Community Highlight: Black Cat
In 2006, chef Eric Skokan and his wife Jill opened Black Cat in Boulder, CO. They fully integrated the restaurant with their 425-acre farm so that they can serve certified organic food and use a lot of what they grow in the restaurant including wheat, bread and animal products from hogs and sheep. They’ve become central to their community in the approximately fourteen years that they’ve served them.
However, when COVID-19 struck America hard last March, Black Cat experienced heavy sales decline especially as confirmed cases began to overtake Colorado. The Skokans started convening with staff to brainstorm what they could do to conserve the business’s remaining funds and how they could operate moving forward, if it was possible at all. Transparency is often key in these cases, and their multiple staff meetings helped the entire time make informed choices together.
However on March 16th the state ordered all nonessential businesses to close, and Black Cat shut down all operations in compliance. They laid off their entire staff as well even though some of them have been with the restaurant for over a decade; though it deeply hurt the owners to have to do so, they didn’t see any other choice. Fortunately these employees wanted to simultaneously help themselves as well as the business, so they set up a webpage to handle takeout and delivery services and started building an online store to supplement income. These two efforts brought a lot of revenue back to Black Cat. Within the week, the owners were able to hire back nearly ten of their employees.
Introducing the Farm Stand
The owners of Black Cat realized a troubling issue as they began to go about their new lives under quarantine: Grocery stores were packed with people but the shelves were frequently empty. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, supplies were low and stores couldn’t restock fast enough, leading people to stockpile items and teeming the stores with a crowd too big to properly follow social distancing guidelines. A trip to the market meant joining the fray of a large, public gathering and touching the same surfaces as other shoppers, clerks and cashiers. The Black Cat owners realized that, in all likelihood, the rest of their neighbors shared their same concerns and decided to help everyone avoid a trip to the store.
Since they still ran the farm, they had a lot of ingredients that they would usually use at the restaurant. They took that excess and packaged these products safer, healthier way that promotes freshness and protects customers from the spread of germs such as those that cause COVID-19. With this new system in place, they employed their head bartender and head sommelier to manage the farm stand.
The stand sells produce grown on the farm as well as certain prepared food, for example fresh bread, lamb dishes and pasta sauces to name a few. As the farm stand took off, Black Cat also began seeing money generated from their online store as well as takeout and delivery services. All these revenue streams allowed the owners to hire back twenty employees that were laid off when the restaurant first closed down.
Mabel Arrives On-Scene
As business progressed, Black Cat sought to rehire the remaining staff members that were still out of work. The restaurant had an old farm truck that was out of commission since they closed, so they decided to paint it, add bells, install a freezer and shelves, and name it Mabel.
Mabel sells organic greens, root vegetables, fresh meat and even toilet paper as she drives around local neighborhoods delivering directly to community members’ doors. She even has her own website where people can view the menu and see where she’ll go next. People can also request that Mabel come to their neighborhood.
The owners say they originally started Mabel as a joke but couldn’t have predicted the massive welcome that she received: People now pour out of their homes when they see the truck coming, informing their friends and neighbors and gathering to catch up with each other when Mabel comes down the street. She’s not only delivering fresh food to people who need it but also bringing a sense of community to the people who gather excitedly to meet her.
Now, three Mabels roam neighborhoods around Boulder, CO and provide food relief to local communities.
Black Cat Moving Forward
Owners currently report that they’re breaking even. They’re not making a profit and not suffering a loss but, in their words, merely “treading water.” However they don’t view this as a disappointment but rather see it as an opportunity to do this for as long as the community needs them.
Despite not turning a profit, Black Cat’s owners are relieved that they don’t have to worry about not having enough money to last through the month. This provides a lot of mental and emotional relief which allows them to focus harder on the work they’re doing for the community. They’re also thankful that they can take care of their community in a meaningful way, helping the city of Boulder, CO continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.