When a neighbor could use a hand, you lend yours.
This virtue seems to be keeping Chase County as happy and healthy as a rural Kansas community can be during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Keller Feed and Wine, 317 Broadway St., in Cottonwood Falls is evidently motivated by this notion and is doing everything it can to help Chase County residents.
“A restaurant is a responsibility,” Owner of Keller Feed and Wine Bryan Williams said. “It’s not an investment… You’re a part of the town.”
Williams and his wife Janice, as well as their 8-year-old daughter Hallie, have implemented a series of ways to provide county residents with restaurant food and grocery items available for in-store or curbside purchase. There is no grocery store in Cottonwood Falls or neighboring Strong City, making the nearest grocery store about a half-hour drive.
Keller Feed and Wine has also taken it upon itself to grow its own produce — something the restaurant formerly did and is happy to do again — in order to never be in a position to “scrounge” for things, Williams said. Though Williams is grateful for the opportunity to keep the restaurant and grocery open to nourish residents, he said it is “embarrassing that anyone calls us essential.”
“We’re not medical professionals; we’re not law enforcement; we’re not first responders,” Williams said.
He followed that statement by describing how essential many furloughed employees are and how “soul-crushing” it is to watch people lose their jobs and other local businesses turn off their lights, for now.
“I’ve got friends that are losing everything,” he said about local and national restaurant friends. “They’re more worried about their dishwasher than they’re worried about their wife.”
It has been unique, troubling and a blessing for Williams to pay his bills and not take disaster relief money while others are unable to pay their employees or are losing their homes. While the immediate struggle is harsh for some, Williams knows restaurants can freeze some items in the meantime and thinks restaurants that are currently closed will have the chance to reopen.
The virus started changing Chase County the week of spring break for its students. The following week was a planning week for instructors and administrators. The lunch program was not initially offered, so Keller Feed and Wine offered free lunches to students. Williams said the best thing to be is proactive.
“We went ahead and started cooking free meals for the kids in Chase County and said, ‘Hey, it’s on us, we’ve got it taken care of,’” he said.
Since the lunch program has returned, the restaurant is now offering free residential student dinners. Kids eat for free at various other times, too.
Last weekend being Easter, Keller Feed and Wine partnered with EVCO, Pepsi and Griffin Real Estate to provide a full Easter dinner to residents who were furloughed without pay.
About a month ago, as the virus started working its way toward the area, Keller Feed and Wine closed its salad bar and buffet. Soon thereafter, Williams closed the dining area and only offered carryout. Williams offers compostable dining utensils as a way to combat the virus and promote a healthy environment. During this time, the restaurant provided Redbox coupons and encouraged people to stay home. Williams also started to offer monthly tabs for residents to ease the stress of the situation. Williams' amalgamation of positive forces is “what any decent human being would do,” he said in regard to allocating care and resources for his staff and community. He said somebody, somewhere always needs something and between all of us, we have enough for everyone.
“We’ve had a very giving community that has basically, without being too cheesy, picked us up and carried us through this,” Williams said.
Williams used to put more focus on the restaurant being a tourist destination. Since COVID-19, he has turned his attention to the residents and has continuously discouraged out-of-town visitors at this time, via social media and in person.
“The locals are the ones that are here,” he said. “They pay the taxes and put the kids through the school and work in the factories and work in the convenience stores. It’s cool to have some touristy things and touristy events that go on. It’s wonderful, but what do you do the other nine or 10 months out of the year? I think if I’ve learned something through this, I learned that the town bet on me, and I bet on it.”
His major concern about visitors is that they may come from high-risk areas and put the county at risk of exposure. Additional issues non-residents cause include exhausting limited local resources. Grocery stores, the hospital and other non-local essential businesses are at least a half-hour drive from Chase County, so local resources are increasingly important, and residents are put at-risk when visiting virus-positive areas.
When people are limited in their resources, they are prone to panic. Williams said this “isn’t the time for panic. You have to be cool-headed.”
Williams described the community morale as positive. He has received generous support and is humbled to give back to the community however he can. He gives what he can, “because everybody has helped me with something,” he said. “They’ve mowed my lawn or fixed my flat tire or helped babysit my child on a Friday night when my wife and I are working the restaurant.”
Chase County does not currently have any reported positive cases of COVID-19, but is surrounded by counties that do. Nonetheless, the county is taking precautions to keep the virus away. The county is not necessarily doing anything differently than other places but has much more open space and not many places of gathering. Many residents also shop by the month, because of the distance to the grocery store, so the grocery shopping effect has not had a major impact.
Williams is actually seeing twice to two or times as much business as he normally does. The staff and Williams are working more hours, and the restaurant is in the process of hiring other employees. Williams is also continuing to pay a staff member who has a compromised immune system.
“It’s too hard to find good help, especially in a small town,” he said. “It’s what you do.”
Williams said the money Keller Feed and Wine makes that exceeds what it normally makes is being given to others in a variety of ways. He does not feel this is charity, but instead is the way of small-town life.
“Why don’t we reset to, kind of, when we used to all be a lot friendlier,” he said.
“I know we’re blessed to be in the position we’re in right now. But, a lot of that is because we’re going to take chances. We’re not afraid. We’re not going to be complacent. You can’t be complacent in this business environment. You’ve got to blaze the trail. You’ve got to figure something out. You’ve got to take risks.”
Williams recognizes that he is one of millions of people doing what they can to help. One way or another, the community will navigate its new normal, and Keller Feed and Wine will be right there to help.
For more information, visit Keller Feed and Wine’s Facebook page.