How Some Area Businesses Survived the Pandemic and What They Learned
|The General Thomas panini. Seasoned steak, provolone, bread & butter pickles, red onions with house horseradish aioli. Photo: Phil Armstrong.|
by Robin Gee
Photos by Phil Armstrong
Grassroots and Vine | 1011 S. Fort Thomas Avenue, Fort Thomas
|Grassroots & Vine. 1011 S. Fort Thomas Ave. Photo: Phil Armstrong.|
Welcome to the next installment in our series, "Northern Kentucky Bounces Back to Life." This series is sponsored by meetNKY. We sat down with area business owners to ask about the past year and their plans for the year ahead.
Barb Thomas and her husband Chuck Thomas had experienced wonderful growth in 2019, just one year after they opened their casual dining and wine bar Grassroots and Vine in Fort Thomas. They were excited and ready for even better times ahead as they further refined their menu and offerings. All that was cut short, however, when the pandemic hit.
Throughout the past year we’ve heard many people say, "We’re in this together," but for Thomas that was more than just a nice thing to say. It was a truth that sustained her throughout the ordeal. She knew she had a good team in place, but the support they gave one another, along with support from the whole community, through this hard time made all the difference, she said.
|Grassroots & Vine motto is "Fresh is Best". Barb Thomas knew to make her concept work, she'd need a talented chef. Enter Executive Chef Joe Hren and his 22 years of experience.|
From eyesore to community
Thomas had a career in sales and marketing before taking time off to be at home with her children. When she was ready to return to work, she said, she did not want to return to the corporate world. She wanted to do something that would keep her in the community. She opened Fort Thomas Central, a lifestyle gift shop.
Offering gifts was great, but she wanted something more, a greater sense of community. She settled on the idea of a restaurant and wine bar. "I had the idea of making it a full-service community gathering place," she said.
She and her husband had been discussing and thinking about the idea for awhile. They had a vision — and that was a good thing — because that vision enabled them to see something few others could see.
"We kept driving by this location. It had been boarded up and condemned for seven years. And, seriously, it was just terrible, an eyesore."
Where most people saw a dump, for lack of a better word, Thomas saw a place where her vision could bloom. They heard the building had just been sold and so, they shared their vision with the new building owners, signed a lease and got to work.
|Interior. Photo: Phil Armstrong.|
|Interior. Photo: Phil Armstong.|
"We gutted it. I worked with an architect and designed all of the features and the outdoor patio seating and basically brought this eyesore of a building back to life. And it’s actually now on the historic building register," Thomas said. "It really is a bigger picture than starting a restaurant. We started a restaurant, we have a wine bar — and we saved this; we brought back to life this historic building and now, I feel, it’s an integral part of the Midway community."
Indeed, thanks to Thomas and other "pioneers" in this section of Fort Thomas, the Midway Business District, as it is now called, has become a vibrant destination within the city.
|A thriving Midway Entertainment District in the 1100 block of S. Fort Thomas Ave. |
Photo: Phil Armstrong.
Simple, beautiful, wholesome
The Grassroots and Vine menu has evolved with input from customers, Thomas said. The restaurant offers a wide range of fresh made, locally sourced brunch, lunch and dinner fare. Appetizers, including cheese boards and charcuterie, are big here, and they offer fresh salads, paninis, flatbreads and desserts made locally. "Simple, but beautiful and wholesome food," is how she described it.
|Fresh salads. Photo: Phil Armstrong.|
|Margherita Flatbread. House basil pesto, buffalo mozzarella, fire roasted tomatoes, balsamic drizzle, fresh basil. Photo: Phil Armstrong.|
"Originally, the concept was a fast casual restaurant with a full-service bar. Then, over the past three years, we learned more about the community and listened to what our customers wanted...At this point, as we turn three, I really feel we’ve really focused on what Fort Thomas and the surrounding area are looking for in a community or neighborhood restaurant."
The patio is an integral part of Grassroots and Vine. It can seat 40 to 50 people and offers live music Thursdays and Saturdays. The music was curtailed for a short time during the pandemic, but is now back, Thomas noted.
|The patio overlooking greenspace near the Fort Thomas water reservoir.|
|The patio at Grassroots & Vine.|
The food is first and foremost, but the wine is a growing focus. "We order from really small batch, small business wineries that include natural organic and biodynamic wines. We have a great selection... You can come into our place and definitely find a bottle of wine that you won’t see at the big boxes. The wines we order fit our culture. It goes back to being local, being small business, being woman-owned...," she said.
"'Fresh is best' is our motto, and if we can get those wines that are new to people and that have the best ingredients, and buy from companies that take the best measures to make that bottle of wine, that’s what we want to put aside for our customers."
A recent and unique addition to the restaurant’s menu has been a selection of gourmet tinned fish. "This is not what you think of when you go to Kroger and buy a can of tuna or sardines," Thomas explained. "The tinned fish we bring in is from around the world — Portugal, Spain, Canada, Alaska — and it’s all tinned within 24 hours of catching and preparing the fish. That locks in the best freshness you can have in a preserved fish."
|Gourmet tinned fish boards are a speciality at Grassroots & Vine. Photo: Phil Armstrong.|
Grassroots and Vine offers sardines, mackerel, lobsters, trout and more packed in pure olive oils, herbs and spices. "When you open this can of fish it’s like opening a little gourmet package of all of these flavors and nutrients...it’s of the finest ingredients and the freshest fish and the best cuts of fish they can put in the can. We basically serve them as seacuterie," she said.
Services and people kept things going
"When the pandemic hit, we were almost two years old. We had just come off a really great year and going into January and February we thought it’s going to be an even better year than last year based on the numbers, then all of a sudden, the bottom fell out. It was scary," said Thomas.
But, she said, "We really didn’t skip a beat. We said okay, what do we need to do to stay open? It forced us to think outside the box and to move forward with things like take-out and delivery and online ordering...Implementing those things helped us get through."
Having a great patio was a plus, too, once outdoor dining was allowed. "The patio doubles our occupancy capacity, and it’s outside. People love being outside especially in warmer months. With COVID still around, I think people will feel safer outside while it’s still active," she added.
Definitely the carryout increased, she said. Before, they encouraged customers to come in and sit down, stay and relax, but bolstering their carry out services, adding online ordering, helped keep things going. Instead of using an outside delivery service, however, they decided to hire someone to do in-house delivery, something Thomas said will likely continue.
"We decided we didn’t trust just anyone with our food. We wanted to make sure when it leaves our doors that it reaches the customer in the very same way as when it left...and customers see a familiar face."
Moving ahead with those services, as well as having a great patio, helped bolster the restaurant, but, said Thomas, that was only a part of the picture.
"We did have to lay most of our staff off so they could draw unemployment. We were working with a skeleton crew, but the nice thing is, when we reopened in June, most of our staff came back and that felt good," said Thomas.
"I felt like the pandemic helped us grow. It brought us closer to the community, but it also brought our team closer together. With all those things coming together, I felt we came out as best as we could during a pandemic, and it wasn’t easy, but we all worked together — It was better together for sure."
An education and an appreciation
Thomas said the experience of the past year did give her the opportunity to take hard look at the business and identify what was working and what needed improvement. They decided that they wanted to do more to enhance their wine sales and service.
"Our bartender and some of the servers including myself are going through The American Wine School certification, which leads into becoming a sommelier. So, we are educating our team to better serve the community, to educate them about the wine we offer. That’s one thing we are enhancing moving forward, and I really feel like we are honing in on what the customers are interested in from Grassroots and Vine."
She said the experience has also made clear how important their focus on locally sourced ingredients and fresh, wholesome food has been, and she plans on continuing and enhancing that effort.
The experience also fostered a closer connection with her regular customers, and, she said, she’s had the opportunity to meet new customers even during the pandemic. "People are searching for places on a smaller scale, reading reviews, listening to word of mouth. They don’t just show up at any restaurant to eat anymore. They like referrals and to go to the places they know they are going to be safe." Social media, sharing experiences and word-of-mouth seem to be stronger than ever, she said.
When asked what she will carry forward from this experience, Thomas said, "I would say we learned a lot about COVID, how to help stop spread, keep from getting it, but the other thing was how important it is to be a team. When you can work as a team, it helps you get through something like this so much better," she said.
She said she and her staff drew close as they were experiencing the same things together. "I’m very humbled that they stayed on board, they helped us get through this, and they are still with us. It definitely brought us closer as a team, really as a family, now."
PHOTOS Phil Armstrong:
About meetNKY Northern Kentucky Convention & Visitors Bureau
For more than 40 years, the Northern Kentucky CVB has provided outstanding meeting and convention services, and comprehensive travel information for business and leisure visitors to the Cincinnati and NKY area. In 1974, the Kentucky Legislature approved legislation allowing Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties to form the Bureau, which initially was called the Northern Kentucky Tourist, Recreation & Convention Commission.