Nashville climbed its way to the top of “it city” lists by the strength of each link in its food chain over the years. And, while this town has endured many iterations of success in spite of a monumental flood, outsiders that didn’t get why it was “it” and tornadic destruction of historical proportions (to name a few), its scrappiness kept on keeping on taking pride in its strongest link, an undeniable sense of community. But, what does a community do when hit by a global pandemic and all that comes with its gravity? It depends on who you ask.
Arguably one of Nashville’s prime restaurants with community top of mind, Lockeland Table(LT) is a driving force who even trademarked their Community Hour™ which gives back daily. But, with the one-two punch of March’s tornado and COVID-19 hospitality restrictions set by Mayor Cooper, co-owners Cara Graham and Chef Hal Holden-Bache were determined to take care of their own in order to continue serving the community they loved so much.
“We have a different story than most people because financially we had a roadmap set up to prepare for this. Though, the past months have taught me to do a better job at recognizing my privilege,” says Graham.
But, make no mistake, COVID-19 never gave a damn about agency when the virus reared its gnarly head.
“By the Saturday post-tornado, it was 50-percent capacity, 24 hours later the rug was pulled out from under us.” Graham was driving home from Colorado for nearly 52 hours, and says she needed every bit of that uninterrupted time to plan the flip from dining in, to take-out only. “What the kitchen did was incredible. We moved from things like fresh fish to hearty pastas and grits, things that could fill you up,” explains Graham.
Holden-Bache says that the pandemic certainly changed the way he and his kitchen staff cooks, “The math didn’t work with betting on to-go dinners.” That’s when the team decided on take-out dinners for four. They averaged 15 meals for 4 daily, $40-80 depending upon the protein. Holden-Bache admits that the to-go alcohol also helped, when it became legal.
The LT family wanted to feed the families of their community first and foremost. But collective decisions were also based on what could safely be done in the kitchen while socially distancing. Servers were working the phone for to-go orders. The area was without phone lines due to the March tornado for nearly three weeks. So, a burner phone was their sole source of outside communication.
“My servers were on it,” Graham says.
Immediately after the tornado Graham and Holden-Bache applied for and received a $50k loan to take care of their employees. They also sprung into action by applying for the Paycheck Protection Program loan, receiving the first round of payments. “Not one time did we close our doors, and paid the staff 100% salaries the whole time,” says Graham who’s grateful that her employees never had to walk away from their jobs, “Every day we were putting on a new pair of training wheels.”
Seven outdoor tables were added and are still along 16th street because of their due diligence ultimately paving the way for other restaurants with Public Works. “We were the first restaurant asking to do so,” says Graham.
Healthy guidelines along with contingency plans should something go wrong were shared with the entire team who were required to receive free COVID-19 tests at Nissan Stadium regularly in order to work in the restaurant.
“We had to change fear into courage,” says Graham.
When it was time to open back up for dining service, the staff decided when they felt strong and ready. LT opened for friends and family only once all tests came back negative, in order to ween themselves from those training wheels. “They got to make their decisions on their own and felt my support,” says Graham.
Holden-Bache remembers how everyone had a version of how the virus was one step behind them and afraid of some sort of negative backlash, “ I advised those around me and listened to those smarter than me. It almost had to be a gathering of opinions. I enjoyed that we never stopped cooking.”
The food being prepared was simple enough that a smaller crew could prepare it. “We had a system down. It took a minute. It felt weird. Every week things changed. We changed,” Holden-Bache says.
Working with primarily small farms, Holden-Bache didn’t have the problems that kitchens who cook primarily from commercially-raised sources had during the shortages. “But, near the end I was having to meat hoard. There’s something about this that will change the way I cook forever,” says Holden-Bache.
Yet, a chef can’t hoard produce in the same fashion.
White Squirrel Farm, a small Sumner County organic produce farm, didn’t have as much to harvest in March and April, as they do now. Chris Winters, farmer and founder of the farm advised Holden-Bache that the nutrients in his food were what people need for their immunities.
White Squirrel Farm’s produce is now featured on the restaurant’s vegan plate which Holden-Bache says he did to specifically support the farm.
Supporting his farm was something Winters says he’s particularly grateful, “I soon realized that customers were closed, because I all of a sudden had inventory.” Though Winters has about 25 CSA members, 90% of his produce goes to restaurants.
“They are literally the best place around. They have taken care of everyone. They didn’t prioritize anyone’s concerns. They prioritized everyone’s concerns,” says Winters.
Restaurants like Lockeland Table are also part of a community of chefs lending their talents to raising funds for area non-profit organizations.
Holden-Bache was to join forces with other area chefs in one of The Nashville Food Project’s (TNFP) signature fundraising series — Simmer. The entire series was expected to raise $25,000 which would have gone toward the general operating budget, which helps pay for staff, food for meals, supplies and fuel for the trucks to share about 5,000 meals in the community each week. Unfortunately it was cancelled due to COVID-19 guidelines as outlined by Mayor Cooper. Thankfully title sponsor, Piedmont Natural Gas agreed to give their $7,500 sponsorship either way, according to TNFP’s marketing and events manager, Jennifer Justus. She points to the first claim in their mission which is about bringing people together and to cultivate community and bring people together to grow, cook and share nourishing food while also alleviating hunger in our city. “But even in this time of social distance, we are not deterred. It’s just a new and interesting challenge for us that keeps us hopeful in learning new ways of bringing people together. We know that we all need each other now more than ever,” says Justus.
Back at Lockeland Table, Graham points that there are far fewer tables for the unforeseeable future. Holden-Bache says that Lockeland Table may never have a bigger menu as it was pre-pandemic. Still, the Lockeland Table family reaches well beyond its walls with open arms holding space for better days.