Support Others This November: A Conversation with Fork and Spoon Head Chef
The holidays are approaching soon, a time to enjoy the company of those we love and eat lots of pie and turkey. It’s a time to reflect on our connections with others, those things that we are grateful for. It’s also a time to think about the needs of others in our community, who may not have the resources they need during the holidays. Especially with the pandemic continuing to affect so many aspects of our lives, it’s important to recognize the resources available for those of us who are struggling right now. Here in Bozeman, we have Fork and Spoon, Montana’s only pay what you can restaurant, serving affordable food made from locally sourced ingredients. I had a conversation with head chef Leah Smutko of Fork and Spoon about how they’ve been doing during the pandemic, what to expect as the holidays approach and what we can do to support others during these difficult times.
Cassie Pfannenstiel: How has Fork and Spoon been handling things during the pandemic and what sort of changes have been made?
Leah Smutko: When the pandemic first caused lockdown back in March, Fork and Spoon decided to go to a take-out only model, which meant that our doors were still open to the public. Anybody could come in - just no one could stay in the dining room. We’ve been seeing a steady increase of people per day, but it’s hovered around 90 to 100 people a day is what we’re serving. Especially right now, the numbers are a little bit higher. We’ve been running on a very lean staff to make sure that we are reducing contact. We unfortunately don’t have any volunteers coming in anymore, so we rely on three staff members in the building at any given time to get all the cooking, cleaning and the deliveries done. Our donations typically coincide with people sitting down and eating, coming in and volunteering or coming to fundraising events or doing catering - and all of those require big groups of people, so those unfortunately have dried up. We are now looking for other ways of engaging the community in a more individualistic sense and a more creative way, as opposed to just coming in and doing our normal volunteering system.
CP: You mentioned that volunteering is not happening at the moment. What are the other ways that people can help support the restaurant?
LS: We do still have people coming in on a one-person basis. They can come in and help us dishwash during the night because it’s only two staff members here trying to get the whole restaurant functioning. We’re also looking to figure out opportunities as the winter is coming for volunteers to provide a warming station, like bringing in hot cocoa, hand warmers, handing out hot tea - things that are minimal contact, if not no-contact. We know we can’t have the dining room open, especially when it’s cold out and that is very frustrating to a lot of people. It is a gesture that we can do, that’s hopefully going to uplift morale as much as it can.
CP: Leading into the holidays, are there any special events to look forward to, especially for Thanksgiving coming up soon?
LS: We actually do have quite a few that HRDC has been really adaptive for, which I think is fascinating. We have a take-and-bake program that we’re partnering with Gallatin College for. They are helping us prototype these family-sized meals from Fork and Spoon, you bring them home with you, prepare them at your own leisure and then don’t have to come into the restaurant every single day. Our second one is our second annual Pie It Forward fundraiser; again, we’re partnering with Gallatin College and 175 pies are going to be available for sale. They’re all homemade, and they’ll be ready for people to pick up for Thanksgiving. Huffing for Stuffing (https://runsignup.com/Race/MT/Bozeman/HuffingForStuffing2020Virtual) is still happening through the food bank; it is a virtual race at this point. They’re encouraging small groups of people to create their own teams, still participate in the run and go forth with what they were planning on doing, just not having a mass gathering. We are still hoping to do Thanksgiving dinner here at Fork and Spoon in a way that really celebrates the holiday. Moving into Christmas will also be coming up with some ways to make it special, ways to make Hanukkah special. We are figuring out a way that it can be celebrated with minimal contact.
CP: Are you planning on opening up the dining room for those types of events, how is that going to look?
LS: We don’t think so yet. Based off the caseload and the trends of the spread right now, it is an extremely high risk to staff a dining room of this size with unique individuals coming in. Plus, there are groups of customers coming in that are exposed to the elements and probably have a more vulnerable immune system. We are tossing around ideas for seeing how we can make it an outdoor event depending on the weather, of course, figuring out ways that we can maybe increase hours to serve the same amount of people but over a spread amount of time. Nothing is really set in stone, but we are brainstorming constantly to figure out how we can still make these events something that people want to participate in and feel like the holidays are something to look forward to this year.
CP: Have you had any issues with sourcing local ingredients?
LS: Actually, no. I am so stoked on that, to be honest. A lot of the farms in the area have adapted at an incredible pace where they’re doing online ordering, no contact drop-offs or no contact pick-ups. A pandemic doesn’t affect your soil, basically. And that is a true testament to the sustainability of agriculture; it’s just going to keep on trucking. And I’m really fortunate that the farms in the area are willing to work with us on a limited budget and for excess product. And just making it work so that we can get good food, nutritious food and local food out to the people that don’t have as much access to it.
CP: In your position as the head chef, how has the pandemic affected you personally?
LS: Obviously, it’s a lot quieter. I see my volunteers, but I don’t get to see as many of my customers anymore, so that morale aspect of it is a little bit lower. It was really nice being able to walk out into the dining room, sit with somebody, see how their day’s going and get to know what’s going on with their life at that moment. It used to be a very homey and community-oriented space; there’s definitely that tension of standing far back from each other or not seeing each other at all. We’ve also taken some budget cuts here, so my program director and I have decided to allocate some of our hours elsewhere to ensure that we can help other programs that maybe have furloughed staff and alleviate the Fork and Spoon budget a bit more. It’s different for sure. I’m excited to see what types of adaptations can happen for those take and bake meals, for meals that can be ready later. Or how can we make to-go meals efficient and low waste as well - ecofriendly as much as possible.
CP: Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
LS: Mostly what I want people to know is that Fork and Spoon is still functioning, still thriving and still feeding people in every way that we possibly can. We just don’t want people to forget about us. And if anybody has ideas for how they want to be engaged with Fork and Spoon in a way that doesn’t involve actually coming into the restaurant, then I would be thrilled to have those contacts.
Here are some great additional resources:
Gallatin County Food Bank:
Food and Personal Care Pantry:
Bounty of the Bridgers MSU Food Pantry:
Love Inc. Personal Care Pantry: