be coming back to the kitchen. When you see a full dining room and no tickets yet, you know it's coming and you have to get ready for it. This is like blind cooking. You don't know what to expect."

Leiran knows that the COVID-19 crisis will change the industry — how much or for how long, she's not sure. One thing she thinks is highly likely, however, is that the takeout phenomenon is here to stay, and she is interested in seeing how restaurants innovate in that space. She thinks that providing guests with an experience that goes beyond simply putting food in a box is going to be the key to a restaurant's success in navigating this new way of doing business.

"This is reshaping the industry, and I'm thinking of what I can do to make people feel special," Leiran says. "Writing something on a box, throwing in a free dessert — just having good hospitality and a good encounter with them when they pick up their food will help people feel normal. Someday, I hope we will go back to normal, but when we do, I don't think people will take going out to eat for granted."

Leiran took a break from cooking up all of that fried chicken and meatloaf to share how she's been navigating this major change in the industry, how she maintains a sense of normalcy and how the outpouring of support from the city's dining community gives her hope, even when things seem bleak.

As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?  
This is equally as hard for us as it is for the guests who aren’t allowed to dine with us. We miss seeing people fill our dining rooms, making a special event even more special with great food and drinks, having our friends come in and sharing our passion for food with everyone that comes through the doors. I can’t wait to plate food and adjust back to being a dine-in restaurant — I’ll never take that for granted again.  

What do you miss most about your job?  
The everyday operations of a restaurant — the sounds and smell of it all!  

What do you miss least?  
The hours I usually work don’t bother me. However, these shortened work days are a nice break.  

What is one thing you make sure to do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
Wake up everyday around 8 a.m. to get my day started, whether it be slowly or hit the ground running.  

What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?  
I’ve actually been drinking a lot less.

What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?  
Waterloo sparking water, coffee and gushers.    

Once COVID-19 is no longer a threat and people are allowed to go back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?  
Eat in a restaurant!  

What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
I think the hospitality industry is changed, to a certain degree, forever from the pandemic. It’s going to be a slow return to normal activity, and I don’t think normal will ever be “normal” again.  

What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?  
The continued support from St. Louis. At Juniper, we constantly stay busy, and people keep on showing up, week after week, to order to-go food, donate money for Meals for Meds and just simply thanking us; it’s pretty incredible. People want places to survive this hard time and to feel as “normal” as possible by getting food from some of their favorite restaurants.  

We are always hungry for tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected].

  • Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get the latest on the news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.
  • Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

About The Author

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
Scroll to read more Food & Drink News articles


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.