Paying Attention to Their Purpose
Over-the-Rhine’s Pleasantry offering meals to healthworkers on the front line.
By Holly Brians Ragusa
In April of 2016, Pleasantry opened in Over-the-Rhine as a partnership between the successful duo of Joanna Kirkendall and Daniel Souder (also of 1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab). They named their venture after the nearby Pleasant Street, and according to Souder, looked to “hatch a wine centric, community driven restaurant, focused on natural wine, delicious food and craft coffee, with a level of attention you would see in fine dining, but more approachable.”
But the restaurant faced challenges with area growth and construction restricting access to Pleasantry for much of the time. “Our backs were against the wall and all we could do was go forward. In 2018, we faced the bottom, forcing us to take a hard look at the health of the business.” They made adjustments in hours and staffing, and financially, 2019 was their best year.
Then, on March 16th, Governor DeWine ordered all restaurants and bars closed. And a feeling similar to the one in 2018 hit the partners. “It was the right move to close.” says Souder, noting the need for social distancing during COVID-19, “But we could close our doors and hope there might be assistance later, or we could take ownership and control again. We took a shot.”
“It was the next day, Tuesday March 17th, when a call came in from a doctor at Children’s wanting to order and pick up five meals for his staff,” Souder said. Joanna’s husband, Eric, had spent his professional career at Children’s Hospital. Over time, he had encouraged many of his colleauges to patronize Pleasantry. “Of course we said no problem. That evening it hit Joanna. What if we offered up meals for hospital frontline workers?”
Having established the core values of their business to include sipping slow and acting with intention, the partners talked for two hours before going live with their concept at 10 p.m. that night. By morning, they had sold 180 meals. They called their effort Superheroes in Scrubs.
The goal was twofold. “One, to provide nourishing food to hospital staff risking their lives day in and out by just doing their job and second, to try and maintain our business in any way we could.” Furloughing eight full-time and ten part-time staff, they retained chef Evan Hartman, who had joined them before opening, and chef Tyler Stemmer, a three year employee.
Adapting their offerings into a well-executed takeout menu, they saw an increase in orders. Due to a demand for the Superheroes in Scrubs meals, they brought back a full-time cook and initiated a partnership with Tom McKenna, owner of Allez Bakery on Main Street. Serving nine hospitals and nineteen different units, Pleasantry creates 200 meals a day for healthcare workds, and Allez adds another 50.
Quickly shifting to a retail model, selling gift cards, merchandise and wine, Souder notes people are definitely drinking more. “I'm able to support the small wine producers and being that agent for them is pretty key.”
“It's a testament to our partnership, our friendship, that Joanna and I are able to know and play off other’s strengths and weaknesses.” Souder currently takes on many onsite duties as Joanna handles logistics and back-end orchestration, including managing supportive messages from purchasers, adding a note of thanks to each meal box.
“I miss our staff, our team, our family. I miss the human component, providing a livelihood for our staff and helping regulars celebrate special occasions. I don’t think we ever took it for granted, but reflecting this past month, we have something so right in an industry rife with turnover. You’ve seen many of the same faces here working for four years. Just that energy that comes with a full service busy night when things are running on all cylinders and our staff is working seamlessly. For me, there is no other feeling like when we are full and everyone is happy and enjoying themselves and you can take a step back and see it all.”
Emotionally overwhelmed at times, Souder points to the many thank-you notes pouring in from hospitals and staff, Girl Scout troop donations for service projects, alongside letters from hospital presidents lining their counter. A week into offering meals, Daniel realized the concept was bigger than all of them. An anonymous donor had called offering to match the next two hundred meals. To date, Superheroes in Scrubs has sold over 10,000 meals to hospital staff and workers in under four weeks’ time.
He’s grateful, saying it feels good doing something for the community that also keeps their business alive. “We’ve seen it so much these last four weeks, the human capital we’ve built here at Pleasantry with our regulars and neighbors. We’ll see them soon, fingers crossed.”
OTR in Action: For $10, donors can purchase a meal for a Superhero in Scrubs. Every meal you purchase for a healthcare worker will be prepared at Pleasantry and delivered to an Emergency or ICU Department in Cincinnati. http://www.pleasantryotr.com/cardsandmeals/buy-a-meal-for-a-healthcare-worker. Donors can also include a message of support with each meal.
Holly Brians Ragusa is poet, writer and family ringleader. She embraces words, supports global causes and local endeavors and loves calling Over The Rhine home.