Heather Horton has a few pandemic messages for her fellow Kansans.
“Don’t give up. Take each day as it comes,” she says, which is good advice in any situation. But also: “Think about the people, not the profit margin, because that’s what matters in the end.”
Horton and her husband, Roger, co-own two small businesses in Pittsburg. They opened Sweet Designs Cakery, where they bake party-type desserts, in 2009. A block away is Toast, which they opened last October, with a concept that was unusual for Pittsburg.
Horton describes the menu as “comfort food but done in an artistic, bright, fresh way.” Their bestselling items are the avocado smoked salmon and the Pallucca’s Toast Melt, named for the century-old family-run meat market in Frontenac. All along, their plan was to buy as many ingredients as possible from farmers markets or farmers she knew.
“You go to Kansas City and you have probably a restaurant on every block trying to source locally and promote those farmers, but we don’t really have that in Pittsburg,” she says.
They also wanted to train people to work in culinary arts, an opportunity that’s also rare in southeast Kansas, she says.
“What we have is people going to work at restaurants that mainly serve fried food that comes in a box. We don’t have farm-to-table training,” she says.
She hired several high school students, hoping they could get school credit in addition to on-the-job experience. But COVID-19 put those plans on hold.
I was interested in Horton’s story for the same reason I recently wrote about Sweden Creme in Mankato. Since restaurants are one of the pandemic’s hardest-hit industries, I’ve been fact-checking politicians who like to say their party is the only one saving small businesses.
Horton, who got a Paycheck Protection Program loan and grants that have helped with payroll, says she hasn’t seen much state-level leadership.
“They shouldn’t be trying to one-up each other in a pandemic,” she says of those politicians.
Mostly, her businesses have survived through community support and their own initiative.
Roger had started baking bread, which they’d thought about selling in small markets around the area. They weren’t quite ready for that, though, because the bakery was too small. But with weddings and anniversaries canceled, business at Sweet Designs Cakery tanked. Dine-in service at Toast was closed from March until July.
It was scary, Horton says. They started doing curbside and pop-up lunches. They added DoorDash deliveries. They packaged up the hummus and marinated mushrooms and olives they served at the restaurant for #ToastAtHome. And Roger started baking more bread.
“We had curbside pop-ups of the bread. One day we’ll do all cupcakes, one day all cookies,” she says. “We started doing that three or four times a week, just trying to make enough to pay the bills and keep four full-time employees at the cake shop.”
Places like Pittsburg need people like the Hortons. They both grew up about 15 miles away in Girard and moved to town when Heather went to school at Pittsburg State University. They were part of efforts to save the century-old Colonial Fox Theatre, and helped establish the Pittsburg ArtWalk. Now, their businesses are part of the Block 22 retail and housing project downtown.
“When we were younger, we would travel and go to different cities and think, ‘Wow we should have this. Why doesn’t Pittsburg have this?’ It was always because no one has done it yet,” says Horton, now 37.
They could have moved anywhere.
“But why would we do that when we could try to just bring those elements here?” she says. “That way, kids growing up around us could have those opportunities: a cool place to work, a cool place to go eat.”
They could have opened a restaurant like Toast and made more money in a bigger city where people already appreciated what they were trying to do, she says, but the challenge of doing that in Pittsburg was more exciting to her.
“We still have work to do as far as opening minds,” she says. “We still have people who think all we serve is toast. Then they realize, oh, this is just a funky little diner with fresh food, all made from scratch, and they get to like us.”
Key to everything, she says, has been creating community. She thinks that’s why customers have been so supportive during COVID-19.
“It’s way more than just food for us, way more than just looking for a profit,” she says, which gets back to her pandemic message to Kansans.
“A lot of people who are comfortable with their lives and what they do got really rattled,” she says. But restaurant owners, she notes, “have to know how to adapt, think on your feet, making those tough calls and hard decisions with little time.”
That’s more good advice in any situation. But she also had one more message: “Wear your damn mask.”