KNEAD Bakehouse's Kirsten Brown Bends to the Challenge

Kirsten Brown of KNEAD Bakehouse. - JEREMY NICHOLS
Kirsten Brown of KNEAD Bakehouse.

Kirsten Brown has a great analogy for describing the way she and her husband, A.J., felt when they were trying to figure out what they needed to do at KNEAD Bakehouse (3467 Hampton Avenue, 314-376-4361), as the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold.

"It was like limbo," Brown says. "My husband and I were on the phone at least once every hour leading up to deciding to go curbside, and there was a lot of tension and distress, but we would make a decision, and then it would feel like limbo — like we'd barely get under and touch our nose to the pole, and they would change the rules and lower the pole. They'd change it every twelve to 24 hours, and I would keep thinking, 'How quickly can I get under this pole and not touch?' It was a game I had to win."

The Browns have certainly seen their share of uncertainty and stress since opening KNEAD Bakehouse in November 2017, but this is unlike anything they've ever experienced. Like all of their fellow restaurant peers, the pair have seen their personal and professional lives thrown into utter chaos since March when COVID-19 gained a foothold in the St. Louis region.

However, they have continued to push through, changing their business model and reinventing themselves continually in an effort to sustain their bakery and cafe. Their efforts have involved new technology, new ways of providing hospitality to their guests and new products — and, as Brown explains, it's pushed them to be better.

"It's allowed us to be more creative and think outside the box," she says. "Something has been sparked in us, thinking about families being home together, and that will probably be a part of what we do when we reopen. Curbside is working; pizza and pancake kits are working. There have been things we've had on the back burner ever since we opened — jams, salad dressings, butters — that we always said we'd get to when we had the time. It's super cool we're now able to do them, which speaks to the creativity of our kitchen and team that we can roll out things on the fly and make them work."

That creative fire has been wonderful, but it has not made up for the pain they've experienced from having to furlough most of their beloved staff. For Brown, that's been the worst parts of the virus-induced situation because she and A.J. consider their staff as family.

However, they have already been able to bring back three employees thanks to their involvement with Meals for Meds. The effort, started by Juniper's John Perkins and expanded with the help of Brown, facilitates meal donations to hospital workers through a partnership with local restaurants. Diners donate money to restaurants that goes to the program, and this money allows the restaurants to provide food and pay their staff. Now that Meals for Meds has partnered with celebrity chef Jose Andres' Frontline Foods, the program has the potential to expand and put even more employees back to work.

For Brown, finding this sort of beauty in this midst of despair is what gets her through.

"I did not want to be a person or a business that acted out of fear and anxiety," she says. "I figured I'm going to try this and maybe fail, but at least I will try rather than fail from beginning. There were a lot of sleepless nights in the beginning but had to call it what it was; it doesn’t determine what I am doing. There has been a lot of trial and error figuring it out, but I've been having a lot of peace in recent days. I don’t want to say the light is at the end of the tunnel, but it’s getting closer I hope."

Brown took a few minutes to share her thoughts on how she is navigating the COVID-19 uncertainty and remaining confident that the storm shall pass.

As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
This is tough. There is a lot of stress. Sleepless nights. Doubt. Fear. Anxiety. What ifs? I don’t think any industry is immune to these emotions right now. And yet, I am confident. AJ and I have experienced difficulty before, and we are on the other side of those hardships. I look forward to the day that we are on the other side of COVID-19. I hope you don’t hear a naiveté in my voice but a voice of experience and expectation. I am expecting KNEAD to change, develop and grow. If we didn’t, I think we’d miss a huge opportunity to reset and refocus. We are going through change. A lot of changes. Change is hard but necessary. Thank God we can change, be flexible, “pivot” — otherwise, we would be closed.

What do you miss most about your job as it was before COVID-19?
I sorely miss our team and customers — our tiny spot bustling with customers and employees with my favorite alt-J song playing in the background. I miss the in-person hello-ing, seeing a customer I know from across the room and being able to go check on how their meal is. What’s new? How are they? I miss connecting with others in a tangible way.

What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
Sometimes these things all happen at the same time, throughout the day or even in the car, but every day I pray, I sing in the car, [and] I make sure I drink my coffee and smoothie and have my (gummy) vitamins.

What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
AJ and I have been exploring some new beers we haven’t tried before; we’ve been able to pick up a few each week from local restaurants and shops. Small joys! Oh and sweets! Bring on the chocolate!

What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Oat milk. Coffee. Hand soap.

You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick? My husband, AJ, and our baby girl, Adley Emalyn. The third is hard. I miss our families, and I can’t just choose one over the other! But because you’re forcing me to answer the questions: We are busy making KNEAD happen, and I haven’t been able to pay much attention to our house right now. So, since I already have a live-in chef (AJ), I guess I’d quarantine with a live-in butler/maid. A girl can dream right?!

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?
To protect our team and customers, we've kept our circle very small. I want our baby girl to spend time with my parents and in-laws. So I would love to have them babysit while AJ and I go on a double date with some of our best friends!

What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
The experience has to change in some instances. Physically, it will have to look different for a period of time. That will differ from restaurant to restaurant. Overall, I think people will be more grateful for what they have — specifically, the experience of eating and drinking with friends and family. I am grateful for a business where I can hire a team of people that become a little family. I look forward to being in a place where we can rehire, to purchase more from our local purveyors, farmers and vendors. I look forward to the bustle of the restaurant. I hope people, restaurant owners, employees, restaurant vendors and purveyors and customers can remember this season and be grateful for the space to gather and commune with one another. If that isn’t the biggest change in the hospitality industry I would be surprised.

What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
Hope wins! That this is not the end. It is only one part of our story. I have peace in knowing that things will work — maybe not the way AJ and I planned, but things have a way of working out for the better. There have been many times of heartache in my life that I couldn’t see the silver linings while I was in it. This one I can. This is a season. This too shall pass.

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

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the dining editor and restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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