This past February, Brian Hardesty had a lot on his plate.
Guerrilla Street Food (43 South Old Orchard Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-274-2528)
, the restaurant and food truck he owns with his friend Joel Crespo, was shutting down all its locations except for one, and the pair were trying to figure out how to stop the bleeding. At the same time, Hardesty was overseeing the construction and impending opening of 9 Mile Garden (9375 Gravois Road, Affton; 314-390-2806)
, the city's first food truck venue, which he manages.
It was a lot to handle, but as anyone who knows what pandemic-related news March would soon bring, it was about to get even more stressful.
"When all of this started happening, we were negotiating with landlords and trying to put some sort of plan together for Guerrilla," Hardesty says. "Luckily, they were very understanding, and we were situated to continue because we are fast casual, so we made the pivot to carryout pretty easily. At 9 Mile, it was like, 'OK, this is terrible,' but at the same time the concept was made for being outdoors, so we felt like we could safely execute it. We figured [with both concepts] that we could sustain ourselves until a grant or loan or some kind of assistance came through and by July, this would all be over and we could move on."
Well before July came and went, Hardesty realized the pain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic would not be alleviated anytime soon. As the months progressed and cases rose, it became clear to him that he and his business partners at both Guerrilla Street Food and 9 Mile Garden would have to figure out how to meet the present moment. Since March, he's been doing that for both concepts, trying to navigate public health concerns while also remaining committed to serving guests and providing the hospitality that undergirds all that he does.
He admits it hasn't been easy. Though Guerrilla has been simpler to manage because of its fast-casual setup, 9 Mile Garden has proven to be a special kind of challenge. On the one hand, the food-truck park is designed to be an outdoor venue — an ideal setting for how people are to safely gather during the pandemic. On the other, the place opened to a crowd that was too large for comfort, prompting Hardesty and his crew to work hand-in-hand with the St. Louis County Health Department to institute strict rules that put everyone's health and safety at the forefront of their operations.
For both concepts, though, the constant pressure he and his staff are under to maintain these standards and navigate the ever-shifting landscape of new rules and regulations has been quite challenging.
"We've had to train our staff to let everyone know that these are the rules," Hardesty says. "Unfortunately, we have to act like the police sometimes. It's pretty hardcore how we operate, but we don't want to be perceived as being the sort of place where there are no rules and there are all these crowds. That's not who we want to be."
In the midst of all the challenges, though, Hardesty remains committed to taking care of his staff and guests, who have been loyal and supportive throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Though he admits that things are different, he feels that there are still opportunities to connect with people — something he believes is more important now than ever.
"With our staff at 9 Mile and Guerrilla, we always make an attempt to take our time with people, whether it's a phone call, a curbside transaction or someone just stopping by the window to look at the menu," Hardesty says. "We want to thank them for still coming out and let them know we appreciate that they are still curious. I feel like the answer to hospitality is still in-person interaction. That may have to be distant right now, but we can still take that extra time to let people know we appreciate them."
Hardesty took a moment to share his thoughts on the state of the St. Louis food and beverage industry, what it's like to be a hospitality professional during such a challenging time and the things that give him hope in the midst of difficulty.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
We are all in survival mode. Landlords want rent, utilities need to be paid, payroll, all of these bills. All of this while revenue is down sometimes by 50 to 75 percent. Even still, the instinct is to innovate, and we are all constantly at the drawing board and talking to other restaurants about any idea that makes sense to bring in dollars and survive.
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before COVID-19?
Hugging my friends, blowing off steam, not having to question everywhere I go and perform a risk assessment.
What do you miss least?
Customer reviews. I haven’t read one review in eight months. My thought is that people wouldn’t be such jerks as to disparage any business during these times. I know it happens, but I can’t bring myself to read them, and I don’t miss it.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
Play with my kids, laugh with my wife and talk with my friends. Check on people. Everyone needs it, and it gives me comfort.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I’ve been on a local whiskey kick and am in love with Switchgrass Spirits. As far as food, I order three entrees for just myself when I get to visit Balkan Treat Box. Comforting and always perfect.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
1. Eggs are a hot commodity in my house, and with three kids, we go through a couple dozen a week. 2. Bread flour. I'm a terrible baker, so I need a lot to continue to practice and learn. 3. Family time. If I run out of time to be with my family and friends, COVID or not, I won’t be in a good place.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
Gene Wilder, Muhammad Ali, Yoda.
Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
I'll have a party with all of my friends, go to Sidney Street Cafe for a multi-course meal, and then hop on a flight to Bora Bora for a month.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
My hopes are that people will have a newfound respect for personal space, that we see less petty complaints and more understanding, and that masks, to a certain extent, will remain a useful tool for hospitality professionals for the foreseeable future.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
Professionally, I'm given hope by my partners at 9 Mile Garden and our future plans for St. Louis and beyond. That every day Guerrilla Street Food survives and keeps getting better and better and our team never quits. Personally, that my children never complain about this time in their lives and they only enjoy the present and keep talking about the possibilities in the future.
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