Feeding hungry schoolkids through the pandemic and embracing the new normal.
By Christine Staley as told to Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Christine Staley is the owner of Magic City Hoagies in Minot, North Dakota.
I’d been open a little over six years when the pandemic hit. I had a baby in June of 2019. I got my house that year. I had not been in my shop as much during that year because I was pregnant, and it was hard for me to be on my feet.
Right before lockdown, it was so hard to find daycare for my child. He was seven months old by that point, and I told my husband I needed to find daycare. I had an interview on a Friday with a daycare provider. He was going to go in on Monday. That was in March of 2020—the Monday before the governor of North Dakota said that the schools were going to be closed. That Sunday he announced it.
I looked at my husband and said, “Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen to these kids?” I have a daughter, too, and I’ve spoken with a lot of teachers in the past. A lot of the kids don’t have food. I hate to say it, but it freaked me out. I don’t know why. I said to my husband, “Just write this down.” I started dictating to him: “Tell all the kids that are kindergarten through fifth grade that they’ll have a free lunch every day, no matter what. I just want two questions answered: what grade they’re in, and what school they’re going to. I don’t care about their name or anything else.”
I posted it on Facebook. I don’t even know what I was thinking. I just did it. And then boom! I’ve never been a part of something that took off like that. And it’s weird how things kind of happen in the right way—I had a previous employee from years prior who got laid off because the hotels were closed. He started helping me with delivery. By the end of May when school let out, we fed over a thousand kids.
We would have families with five kids come in every day. I had a lady come in who was watching her daughter’s daughter. She would message me on Facebook and say, “Hey, I can’t take the bus today to get the sandwiches. Do you think I can get an extra one on Thursday when I come in?” And I’m like, “Oh my gosh, yes.” I had to go drive and deliver sandwiches to some people. I didn’t expect it to take off like this, but people were so just so grateful, and I was so happy to help them.
I’ve always just been a person who does. I’m a doer, and I felt like somehow all this work was going to make sense. I didn’t want to let any of my employees go. I didn’t have delivery. I had to pivot the business while I was trying to feed kids. I had to call my guy who does my website. I said, “We need to get my whole menu online.” It took him a week to finally get it up and running. If he hadn’t been able to do that in time, I don’t know what I would have done. If you look at my sales that year, I was only down about 12 grand. But that doesn’t count all the money that I spent for the food for the kids. I’m surprised that my sales were still decent, everything considered.
But what was keeping me going was the fact that I was helping people. It was hard because I also had my daughter at home. We would have her in the shop, and she and the daughter of one of my employees would help out. They did drawings they put on the glass because people couldn’t really come inside until we started reopening. When the governor said we could reopen, I wasn’t even ready. I posted a video on Facebook to everybody. I said, “Look, guys. I know that you all want me to be open, but I’m not ready because I don’t feel I have the right systems in place yet. Give me a couple more weeks, and we’ll get up to speed.”
I had to cut my hours back to 6pm instead of 7:30pm. I still have my hours cut back to 5:30pm now. But I also still have the same employees I had then. The reason I cut back my hours was so I could give them a full day of work, but they weren’t overworked. Because I can’t find employees now, I had to cut back an extra half hour so they weren’t burned out. That’s what my new struggle is.
I’m open to change. I’m always telling my staff, “Look, if you guys can think about how to work smarter, harder, faster, more efficiently, or more cost effectively, I’m open to anything.” That’s the only way to go. That’s what we’re dealing with now.
I’m proud of not having to let my staff go. I’m proud of keeping them employed. I’m proud that the community supported small businesses. I was surprised how much of an outpouring there was. During the pandemic, I still had a bunch of catering business. Do you know who I was catering to? All the banks in town, because they were processing PPP loans. And other people still kept calling and ordering food. They’d come pick up the food for their kids, or for their neighbors’ kids. I’m just so surprised by this small community.
I’m from Miami originally, where there are millions of people. You could see someone one day and never see them again. There’s only 50,000 people in Minot, and you know that people really will step up and help. I feel my energy fits so well in this kind of community because it’s valued. People appreciate that. At the end of the day, it makes me smile that people care, though I don’t even know half of them!