Melanie Meyer of Tiny Chef Won't Let a Pandemic Stop Her Restaurant Dream

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Melanie Meyer is keeping her Tiny Chef dreams alive in the midst of the pandemic. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Melanie Meyer is keeping her Tiny Chef dreams alive in the midst of the pandemic.

After opening Tiny Chef inside the Silver Ballroom (4701 Morganford Road, 314-832-9223) in April 2019, Melanie Meyer was riding a wave of success. She'd developed a loyal customer base for her playful take on Korean cuisine. She was honing her own skills in Korean cooking, coming to the style of food in recent years as a way to connect with her roots, and she was having fun, finally realizing her longtime dream of running a restaurant. It was an incredible year, and Meyer was prepared to keep building on that momentum — until COVID-19 threw everything into question.

"There was a lot of anxiety when the Ballroom shut down," Meyer says. "It was one of those things where you go nonstop every day for the year we were open to nothing, and it was like, 'What do I do with myself?' It was definitely an eye-opening experience."

As with all hospitality professionals, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for Meyer. When everything began to shutter this past March, the talented chef worried that everything she had worked for was at risk of falling apart — something she couldn't bear because of how personal the restaurant is to her. Wondering what to do, she took a solo trip to Colorado with her dog, hiked, cleared her head and tried to figure out her next steps. With giving up not an option, she decided to put her head down and do whatever it took to save her nascent brand.

"When I got back, I needed to do something, so I started Tiny Chef Takeout," Meyer says. "It was just soups and kimchi, and whenever the world started to open up a little again, I reduced my hours to Friday, Saturday and Sunday, because I couldn't afford to waste product and wanted to make sure that, on the days I am open, I can have momentum where I can sell what I make."

Now that the Silver Ballroom is open again and she is the sole proprietor of Tiny Chef (the brand is no longer affiliated with Party Bear Pizza, which used to share the space), Meyer is again working in the kitchen on the weekends, offering carryout through either the inside counter or the street-facing window. She's expanded her offerings to include Korean street tacos, bibimbap and a rotating special, as well as monthly crab boils, ttekbokki and her fiery "Nuclear Noodles." She even has plans to put in a fryer so that she can start doing mandu (Korean dumplings) and Korean fried chicken. Though that sort of expansion during such uncertain times may seem risky, Meyer knows that she has to keep moving forward, bolstered by the support she's received over the past year.

"I'm incredibly grateful for the support — it's been really great," Meyer says. "When I first started this, I didn't believe in myself whatsoever. I even had a job lined up in case it failed. The support I've received has been so surprising and definitely makes me want to do more and better."

Meyer took a break from the kitchen to share her thoughts on what it's like to be in the industry during such fraught times, how she maintains a sense of normalcy and what gives her hope to keep going.

As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
It's rough. Trying to maintain a continued customer base when it is a terrifying world right now is a challenge. But I've been fighting all year to keep working, keep my head above water, and I still try to keep a positive outlook.

What do you miss most about the way things were at your job before COVID?

I definitely miss talking to the people who dine in. I always try and talk to each person about their meal or food in general. This is a hard question but I think what I miss the most is the feeling of normalcy — to walk up to a table without hesitation and be able to share a laugh. To see a friend dine in and give them a hug.

What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
Matcha green tea or black tea. A mug of either will always start a day off right.

What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
Oh jeez, the list is too long! I have been buying a whole lot of popcorn lately. And instant noodles. Always instant noodles.

What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Hand sanitizer, soap and face masks.

You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
Oh, this is a tough one. I don't believe I could possibly choose. But animals must also be allowed, please!

Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
This is a long-shot dream, but I would love to finally go back to Korea. I haven't been back since I was born there. I would love to visit the orphanage I came from, possibly find my birth family, and eat all of the food.

What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
Hopefully there will be a lot of empathy. I hope people have seen how hard we, as an industry, have been working to stay open and relevant. If it takes a few more minutes for your food or drink, know that it's because the people making these are taking utmost precautions for you to safely enjoy a meal and a drink.

What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
The future is always changing, and we, as people, are adaptable and fighters. I love seeing other business owners not give up on their dreams, and I see them continue to crush it. I hope to follow in their footsteps.

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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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