Three weeks ago, we hosted a Salt Lake Design Week event with local business owners and developers: Missy Greis of Publik, Tommy Trause of the forthcoming evo SLC, Page Westover of Snuck Farm, and Bill Coker and Lucy Cardenas of Red Iguana. Before the event, we posed the question, “What do you get when you cross a coffee connoisseur, outdoors enthusiast, modern farmer and masters of Mexican cuisine?”
Well, we found out. You get a whole lot of vulnerability, authenticity, and hope. For those who couldn’t attend, we’re summarizing several takeaways from the event focused on how to build strong communities in a COVID world.
1. They’re Still Here. Support Your Local Businesses!
While every business has been uniquely affected by COVID-19, each of our panelists faced specific challenges related to their own industry (restaurant, agriculture, hospitality/retail). Restaurant owners have been hit particularly hard, with 10% of restaurants in Utah permanently closing since the beginning of the pandemic. Early in the broadcast, Missy Greis and Lucy Cardenas recalled sharing tears over building up businesses for years and years, only to have them come to a crashing halt in March.
But they’re adapting. They’re creating new business models from scratch and adjusting to current–and constantly changing– needs. Red Iguana opened for curbside pick-up for the first time and created a system involving walkie-talkies and utilizing their parking lot in a new way at Red Iguana 2. Bill said it reminded him of his movie producing days. Missy realized that avocado toast and latte art weren’t conducive to take-out, so she and her team reassessed their menu to figure out which items would travel well and be suitable for takeout. Wholesale orders from local restaurants and businesses stopped almost completely at Snuck Farm, so they turned to their local community in a way they hadn’t before by opening up a new farm stand and market space at the farm with direct sales to the public. And they watched their CSA subscriptions skyrocket as consumers welcomed fresh produce delivered weekly to drop-off locations all along the Wasatch Front. Page noted that “people are looking locally- they don’t want to support Amazon or Walmart, they want to support the local people that they know.”
2. Keep the Community Safe
When the pandemic first started, Missy, Lucy and Bill were in a group chat with 17 other restaurant owners discussing how to keep things moving forward. They learned together. And for Missy, Lucy and Bill, safely re-opening has looked different based on space and customer and employee needs. They had to consider their physical safety, but also financial security. Before the pandemic, Publik employed around 70 people, while Red Iguana employed over 200. For Red Iguana, safely re-opening their dine-in operations meant waiting until they could work through logistical details. They decided that the original Red Iguana would continue for curbside pickup only, while they would open a limited number of tables at their second location, where they could provide good ventilation inside the restaurant and outdoor seating on the patio. After careful analysis of their menu and services, Publik opened in September for pickup from two of their locations. At the heart of each business owner’s decision was the safety of their customers and employees.
3. Be Willing to be Vulnerable, We Need to Listen and Learn
Throughout the night, we expected to hear about some of the frustrations, triumphs and sorrows of trying to navigate business and community in a COVID world. What we did not expect was the level of vulnerability and emotions from our panelists. More than one panelist was moved to tears while reflecting on struggles that accompanied the pandemic, as well as renewed gratitude for the people around them. Each business is in a different spot: Red Iguana has been open for over 30 years, Snuck Farm and Publik have been open for less than 10, and evo SLC has yet to open. Each panelist described differing processes of learning how to adapt and trying to meet the needs of those around them, but all of them sought out answers among their communities, by listening to their employees, customers and other business owners. With the evo Salt Lake Campus still in the design process, Tommy recognized the company’s “amazing responsibility to listen and learn, setting the stage for community builders.”
4. Design (and Building Community) is Iterative, Not a Destination
While we were quite proud of our event title “Rebuilding Community,” Tommy pointed out that the phrase is a bit redundant, noting that when you own a business focused on bringing people together, you never stop building community. evo’s focus is on creating a space for outdoor enthusiasts to congregate, with a one-stop shop for ski gear, but also for food, climbing and skating. COVID has shifted some of evo’s design priorities, from a dorm-style bunk room hostel space (which now seems downright scary in a socially distanced era) to creating individual hostel “bubbles” and expanding the building’s outdoor patio space. Warren describes evo’s approach to the Granary campus as “outdoor-oriented hospitality.” evo has always been focused on providing spaces and products for the outdoors community. With ever changing circumstances, evo is now increasingly committed to providing access to outdoor culture, including equipment and transportation, giving people the opportunity to reconnect with each other and the world around them.
5. Get Back to Our Roots- How Do We Grow From Here?
Missy shared similar feelings about her priority being the people around her, including her friends who also own businesses and her employees with whom she’s developed close relationships over the years. Publik’s priority has always been community. While COVID has forced all of us to rethink community and avoid gatherings, it also brought new opportunities. For Publik this has meant participating in Nourish to Flourish, a program that provides 100 meals per week to food insecure families in Salt Lake, made by 10 local restaurants throughout the valley at no profit. The project allows Publik to pay their employees, while also feeding families through Salt Lake’s Neighborhood House.
Reflecting on Red Iguana’s journey, Bill Coker noted that people come to Red Iguana not only for their authentic Mexican food, but also for the environment that is “built from whatever is around.” It’s an eclectic space that encompasses the Cardenas family legacy, as well as Salt Lake’s history. And as Bill says, “It’s an institution. But there’s nothing institutional about us.” Throughout the process, they’ve had to learn something new everyday, to the point where they felt like they were starting a new business. But they’ve remained true to their roots and their Salt Lake heritage.
Page’s business approach is rooted in authenticity. For Snuck Farm, authenticity right now looks like growing deeper roots, not growing out. The new circumstances caused her to reflect on and appreciate the people that she works and the people who opened new opportunities for their farm. As wholesale orders declined, Snuck Farm has been more involved in providing greens through CSA subscriptions, allowing them to integrate further into Utah/Salt Lake valley’s community more than ever before.
The event was beautifully summed up by Tommy, who commented that “design can be an amazing amplifier of cause and purpose, as long as the purpose is genuine, substantive and authentic.” We hope as things continue to shift, we can all stay grounded (but flexible) in our intent and interactions and grow in new ways that will help us all thrive in the long run, individually and as a community.