Elmwood's Chris Kelling looks for every chance he can find make a genuine connection with his guests.
Chris Kelling will never forget the looks he got from his staff at Elmwood (2704 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood; 314-261-4708)
when he called them together the night of March 14 to tell them they'd better prepare for uncertainty. With family in California and New York, Kelling had been watching the news from the coasts for a few weeks prior and knew that the precautions being taken there — shutdowns, mask mandates and so forth — were headed to St. Louis sooner rather than later, and he wanted his staff to be prepared.
They thought he'd lost his mind.
"I knew that, just like with trends, stuff starts on the edge and pushes inward, so I called everyone together that night," Kelling recalls. "I told them, 'Save your money, don't go out after work. It's bad, and please know this is going to happen here.' I was met with blank stares. Someone even walked up to Adam [Altnether, chef/co-owner] and said, 'Old man Kelling's lost it.' The last time I saw half of them was to give them their last paychecks."
An industry veteran who has worked at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country, even Kelling might not have believed something like this could happen had he not seen it coming with his own eyes. A little more than a year out since Elmwood's grand opening, Kelling and Altnether felt like they were just hitting their stride and were optimistic about the future. Once COVID-19 came along, however, they, like every other restaurant owner around, had to completely reimagine not only their concept, but hospitality in general. It's been jarring.
"When we reopened the dining room back in June, we were at 25 percent capacity, and everyone was happy to be out but also really nervous," Kelling says. "We did Thursday, Friday and Saturday night services for two weeks, and we are a 3,500 square-foot restaurant — 2,000 of that is dining room — and there were fourteen people in the restaurant. There's an energy people want in a dining room, and it just wasn't there. That next weekend, I knew we just couldn't do this again."
Kelling and Altenether knew they had to alter their vision for Elmwood to accommodate the changes in the world, but they did not want to do so in a way that took away from the experience they'd worked so hard to create. Instead of simply packing up their food to-go, they decided to go in a completely new direction with a pizza concept. Though Kelling admits it's totally different than what he expected to be doing with Elmwood when it opened last January, he's grateful that he and Altnether have found a way to serve guests in the best way they can during this moment in time.
"We do whatever we can do," Kelling says. "For us, we want to be able to provide for the guest, but what a lot of people don't realize is how much we love what we do. This is the only thing I've ever been really great at, and and I love talking to people, saying hi, making people feel special — that's why I continue to do this. It's not to balance our books in QuickBooks for however long in the day that is. It's to talk to people. The curtain rises, and we go on. Stealing those little moments is important to me. It fills me up."
Kelling took some time away from the restaurant to share his thoughts on what it's like to be in the industry during such a challenging time, how much he misses the buzz of a full dining room and how simple acts of kindness give him and his team hope.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
So many of us doing carryout only — Adam and I very much included — wake up every single day and think, “Is today the day they stop ordering?” Every. Single. Day. And then we work our asses off trying to make sure it isn’t, all the while knowing that it is not entirely in our control.
What do you miss most about the way things were at your job before COVID-19?
Working a full, bustling dining room. Every part of it — helping people celebrate, putting out proverbial fires, getting lucky and having a party get up twenty minutes after their meal when you thought they were going to stay forever, watching the team work and move as one — you name it and I miss it. It’s the one thing in life at which I consider myself to be great, and I haven’t been able to do it in seven months and have literally no idea how long it will be until I can do it again. We try hard to provide a genuine level of hospitality through our text exchanges with our guests but it’s akin to comparing apples and moonrocks — just totally not the same.
What do you miss least?
The hours. Right now, I go to bed every night well before the time I used to arrive home from work. It’s great because my two-and-a-half year-old daughter wakes up at 7 a.m. with total disregard for what time I went to bed.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
Going to work. “The job won’t save you” is a powerful mantra in which I fully believe, but right now, as long as Elmwood is serving something, going to work and being a part of making it happen is the most normal thing I can do.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I’m almost always snacking — now that I’m getting older, I’ve switched from baked goods to peanuts and/or almonds. And pizza — I’ve of course been eating so much pizza. I’ve actually been drinking far less since March than any other seven-month period in my life since I was a young teenager. Without the social aspect, the appeal just isn’t there for me right now.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Sparkling water, coffee and hand sanitizer.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
Cheating here, but Elmwood is owned by three families (the Kellings, the Altnethers, and that of our silent partners), and we all created a bubble very early on in this. I could think of no people with whom I’d rather be in such a situation. And I’d make sure all of our dogs were with us.
Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
Travel to California and jump in the Pacific.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
Wow. Good or bad? Bad, the pool of employees will continue to shrink. Good, I think there will be a push to make hospitality more of a reciprocal relationship and less of a transactional/subservient relationship.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
People. The amount of kindness and support shown to us over the past seven-plus months has been nothing short of humbling. From friends and colleagues from all over the country buying gift cards without any plans to come visit, to the entirely new group of "regulars" we’ve collected, people continue to give me hope that good will prevail in this world. We’re all we’ve got.
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