Earning loyalty and dedication from restaurant staff by making it mutual (and paying a living wage).
By Danielle Kuhn 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.
Danielle Kuhn has worked in most every facet of the restaurant business since the age of 15. She is now chef-owner at Maison Cafe and Market in Dana Point, California.
We opened at the tail end of 2018. We didn’t do any advertising. We’re in a crummy shopping center. The restaurant itself is actually shoved between a laundromat and a bait-and-tackle shop. We’re behind a gas station. When we opened, I frosted all the windows because when you walked inside Maison, I wanted you to forget what was outside.
We didn’t do any advertising, but the word spread, and by the end of 2019, it looked like everything was going to be great as we were walking into our second full year of service. Then COVID hit. I talked to my staff when the whole pandemic started, and I said, “Do you guys want to close? Do you want to go on unemployment?” Because at that point, we thought it would only be for a couple of weeks. Every one of my team members, with the exception of two, said, “No, we want to work.” And so I said, “OK, I guess I’ll figure it out.”
So we stopped being a restaurant. We turned our dining room into a grocery store—because grocery stores were considered essential—and we pushed all the tables together and created shopping aisles. We had one shopping aisle that was all produce. We had one that was all dry-goods pantry. We had a wine section, we had a meat and seafood station.
My cooks all learned how to do take-and-bake family-style meals. My busboys all became delivery drivers, and we started doing deliveries to different neighborhoods on different days of the week. I called my website girl and I said, “Help! I need to learn how to do e-commerce, and I need it by tomorrow.” And we started doing a whole online grocery store so people could submit their orders online, so there was no interaction.
We had closed for two weeks in the beginning so that I could wrap my brain around how we were going to be able to support the staff by being a grocery store. Then we opened back up, and then we closed again for two weeks because my son got COVID. I thought I would be down for the count. It’s not like you’re social distancing at home with your kids. When he woke up one morning and had a little bit of a fever, I made him bite into a piece of garlic, and he couldn’t taste it. I was like, “Oh crud.”
So I walked in the restaurant that morning, called all my staff, and said we were closing immediately. I spent two weeks at home with my son, and I never got COVID. The only symptom he had was that he couldn’t taste and smell. We were very, very lucky.
We did a Zoom wine tasting, which was really fun because we have a wine club. We used to do these big wine club parties where people would eat and drink and socialize with a big, family-style meal. When COVID happened, it was like, “OK, here’s your wine. Go home. See you later.” I thought it would be fun to do a Zoom wine tasting. We sent 160 people little wine kits and meat-and-cheese boxes. We got a master sommelier to host it with me, and we spent two hours one evening on Zoom with all these incredible people. It was the first time in four months I’d seen their whole faces. Seeing people happy and enjoying themselves and not scared made it pretty magical.
Our name is Maison Cafe and Market, but the market was more of a little boutique area. In my head, I had always envisioned having our pastas and sauces and salad dressings in the market. Prior to COVID, we never put the energy into it, but COVID forced us to. That was what we did every day. Now the market is 10 times better than it was before COVID. We made chicken pot pies during COVID, and those have become kind of famous. Now we always have our chicken pot pies for you to bring home. And little cheese boxes.
I’m fortunate because I’m not just a restaurant owner. I’ve had the experience of being in the kitchen and working in the front of house. I run my business a little bit differently than other restaurants. My cooks have never made less than a livable wage. I think that’s one of the reasons they wanted to stay and work with me throughout the whole pandemic. Whereas, I think in the industry in general, a lot of restaurant owners have taken those positions for granted, and are now finding it very hard to get them back, or to get anyone at all.
I’m so eternally grateful to my team because I’m just this little five-foot-three woman that had this crazy dream. My team has continued to blow my socks off with how hard they work, and the commitment that they have to each other, and to our business, and to our guests. And then the community—if you look at where we were located and how long we were open for, there’s no way that we should have made it through the pandemic. But the community has really embraced us. Before COVID, I used to hold people’s babies because my kids have grown up. But since COVID, I now just hold people’s dogs.
This is my life’s passion. I dropped out of high school when I was 15. If you had asked me when I was 15 what I wanted to do with my life, I would have said, “I want to own a restaurant.” I’m so fortunate to have such an incredible team and such an incredible community that we get to serve. The thought of giving up or throwing in the towel when there were still things that we could do to stay open didn’t make sense. So it’s been a lot of learning, but I’m actually pretty grateful for what we’ve accomplished and how we’ve all grown in the last 18 months.