Kurt Bellon is helping to guide Chao Baan through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kurt Bellon has worked in the restaurant industry long enough to know that a restaurant's first year is always a challenge. However, for he and his team at Chao Baan (4087 Chouteau Avenue, #5; 314-925-8250)
, the first twelve months have been a special kind of difficult — and the pandemic is only part of the story.
"No restaurant is easy to open, and the first year is always difficult to get through," Bellon explains. "But almost every challenge you can have in opening a restaurant, we've made it through — getting our name out there, building business, explaining to people this new type of Thai food, [owner Shayn Prapisilp's] cancer, which he was so strong throughout. Honestly, that was one of the best perspectives to get: No matter how hard anything was going on a particular day, seeing his strength and resolve through that experience made things seem easier."
As Chao Baan's general manager, Bellon has had the responsibility of helping Prapaisilp guide the restaurant through the unprecedented challenge that COVID-19 had imposed on the business. He admits it hasn't been easy, but the difficulties have made him realize how thankful he is that he's made his career in the food and beverage industry.
That almost wasn't the case. Though he's been working in the restaurant business since he was fifteen years old, Bellon assumed he'd go a different direction for his career. He attended Notre Dame for finance and left school his sophomore year for a job with a financial firm. However, it didn't take long for him to realize that his heart just wasn't in it — and he knew exactly where it was.
"Working there wasn't so much of a calling for me as was the everyday service of working in the hospitality industry," Bellon says. "One of the things throughout my experience in all my careers is pinpointing the threads that connect us. Food is universally that for everyone no matter where you come from in life. It's a really great platform to make connections, and that's the biggest thing that appeals to me."
Bellon has had the chance to find those threads in a variety of restaurants, something he credits with helping him in his job. He credits his resume, which includes Sub Zero, Tortillaria, Katies Pizza & Pasta, Brasserie, Retreat Gastropub and Yellowbelly, as having allowed him to soak up different perspectives to see what works.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
He brought that experience with him to Chao Baan a year ago and had been enjoying the opportunity to help build what he refers to as "the most transparent and authentic concept I've ever worked in." Even through Prapaisilp's cancer diagnosis last year, the restaurant always seemed to be a source of positivity for the Grove neighborhood, and Bellon felt like it had gotten into a good rhythm.
Then came March. Bellon and his colleagues at other restaurants in the Grove braced as the COVID-19 outbreak turned their industry upside down and have been working nonstop to figure out the best way to make it through. For Bellon, it's not the logistical challenges of how to run the restaurant (takeout only, whether or not to open the patio), but the impact it's had on his staff that has been the most difficult part of the situation. Employees are working harder for less money, and helping them navigate those difficulties has been his primary focus.
As challenging as that is, Bellon finds himself filled with gratitude for the career he's carved out in an industry that he loves. He's hopeful that this tough situation is giving he and his colleagues the opportunity to show just how much we are all connected.
"With all the uncertainty and challenges, we all have our chance now to show who we are more than ever," Bellon says. "There are good things, even in an overall bad situation. Realizing that makes you appreciate what you have. That's how you get through it."
Bellon took a moment to share his thoughts on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the restaurant industry, how he maintains a sense of normalcy in a distinctly abnormal time, and why the advice of Mr. Rogers is as pertinent now as ever.
Like many of the hospitality pros that I have looked up to in this industry, I am wired to provide great face-to-face service for all of our guests. I feel as cooped up as anyone during this quarantine and am eager to get out to the patio to see and serve our guests.
What do you miss most about your job?
The vibe of a busy dining room where friends and families are sharing a good meal and making memories with the people they care about.
What do you miss least?
There can be a sense of complacency in the day-to-day where negative gripes can overshadow the positive experiences that surround us. I feel that we are doing a much better job of fully appreciating the little things now.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
Mise en place and daily prep looks different these days, but the purpose is the same — gathering the tools and items needed to face the shift ahead, no matter what the evening may bring.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I’m on a spicy food kick lately and have been expanding my limits on that front with no end in sight. Fried rice has always been a comfort food, so I’m experimenting with different proteins and spice levels.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Hand sanitizer, a fresh, clean face mask and quality to-go ware.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
My work family of Gamseng (head chef), Piya (chef) and Andrew (my right hand man!). They have been working with me every day, and there’s no one else I’d rather be with during these times. We push each other to do our best work, take the time to laugh at ourselves and help keep each other sane.
Once COVID-19 is no longer a threat and people feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
Restart my weekly routine of doing my laundry at my mom’s and having dinner with her. And of course, giving her the biggest hug of my life!
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
Well the more things change, the more some things remain the same. As many establishments pivot their models to adjust to this new normal, it also gives everyone a chance to identify and showcase the core values and service that make us all unique and great.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
Mr. Rogers gave great advice during times of crisis: Focus on the folks that help us get through it all. During this time, we have been blessed with the opportunity to serve not only local medical workers and firemen, but the amazing members of our St. Louis community who are out there helping any way that they can.
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