For Yolklore's Mary Bogacki, the Decision to Remain Open Is About Community

click to enlarge To Mary Bogacki, Yolklore has tapped into a need for quality, quick-service dining that is here to stay. - RONALD WAGNER
To Mary Bogacki, Yolklore has tapped into a need for quality, quick-service dining that is here to stay.

Mary Bogacki will never forget the conversation she had with one of her regular guests about the choice of dinnerware at Yolklore (8958 Watson Road, Crestwood; 314-270-8538). It was four years ago, and she and her husband, John, had just opened the daytime concept, hoping to change the conversation around quick-service dining. Her guest understood what they were going for, but she still had one suggestion.

"She told me that we won't be taken seriously unless we have real plates," recalls Bogacki. "I want to ask her, 'Now that we've gone through a pandemic, how do you feel about that?'"

In many ways, Yolklore is the perfect restaurant for the times because it was ahead of them when it opened in July of 2016. Though the Bogackis both had experience in fine-dining, they saw a need for casual food done really well and set out to fill it in a small spot off Watson Road in Crestwood. The storefront they found happened to come with a drive-thru — not necessarily part of their vision when they were conceptualizing the restaurant, but one they immediately embraced as an alternative to the mass-produced fast-food typically served out of a pick-up window.

"From the beginning of our concept four years ago, that was something that I saw lacking," says Bogacki. "We had an opportunity to bring to life what people didn't know they were lacking. Screw fast food. They're serving shit food out of a window, and you don't need to do that. I think the general public understood that, but there were no choices. Efficiency and convenience are important, but people want quality in their bag. I think people will wait the extra two minutes to feed farm eggs and local sausage to their kids, still out of a window without getting out of their car."

Business proved the Bogackis right. Over the last four years, Yolklore amassed a following for its thoughtful and delicious, yet quick and efficient, breakfast and lunch fare, with guests lined up both at its drive-thru and in its small dining room. The energy from the latter animated the space and filtered into the open kitchen, filling Bogacki with joy — until this March, when it went silent.

Bogacki knew that things were going to get bad when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered dining rooms the week of March 15. Though her first priority was to keep her family, staff and guests safe, she also felt that she had a responsibility to continue to operate, since so many people counted on her for food and paychecks. Though she considered closing down completely, she sat down with her staff to weigh their options, ultimately coming up with a plan to remain open for drive-thru and takeout service.

"I think there were two ways of looking at it — either shut your doors completely and furlough everyone, or thinking of how you live with this, manage and adapt in order to survive what's going on," Bogacki says. "I was on the side of let's make this work, let's try to adapt and make the safest choices for us and our families. It came down to sitting down with everyone to gauge their levels of comfort. We had to have that conversation, because it's the only way we are all going to be comfortable coming to work."

Bogacki feels lucky that she had such options. Because Yolklore was already used to drive-thru and carryout service and used eco-friendly disposable containers throughout the restaurant, she believes she and her staff were better set up to transition to to-go-only business than others. It hasn't been easy, and she admits that she and her team have had to hustle, but she's confident that she's providing a necessary service to the community — one that will be well-received for the long haul.

"This has just solidified what we saw from the beginning," Bogacki says. "That's why it's important for us to stay open. We have a drive-thru, and people still need to eat and don't cook at home. We're able to serve a need for the community. We feel like we have a level of responsibility to them."

Bogacki stepped away from the drive-thru window to share her thoughts on what it's like to be in the industry in the midst of a pandemic, the daily ritual she's had to let go and the one thing she hopes people take away from these challenging times.

As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?  
We miss seeing all of you more than you know! The people are why we do this every day. Not being able to see everyone makes our jobs more challenging and less fulfilling.  

What do you miss most about the way things were at your job before COVID-19?
The sound of everyone in the dining room laughing and talking. It’s like being at the baseball game with no crowd. Even they put fake crowd noise in, because they know it does something for everyone’s psyche. It’s the same in an open kitchen.    

What do you miss least?  
The loud crowd. We can’t hear anything we’re saying to each other over the laughing and talking! And of course not being able to yell obscenities was always challenging.    

What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?  
For the first few months, I always kept the tables lined up straight, the chairs at each seat and the table décor placed just right. After I realized we weren’t going to be opening the dining room for a while, I gave up the fight.  

What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?  
Hmmm, I actually have been trying to give up refined sugar. I was eating dessert every night, no matter what it was. It was having some negative effects on my brain and waistline!! Time to get healthy and not let this virus take us down with it!    

What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Eggs, because that’s the majority of our two-year-old's diet right now, fruit strips (same reason), and a bottle of wine in any variety.    

You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?  

Alive: David Blaine, Dave Chappelle, Barack Obama. Dead: Frank Sinatra, Stephen Hawking, Kim Massie.

Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?  
Go get a full body massage.      

What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?  
When we first opened, we had a guest tell us that if we were going to be taken seriously we needed to serve our food off of real plates. I think it’s safe to say that most everyone’s mindset about getting amazing food from very serious establishments has debunked that theory in the restaurant industry. Eco-friendly paper plates all the way people!    

What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?  
What gives me hope is that there has been a shift in mindset of work-life balance for our society and our industry. I hope that taking time to slow down and be together has given a new perspective on our lives and what’s truly important.

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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
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