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Top St. Louis Chefs Get Candid About Their Full Plates at Work and Home

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Katie Collier of Katie’s Pizza & Pasta Osteria. - COURTESY KATIE COLLIER
  • COURTESY KATIE COLLIER
  • Katie Collier of Katie’s Pizza & Pasta Osteria.

About six months after Margot was born, a tired and rundown Mary Bogacki contacted Katie Collier, another St. Louis chef and restaurateur who had recently given birth.

"She reached out to me and was like, 'Help! How do I do this?'" Collier remembers. "And I was like, 'Girl, I don't know. I can't do it either.'"

Mary, a self-described "functioning workaholic," saw some of herself in Collier. Before Collier's daughter, Nadia, was born in September 2018, she would regularly spend more than fourteen hours a day at one of her two locations of Katie's Pizza & Pasta Osteria. Since giving birth, Collier has taken a step back from her breakneck schedule, embracing the need to delegate and trust the teams at both of her locations. She still develops and helps curate the menus and mentors her managers, checking in with both locations daily, but she's had to create boundaries to balance being a stay-at-home mom and an entrepreneur.

"This change from being an aggressive businessperson to then being pulled totally away from that was very scary," Collier says. "I was scared that the business would fail without me and that my career was over. That all goes through your head, but you're also in mother mode, so I was just super conflicted. I'm sure other people have different experiences, but for some reason, that sharp change from working 70 hours a week to then taking care of myself was very scary. It forced me to really change how I run businesses, lead, create menus and all kinds of things. I had no choice but to adapt in order to survive both of those things."

Shortly after Nadia was born, she experienced health complications that lasted for about five months and disrupted her sleep schedule — something already precarious for a newborn. Collier describes her first six months postpartum as incredibly difficult for her and her husband, Ted, a visual artist and entrepreneur. "I forgot I had restaurants for a minute," Collier says. "The reason I'm still in business is that I kind of set myself up prior ... I had faith in the people I'd hired to do their jobs and just let them do it. It was kind of cool that I had a tough pregnancy because it forced me to set the business up without me early on before the birth happened. I don't know how the businesses would have reacted had I not set everything up prior."

Once Nadia was healthy and sleeping regularly, Collier considered enrolling her in day care so that she could return to work — she doesn't have family who can help with child care, as they work in her business — but ultimately decided to stay home with her, even if just for a few years. She is still working daily but now mostly from home.

"I decided that I wanted to enjoy this time with her because it is so short, and I'm old — I might not have another [child]. It took us like seven years to have her, so the idea that this is kind of it. ... I decided to sacrifice my career a little bit so that I could spend that time with her. And that's a tough decision that I still battle with every day. That battle and the consequences of both choices is really daunting."

As a restaurateur and operator, Collier says her pregnancy and subsequent leave from on-site work has opened her eyes even more to the challenges that working parents face.

"The entire time I was pregnant and the minute I had [Nadia], thinking back to all these women who had done this and how strong they were, it just blew my mind what some people do to support their families," Collier says. "I always had compassion for that, but now I really feel it, and you want to do whatever you can to make them feel comfortable and know that there is, especially at our company, the ability to take time if they need it."

Like so many small restaurants, Katie's Pizza & Pasta Osteria is not profitable enough to offer its employees' health care. (None of the owners interviewed for this story cover their employees health care for the same reason.) To offset the burden of cost for health care for her employees, Collier currently pays staff a higher wage — yet as the business grows, she's hopeful that she'll be able to offer employees medical benefits as well. "The cool thing about growth is that then you can start to fold that in," Collier says. "So by the third restaurant, we'll be able to do that."

Collier is currently in the real estate process for her third location of Katie's, which will require her to forge a new balance between work and home. "Opening something, you cannot hand any of those duties off, because you've got to figure it all out — the location, permits, paperwork, getting funded, designing the kitchen and the space. That's all the stuff that you can't compromise on. That's definitely going to be an adjustment again once that gets into full swing."

For Samantha Mitchell of Farmtruk, health care means maintaining four different plans, one for every member of her family.

"I personally applied for Medicaid government assistance, and my husband has Obamacare," Mitchell says. "He pays full price, and I'm on a pregnant woman's program through Missouri, which means that I will have health care while I'm pregnant and for 60 days postpartum, and then they drop me and I have zero health care. My kids are each on their own plans."

Soon, Mitchell and her husband, Justin, will have to figure out a fifth health care plan: In April, Mitchell will give birth to a little boy, the couple's third child after Gaia, five, and Sage, seventeen months.

"And then my husband is having a vasectomy," Mitchell laughs. "The prime of my career just happens to coincide with my child-birthing years, and this is a commitment that I made to my husband and myself that this is something we wanted to do in life. So guess what, we're going to figure it out. I need to get a minivan or something with a third row, and I'm pretty bummed about that. I'll have three car seats at one time; that's so gross to me."

When Mitchell got pregnant with Gaia, she was one of three sous chefs at Annie Gunn's. She recalls how supportive the entire staff was with her, including executive chef Lou Rook, but returning to the line postpartum still was not easy.

"I breastfed both of my daughters," Mitchell says. "So there's the challenge of being at work at say, Annie Gunn's, and I'm working the line in the middle of a Saturday night rush to the point where my breasts are engorged. I have to jump off the line and hop into an employee bathroom and pump my breast milk in the middle of the shift so I don't get an infection."

Now pregnant for the third time in six years, life at home is only getting busier — but Mitchell won't be slowing down at work. By summer, she's hoping to expand Farmtruk with a second truck so that the business can cover both St. Louis city and St. Louis County at the same time. Farmtruk recently celebrated its first season as a vendor at Enterprise Center, which Mitchell says is "kicking ass," and she's hoping to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the future.

On occasion, you may see Gaia and Sage aboard Farmtruk or behind the scenes at Mitchell's catering events around town. Although they're too young to help out right now, Mitchell is proud to show her customers the family behind the business that they're supporting.

"My kids enjoy people, and people enjoy seeing the kids," Mitchell says. "I think [a food truck] was the right path to be able to do it on my own terms. I didn't want to disappoint myself or anyone else based on my commitment, but if it's my own thing, I can make my own rules. And I wanted to do my own food. We took a leap of faith, which I think was the only way.

"To me, this is just the industry and I'm very lucky to have found a partner in life who is very supportive of it, but it's really hard. I think this industry is hard for anyone — male or female — with families. It's not conventional, it's not for the faint of heart. It's a grind. If you're not willing to pretty much give up the idea of a normal 9 to 5 existence, you shouldn't do it. It's just not what it is. You are a chef."

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