Saint Louis’ pre-pandemic restaurant scene was on the rise into stardom, with two James Beard award-winning restaurants and many new restaurants on their way. Sadly, the toll the pandemic took on our restaurant scene was immense, losing fine dining staples, like I Fratellini, an elevated Italian restaurant loved by Clayton locals. Necessity is the root of change, and many restaurants made drastic changes to cope with the pandemic, including switching to curbside, prioritizing patio seating, and even completely repurposing.
Elmwood, for example, is located in Maplewood, a creative and casual American dining experience, repurposed into a brand new pizza place called Pizza Champ. These major changes left me with one question: How is our town recovering? To help me answer this question, I interviewed Kurt Eller, the owner of Taco Buddha,, a University City favorite, specializing in creative and worldly tacos, and Haris Zukanovic a waiter at Acero, a thriving Italian restaurant serving new spins on delicious Italian classics for more than a decade in their Maplewood location. The story I uncovered after talking to them, however, was overwhelmingly positive, not one of loss and sadness, but one of triumph and recovery.
Kurt Eller told a story in line with Taco Buddha’s mission statement: “Eat With Peace”. Kurt was very open about the toll the pandemic took on his restaurant, discussing how his whole system on how to serve customers had to be revised. Before the pandemic, Taco Buddha was a counter-service establishment. Post-pandemic, there have been some major revisions regarding safety and efficiency.
For instance, Taco Buddha transitioned to a predominantly QR code ordering system. Although counter service is still available, the vast majority of patrons choose to order directly from their table and have the food come right to them. Also, Taco Buddha, like many restaurants, switched to curbside pickup to cope with the pandemic and lock down. Curbside pickup was so successful in fact, that at its busiest Taco Buddha was surpassing 56 orders per hour, meaning they were serving a patron roughly every 1.1 minutes.
Fortunately, Taco Buddha has opened their doors for in-person seating. It has, however, decided to limit curbside pickup to about 24 orders every hour in order to properly serve its in-person patrons. Even so, they still manage to serve over 200 cars on a busy night. More good news for Saint Louis, Taco Buddha is opening a second location in Kirkwood. While the pandemic slowed this process down, it couldn’t stop the Taco Buddha team from pursuing its goal to provide excellent food and service to all corners of Saint Louis. While the pandemic may have been immensely difficult, Kurt urges us all to stick together as one Human race, so we’ll be ready for the next one.
Haris Zukanovic, a waiter at one of my favorite restaurants, Acero, has been in the service industry for 25 years. He commented on what a time of change this was for the service industry in general, but for the individual worker, from head chefs to busboys, he has seen many people get out of the industry for good. Haris also points out that many of the people who were leaving or quitting, were not moving onto a different job in the industry, but rather a new job in a totally different industry, which he says has never been something that has happened so commonly before. According to Haris, the pandemic came with many changes.
He comments that, “in a space where, you know, people do get together, and they celebrate, and have a good time and eat food and things like that, [it wasn’t safe to do that anymore]. So that was … the first shock … you know, we weren’t able to do that.”
As a result of this, he says, “Before it was really easy to find people who already are qualified, or were eager, or they wanted to [work]. However, you know… going out of COVID and moving into this real-time again, [it’s gotten harder finding people with experience to work].”
Even after all that hardship, Haris keeps his head up, he continues to love his job and spreads positivity to all the tables he serves every night. He wants to remind everyone that the reason he still loves his job even after 25 years is the clientele and that surviving the pandemic would not be possible without the teamwork and camaraderie of the restaurant industry.
The people working in the restaurant industry are, and always will be some of the most creative and resilient people out there. No matter the situation, they find a way to get through it, which is why I am not in the slightest bit worried about our restaurant scene here in Saint Louis. Not only did we take the brunt of it in stride, but we found ways to conquer COVID and come out on top. I have no reservations in saying that our restaurant scene is going to climb its way back up into its rightful place among Chicago, New York, and New Orleans.
How could it not be with people Like Haris, Kurt, and so many more spreading positivity and making headway daily?