In the midst of what is arguably the most difficult set of circumstances ever levied on the restaurant industry, it’s rare to catch wind of restaurateurs opening a new concept. But that’s exactly what Michael and Sarah Cherney did. On April 1, their restaurant, peasants FEAST, which serves up seasonal, West Coast–style comfort eats, made its debut in Solvang, California.
Despite the obstacles stacked against them, the couple did have a few factors in their favor. Once dine-in bans swept the U.S., their landlord cut the rent in half. That gave them the final boost of confidence needed to kick-start peasants FEAST with curbside and take out service only.
Although the brick-and-mortar component was new, the business was not; the Cherneys originally started peasants FEAST as a catering company and further expanded their customer base by hosting pop-up events throughout California’s Santa Ynez Valley. That existing consumer base and brand recognition have proven invaluable in leading loyal customers to order from the fledgling restaurant.
“We were both raised to fight and stand up for what we believe in,” Michael Cherney says. “So we decided that we needed to be here to feed our community.” FSR caught up with Cherney to talk about running a full-service restaurant when full service isn’t possible, post-coronavirus challenges, and risking it all to feed a community.
What was the risk of opening during this crisis? Why were you willing to take that risk?
If we fail, our family will lose literally everything. So opening was taking a huge leap of faith. But we felt that, with our previous history here and connection to this area, our community would never let us fail.
So far, they have been here for us. Not only have we gotten orders, but people are also buying merchandise and gift cards. A former landlord actually purchased 50 $50 gift cards for his entire staff, and people out-of-state and out of the country have bought gift cards and then asked us to donate them to local families in need.
We’re making adjustments as we go. But at the end of the day, we have no other choice but to make this work. We couldn’t sit here and wait for a government bailout and keep paying rent, our employees, and our other expenses.
What’s the inspiration behind the name peasants FEAST?
Our focus is on community, which is the “peasants” part of the name, and celebration, which is “feast.” When we say the word, peasants, it doesn’t come with negative connotations. We refer to ourselves as peasants, and the farmers, ranchers, winemakers, fisherman—the agricultural community that supports us. The peasants are the heroes, and we want to show that to our customers.
It’s especially timely in light of COVID-19. I think the majority of the country is just realizing how important the local food systems are now that people, especially in the larger cities, are struggling to find good, fresh, safe food. Small, independent farmers, artisans, winemakers, etc. are the reason we exist. Our restaurant is the middleman; I just take the ingredients and try not to mess up all that hard work.
What do the daily operations of an off-premises–only full service look like?
We’re open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Customers can order online at peasantsfeast.com, and they can pay and specify pickup time on our site. We’re also taking phone orders.
The menu changes often. The family meals change weekly, as do the specials. I get bored really easily and feel like my guests do too, especially right now. So I keep it interesting by changing the menu according to what’s available at the farmers market. I’m not ever searching for products that are impossible to find; I’m searching for what’s readily available, fresh, and local.
We’re not doing deliveries yet. We’ll cross that bridge when and if we need to, if people tell us they’re having a hard time getting food. But we don’t want to advertise that right away because we don’t have the manpower. It’s me, my wife, Sarah, and two line cooks in the kitchen now.
What challenges are you anticipating in opening the dine-in part of your concept after the pandemic ends?
Public and employee safety is and will be our No. 1 concern. So adding the element of people coming into the building is definitely a little scary. We may be obligated to conduct temperature readings for people who walk in.
But I think the hardest part will be getting our momentum back to the level it was pre-coronavirus. Right now, we’re not allowing most of our staff into our building. So we literally have stopped doing everything except our takeout operation. We will have to finish remodeling and creating the dining room we previously envisioned with tables and chairs that accommodate social distancing.
The most important and rewarding part of all of this is to be there for our community; we just want to pull this off, make them happy, and keep them safe, whatever that entails.