Bryan Williams saw danger on the horizon back in February.
Williams and his wife, Janice Keller-Williams, own Keller Feed and Wine Co. in downtown Cottonwood Falls, where they serve Southern Italian and soul food half a block from the historic Chase County Courthouse.
“I could see it was going to be weird,” Williams said of the pandemic. “I’m a hippy dippy liberal, which shouldn’t mean anything, but I took a different position than some: safety first.”
They shut down the buffet, closed the dining room and switched to carry-out just a couple of weeks ahead of St. Patrick’s Day.
I was talking with Williams for the same reason I recently spoke with Heather Horton at Toast in Pittsburg and Karla Fleming of Sweden Creme in Mankato: With restaurants among the industries heaviest hit by COVID-19, I’ve been fact-checking politicians who say their party is the only one saving small businesses.
Williams grew up in small-town Missouri before going to boarding school and living in a couple of big cities on the East Coast. He ended up in Kansas City, working at Lidia’s Italian restaurant, owning a Mexican restaurant in Prairie Village and promoting the Kansas City T-Bones. It was in Kansas City where he met Janice, who had grown up in Cottonwood Falls, and the two vacationed there.
“I started to fall in love with this place and looking for a way to move here,” he said. “We’d go up and down the street and she’d say, ‘That’s where the grocery store was. That’s where the dress shop was.’ ”
Their route involved a couple of years in Emporia, where Williams restored and ran the Granada Theatre and Janice worked in fundraising, but they finally made it to Cottonwood Falls.
“When we moved here, everything had closed,” Williams said. “Pizza Hut had closed, the truck stop had shut down.”
Ad Astra Food and Drink, a cool gastro-pub in nearby Strong City, also had closed, though it would later re-open.
Keller Feed and Wine is in a unique position, Williams said. Janice has a good job, and the restaurant’s building is paid off.
“This restaurant is a love letter to the community,” he explained. “We just want to be part of the community and do good. I had some really stressful jobs for a long time. I’m 47 and feel like I’m 63. We just wanted to truck along and do all the fun things she did as a kid.”
Besides closing the dining room, he said, “We were buying Netflix rental codes and giving them to people here to convince them to stay home.”
He also had several hundred DVDs and Blu-Rays at home.
“My daughter started a free video rental — people could take them and bring them back or not, we didn’t care,” he said. “It was a fun little project for her.”
A rush on supplies had emptied shelves at the Dollar General, so Williams started buying flour, milk and whatever else people might need in bulk from restaurant supply stores, turned Keller Feed and Wine’s dining room into a grocery store and made deliveries to people who couldn’t get out. After spring break, when Gov. Laura Kelly closed schools for the rest of the year, they started serving free lunches and dinners for kids in Chase County.
But other people kept coming to Cottonwood Falls, particularly tourists from places like Kansas City who wanted easy getaways, and Williams earned headlines with his late-March Facebook plea for them to stay home.
“Then it got silly,” Williams said. “People started giving us money — locals would come in and write ridiculous checks. It turned into this really wonderful thing.”
“Then we started insisting everybody wear masks. That’s when the poop really hit the fan,” Williams said.
“Business just tanked. We went from record numbers to nothing,” he said. “I had to call the sheriff a couple times because (unmasked) people would come in with hats, stand in the middle of the restaurant and breathe in and out.”
Williams wasn’t intimidated.
“I’m a large kid with an extremely booming voice,” he said.
But he said the situation made life difficult for Janice, given that she was born and raised in Cottonwood Falls and makes every effort not to offend people.
“It’s like this in every town now. I wouldn’t want to be at anyone’s Thanksgiving this year — usually that’s a joke, but now it’s life or death,” Williams said.
Since then, he said, “we’ve done a lot of scrapping trying to figure out what worked.”
One day he had a crazy thought: “Smoked meats. We’ll drive it out to people. We said, ‘Hey, we’ll go through Topeka, Lawrence and Kansas City.’ We sold as much in one day as we normally sell in a month. It was outrageous.”
A few weeks ago they reopened the dining room with limited seating and “over the top” antique doors between tables. But Williams doubts that’s really safe, and it’s not fun for him or his employees, he said. They’ll probably keep the dining room open for the rest of the year, but that won’t be their emphasis.
Now he’s working on getting a meat saw and grinder with plans to add a butcher shop and sell produce.
To scroll the restaurant’s Facebook feed is to not only get updates on the daily specials but also to feel Williams trying to navigate the supply and demand, the rushes, the short-handedness, support and exhaustion.
“Every day I’m coming in here and figuring out what’s next,” he said. “You have to be pliable and do what your community needs. I try to be nakedly honest with people: ‘Hey, everyone’s wearing masks.’ ”
“It’s hard,” he said. “I hope we don’t get to the point where we have to put a donkey on the front of all of our businesses and hair salons and restaurants so you know where to go. It feels like that some days.”
But Williams isn’t backing out.
“I’m neck deep,” he said.