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Banking on KC – Laura Laiben

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us today is Laura Laiben, the Founder and the Main Dish at the Culinary Center of KC. Welcome to the show, Laura.

Laura Laiben:

Oh, thank you.

Kelly Scanlon:

I talked to you at the start of the pandemic just after the stay-at-home orders went into effect, I mean really early on, before PPP was introduced, and really before any of us had a clue about how long this pandemic was going to play out. And what I really liked about our conversation at that time was that you had summoned what you called your inner cowgirl and you had jumped on your horse and you were prepared to ride hard. Well, here we sit, what is it nine, 10 months later, and your doors are still open unlike some of the other businesses in your industry. What's been your key to your survival during the past several months?

Laura Laiben:

Oh my goodness. Well, it's funny when I think back on that cowgirl analogy, because I think it's kind of cute how optimistic I was at that time.

Kelly Scanlon:

But you had to be, right?

Laura Laiben:

Yeah, you do, but now I kind of feel like I'm in one of those Western movie sets and I'm standing there in my cowgirl outfit, but the camera pans back and all of a sudden you can see it's all fake and the [laughing 00:01:25]. Oh my gosh, there's reality. That's what I mean, this stuff is real. I did mean it when I said it, but this is real. This is not just something that you get through, this is life-changing.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk to us about the experience. And when you say it's real now, well, it was real then too. And it reminds me of business owners when they first start a business, it's that passion and just going at it full throttle, working maybe 16 hour days and just doing whatever needs to be done to get those doors open and keep them open until they got enough customers coming in. And then all of a sudden it's like reality sets in and you have to stop and actually assess where you're at. And how are you going to be in this business for the long haul? Are you talking about something similar as far as the pandemic goes?

Laura Laiben:

I think that one thing that is pervasive about this is the ability to react on a daily basis as an entrepreneur. Most of us are strategic planners on a long-term level, we like to make plans and goals. And this is really about being on the front lines of a business and reacting every day to every thing that's going on around us and learning how to react and being okay with change is probably really important right now. Realizing that not only are we reacting, but our consumers are reacting the same way.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are some of the things that you have had to do that have been beneficial to you? What are maybe some of the things that you tried that is like, "Okay, we tried that, but that's just not working either because it's too expensive to do, because the customers don't accept it, or just for whatever reason and so you have to make adjustments." What have been some of yours?

Laura Laiben:

It's so obvious that, it wasn't to us at the time anyway, that we needed to ramp up our online cooking classes. That was obvious, so we did. You pour jet fuel on that area and you start doing it. At the beginning, those online classes did very well. And we thought, "Wow, we've figured this out," but the interesting thing that happened is that so many people got into that space, that there was a drop-off in the numbers that were signing up and we had to regroup and retool and think, "Is this something we want to continue to spend time on? Is it where we're going to be able to survive?" And we had to pull back on it. So it seemed counterintuitive to pull back. But what I have learned now over nine months is this is my personal feeling. Whenever everything changes back, and then we'll never go back to normal, but when it changes back and people stop getting into this space and giving it away free and trying to keep their brand alive, I think that we'll be the one that people look to in terms of cooking education online.

Kelly Scanlon:

What's been your secret sauce that has kept the doors open?

Laura Laiben:

It really has been our ability to ramp up our chef prepared frozen dishes and to interpret that into curbside dinners during the times when people needed it the most and that still is really what's keeping our doors open. The other thing that we've done is we have created products in our online store for people to purchase that are geared toward what they're doing at home. So we have what we call Foodie Gift Boxes and Cook Better Boxes, which is basically a cooking class in a box. And what's kind of cool about that is that they are doing okay. Especially at Christmas, we're seeing them really ramp up. But those will survive this and they are more evergreen, that's not something we'll put away and go, "Thank goodness we had it." I think we'll continue to build on that.

Kelly Scanlon:

I've heard you say that during times like this you have to triage each day and I'm not talking about what we talked about earlier, I'm talking about personally that as the business owner you have to triage each day to put yourself first, what are you referring to there?

Laura Laiben:

What I'm referring to when I say something like that is that it's already isolating enough to be an entrepreneur, but when faced with this, and in particular, when your staff are either not working, because you've had to temporarily put them on unemployment or if they're just not in the office, you are constantly 24/7 on. Nobody can do that full time and realizing that you have to support your own mental health, emotional health, physical health so that you can get through this is really important.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have talked about how this is similar to the stages of grief.

Laura Laiben:

It is not lost on me that there are people out there who are losing their lives or losing the lives of people around us. There's no doubt about that. That tops everything, but there are all kinds of loss involved. My industry that has been impacted so intensely, we didn't do anything wrong. We need to realize that and keep that tenant in front of our face all the time, or it will really get you down. But having said that, I've found myself in those stages of grief and I don't know if they're in the same Kubler Ross stages, but they're definitely different stages and I think the first one is clearly fear. I mean, it is fear big time. There's a saying that I put on my desk in April and let me see if I can remember this. "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it's faced."

Laura Laiben:

So looking at the hard stuff is really important. I also believe that with fear, you have to look at it straight ahead. We're born fearless. I think life makes us fearful. So I went through that fear for a while, but then it turned into anger because of everything that was happening. If you spend all of your time being angry, you can't do any good work to try to get to the other side of it. So then there were times when I was so proud and happy of how we were managing it with our people and they're all legitimate feelings. I think now when it just keeps going and keeps going. I think there's a sense of numbness comes into play, also at the same time, kind of a sense of resolve. People say, "You see the light at the end of the tunnel." I am not convinced it's still not a train, but I am starting to think that it might not be a train.

Kelly Scanlon:

You recognize that there is a larger community out there of people who are hurting, of people who are in worse straits, if it's possible, then you are, and you are doing something about that. Talk to us about that involvement and what it is that you are doing.

Laura Laiben:

The one thing that most entrepreneurs are doing, especially in this industry right now is they're looking for sources of cashflow. They're looking for income streams just to get by. And food prep or ghost kitchens or whatever you want to call it is something that we have a working kitchen that's not being used for team-building and private events. We are set up to deal with this and do these kinds of team building, if you will, activities, because we've done our All Hands For Hunger, which oddly enough came out of the recession of 2008 as another model that we did. So the program really came out of my participation in the Chef Collective KC, and there was a woman involved in that program that had a lot in common and we worked well together. So she has a program called Together at the Table and I've joined that program with her.

Laura Laiben:

And basically the way it works is people donate to cover the nominal costs of a thousand servings of food, so they are basically sponsoring the day. That the money is used to buy product to make those dinners that are highly nutritious, which is what we do. And then she picks up the product and she is involved with either repackaging, and if we give it to her in bulk, or taking it straight out and making sure it gets to the right people who really need it. Her business is called Pete's Garden, but the program is called Together at the Table.

Laura Laiben:

She believes strongly that what happens around the table is important and that's what we've said for years, so our missions align. It's been a lot of fun to work with her and think that this is something that even could continue beyond the pandemic, because the food insecurities will not go away when the vaccine comes out. I'm not going to get rich on it. Nobody will, but it will keep my people with a job, but it will also put food into the mouth of the people that... I don't think, really people understand the depth of food insecurity that has happened and has gotten larger during this time in Kansas city. And as a food person myself, it is unacceptable to me to think that there are people who are hungry.

Kelly Scanlon:

It's another one of those things that's been with us all along, but the pandemic has just highlighted it. And we've seen that in so many other instances as well. And so, as you say it, it might reduce a little bit once people start finding jobs, but it's still going to be there.

Laura Laiben:

Yeah, absolutely. The driving force for me in that kind of community service is really that I believe strongly that if you do good, then you'll do good. Point yourself in the direction that feels right and do your best work and apply the skills that you already know how to do and something good will come of that. I've never been motivated by big bucks. I've always been motivated by doing good and I think people will recognize that and then support you in any way that they can. And we've been surprised, we have several sponsors lined up and we're rocking and rolling.

Kelly Scanlon:

And if somebody else were interested in sponsoring a day, how do they get ahold of you to do that? Is it best to go online? Is there someplace you can sign up or a phone call? How does that work?

Laura Laiben:

It would be fine for anyone to email heather@kcculinary.com and she will put them in touch with the right folks. And we would love to have someone that helped to sponsor even in part, if they can't sponsor all. Each sponsorship is going to range anywhere between 2,500 and $3,000 to do a thousand servings. That's a lot of food.

Kelly Scanlon:

Now, one of the interesting things, I think anyway listening to you talk, is that in a time when so much seems out of your control. Whenever you can do something like this, it not only is keeping your people employed and it's not only feeding people, but it's you yourself. I have to believe that it gives you some sort of control.

Laura Laiben:

Yeah, it really does because you know that you're fostering goodwill and that fuels you to do the harder things on the other side. It also gives your employees something to do besides be worried and be nervous. That's kind of a strange way to say that, but they're proud to be a part of that. And I think they are, and I am for sure, so that reflects in how we approach what's happening as a result of the pandemic. It's just been a good program. I would like to see that grow into something else. So if something good comes from this, it would be jet fuel on that program for us that we were doing anyway.

Kelly Scanlon:

Laura, I know you've been through severe business interruption before, you're no stranger to this. You had some health issues that actually changed your career path and resulted in the culinary center and you had a major fire as a business owner. So adversity isn't new to you. Still, this pandemic is one for the record books. I think we'd all agree. What have you learned about yourself and about business that could be helpful to our listeners who are struggling right now?

Laura Laiben:

Well, adversity isn't a new thing to almost anybody right now. And I want to say again that regardless, I may talk about business a lot, but I'm very conscious of what people are going through in terms of physical loss. But having said that, one of the things that I've learned about myself is that I have to trust my gut. I have to trust what I think I should do. I am the only one that really knows this business. Now, having said that it's important to surround yourself with people smarter than you and who have the ability to see things from a different perspective, who aren't in this 24/7 and they can help you look. You should definitely listen and be open, but in the end you have to trust yourself. The other thing is to kind of use a Buddhist philosophy of looking at things and that is don't be afraid to sit back and just observe, because you'll get to your decisions better if you're able to look at it objectively and that's hard to do.

Laura Laiben:

I think another thing is to recognize that you've been around the Granny's Barn a few times, I say at work now, my new favorite saying is "I hate to spoil the ending, but I think everything's going to be okay." It doesn't mean it's going to be fabulous or get back to where we were. We were on our fourth year of growth and this just blew it open. Throwing everything on the wall is what I felt like I've been doing for nine months. And having those plates spin at the same time is mind blowing and it takes your center away, because one minute you're talking about what happens if I closed down completely, another time you're thinking about let's grow this area, another time you're thinking about maybe I look for a financial partner. It's crazy-making, but you have to compartmentalize all of those different things and work through them and it's overwhelming.

Kelly Scanlon:

How can Kansas City as a community help its small businesses emerge even stronger from the pandemic?

Laura Laiben:

I think keeping their eyes open. It's hard to watch. It's hard to look at, but if you stared in the eyes and really consider the fact that there are businesses that are closing every day, because they can't keep going, they need your support in any way that you can give it to them. You need to understand what it looks like. If we didn't have these certain kinds of businesses. That's what you're facing here. And so looking at that hard thing is tough for everybody, but our businesses, our small businesses create our culture in Kansas City and in everywhere. Some of my friends that are closing doors to their restaurants, it breaks my heart because these are the places where we go to build community, and we both go to build culture, we go to make decisions.

Laura Laiben:

And these guys have put everything into it and through no fault of their own, they're out. So the community can help by supporting small business and that's almost become cliche, but figure out how to do that. Call them up. What are you guys doing? How can I support you? Here's my $10.

Kelly Scanlon:

Whether you understand it or not so much inspiration here today I think for a lot of businesses. Very well said and I appreciate you taking the time out of your laser focused day to share some of these thoughts with us and offer these words of encouragement. Thank you so much for what you're doing, really appreciate it.

Laura Laiben:

Thanks for the opportunity, I really appreciate what you do too, Kelly.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Fostering community goodwill and being a catalyst for positive change is embedded in the ethos of Country Club Bank. Laura Laiben, our guests on this episode of Banking on KC, joins us to share how during this pandemic she has reached out into the larger Kansas City community to help others who are food insecure, despite her own company's struggles. As Laura reminds us, if you do good, then you'll do good. Yet many of the small businesses that are lending a helping hand are struggling themselves and we must do what we can support them because small businesses give Kansas City its flavor. They create our culture. They are places where we gather to build community. They make Kansas City, Kansas City. If you're a business owner who'd like to visit with us about your financial situation or business operations, please reach out. Country Club Bank is here to assist you through the pandemic to a brighter future. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.