Meaghan Coltrain sees her time away from the kitchen as an opportunity to rethink the way the industry operates.
As recently as early March, Meaghan Coltrain was in a great place in her job as corporate executive pastry chef for Niche Food Group. From making gelato and special events desserts for Pastaria and Sardella to developing Instagrammable soft-serve ice cream for Rockwell Beer Company, Coltrain was in her groove, using her talent and creativity to make the sweets at Gerard Craft's restaurants among the best in town.
All of that changed when the COVID-19 outbreak hit St. Louis in mid-March. Overnight, the industry to which she'd devoted her professional life was upended, and she found herself unemployed for the first time in her adult life. It was disorienting, but as Coltrain explains, it was not unexpected.
"I took off to New York for a filming opportunity right when the first two cases [in St. Louis were announced," Coltrain says. "We were watching the news scroll across the big [tickers] where they film the Today show — it was so crazy to see the numbers. When I flew back, there were only twenty people on a full-size Southwest flight, which was a good indication that something was awry and things were going to be happening."
Coltrain's intuition proved right. As soon as she arrived back in St. Louis, she and her fellow Niche Food Group teammates gathered for a meeting to discuss a plan of action. She admits that she and her colleagues thought Craft was perhaps being overly dramatic at first — that his claims of a permanently changed industry were unlikely. However, as things began to get worse and worse in the United States, they all realized that Craft was actually quite prescient.
Though the decision was incredibly difficult, Coltrain explains the restaurant group felt it had no other choice but to lay off its staff and shut down operations. She and her coworkers occupied themselves for a while with deep-cleaning projects, as well as volunteering with the North Sarah Food Hub, an organization in north city that provides meals to the neighborhood's food insecure. However, as those projects ended, Coltrain found herself with time to think about what she wanted her next steps to be — and whether they would lead to the same path she'd been walking for the past several years.
When it became clear that her position with Niche Food Group was going to be permanently eliminated, Coltrain realized that it was an opportunity to focus on her business, Milkmade, a postpartum nutrition company she'd founded after the birth of her second daughter. Though it's always been her passion project, she sees this as an opportunity to finally execute her vision of the business as a health and wellness resource for mothers, who need support during such a wonderful, but challenging time in their lives. By combining that passion with her love for cooking, Coltrain hopes she can be a part of a movement to change the conversation about work-life balance for women.
"My heart is in the food industry, and I think I will always be involved," Coltrain says. "I would love to get back in the kitchen, because I think it’s an opportunity to design how life looks for women in the workplace. I truly believe in a work-life balance, and there’s nothing to say that we can’t do that. This is a great opportunity to evaluate what is necessary. When you are a busy person, it’s easy to pile more busyness on top of it, but you need to see how to do it without bogging yourself down."
Coltrain took a moment to reflect on the pandemic's impact on the industry she loves and what's giving her hope during this challenging time.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
More than ever, I hope people understand that our line of work is not for the faint of heart. Most of us dedicate everything to our jobs, and unfortunately, regardless of that dedication, these unforeseen circumstances have left business owners to make the hardest decisions as they rebuild what they have left. While some have waited safely in their homes, others have worked tirelessly to make the curbside and delivery ventures work. In a nutshell, the industry is tired and worn but same as it ever has been. We will rise again and find new footing in this pandemic world. I am confident that the St. Louis industry will bounce back with a stronger sense of community. As a consumer right now, I urge you to support local and be patient while doing so.
What do you miss most about your job?
For me, Niche Food Group was like coming home. Many of the chefs and managers were with the company when I worked there originally almost a decade ago. I miss seeing my coworkers and the think tank we shared for creating a bright future for the restaurants. I know the future holds opportunities for us to collaborate again, so I look forward to that time.
What do you miss least?
The restaurant industry is always bustling, which is what is so attractive to me as a busy bee, but taking time to work on myself and grow outside of my professional life has been a blessing in itself. While I love being busy, I don’t miss the rat race. I felt like I was always behind and constantly rushing from one role in life to the next. It has been really nice to develop my small business, Milkmade, and focus energy on my daughters, Ruby and Delilah. This is the first time as a family with two chefs and two little girls that we have had this amount of time to spend together. We are soaking up every minute as we take steps into the future and new opportunities.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
I love to hike and kayak, so recently I have been challenging myself to get outside and explore daily.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
Oreos, double stuffed with ice cold milk. Also, handmade ice creams, sorbets, and custards. So sugar; basically all I have done during quarantine is eat sugar and bake.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Butter, eggs and Oreos.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
Delilah Joan, Ruby Sloan and Brian Coltrain.
Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
After being in the epicenter of the virus in March during my visit to New York City, I knew I had to find ways to create a comfort for myself and my family. Luckily, Chef Gerard was very open initially with us about how the future looked for the hospitality industry, so I immediately started working on baking items from home for customers. Since then, I have worked on special orders, contact-free drop off and building clientele. That being said, once restrictions lift and life finds its course in later phases of coronavirus, I look forward to hosting dinners for friends and family again. Having a home full of love and laughter brings me so much joy. The past few months of being separated from everyone has been so quiet.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
I think creating a comfortable environment for guests and employees with all levels of concern over the coronavirus will be the biggest challenge. The restaurants that are proactive about training staff and encouraging customers to engage in the pandemic procedures will hopefully thrive. Patience is key as a consumer; if something seems off, mention it, but please remember everyone is still learning how to best navigate during the reopening phases.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
I have found a new level of faith in humanity during the pandemic. I was fortunate to volunteer with Niche Food Group at the North Sarah Food Hub. In the midst of all of the coronavirus craziness, we built fundamental safety protocols and comfort for our employees that we furloughed with meal bags. From there, the community spirit grew in so many of us as racial injustice peaked in the middle of pandemic. Bakers for Black Lives was formed out of passion and hope for progress. Hannah Kerne, Sharon Harter, Maya Harter, Paige Jocoby, Tai Davis and myself have worked on this project the past few months. St. Louis showed up to support in our “every calorie counts” efforts to raise funds for ArchCity Defenders and Action St. Louis. If there is anything I have learned from this virus, it has to be bake for what you believe in.
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