Lee Meisel, the Lakota owner/founder of Leeway Franks and Leeway Butcher in Lawrence, Kansas, said of the way entrepreneurs are pivoting business operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic: “We’re writing the history book on this right now. And the world’s watching.” (Courtesy Meisel)
COVID-19 upended the culinary world as we knew it. But the necessity for agility in business is not a new concept, and Native Americans in particular are imbued with the ancestral wisdom of resiliency and adaptation.
When the coronavirus pandemic barreled across the nation, and shelter-at-home orders took effect, those very qualities came into play for Lee Meisel, a Lakota butcher who owns and operates Leeway Franks and Leeway Butcher in Lawrence, Kansas. The sister shops operate next door to one another, bringing all-natural, humanely-raised meats from small, local family farms to market.
Meisel launched Leeway Franks in 2015, serving up frankfurters, bratwursts and sausages, all made in-house. Leeway Butcher debuted in December 2018 as a full-service, whole-animal butcher shop and retail store. The businesses were hugely successful with minimal expense needed for advertising or marketing. (Roughly 90% of their business stems from social media promotion.)
Meisel has always been conscientious when it comes to running a lean business. He values not only mindfulness of expenses and budgeting to sustain and grow operations and staff, he believes in being attentive to detail and honoring every facet of a process, a business, a life (including animal life).
“There’s a parallel between indigenous values and resourcefulness — not wasting anything, and making sure that you are doing the best job that you can,” he told Native Business, drawing a parallel between finances and running a “nose-to-tail” butcher operation that utilizes every part of an animal.
“We have small, individual muscles that we can isolate and retail at a much more reasonable price — more value-added items,” said Meisel, noting that the COVID-19 crisis has caused issues in the meat supply chain, namely a bottleneck on the processing side, and thus soaring meat prices. Most processing plants are operating at 50-60% capacity to adhere to social distancing requirements, and that slow-down leads to a slew of backups and problems — most noticeably for consumers, price fluctuations.
But Meisel has an advantage. “That’s one of the upsides of being a whole animal butcher shop. We have access to things that a larger grocery store doesn’t,” Meisel said. While Meisel still sells the prime cuts — ribeye, New York strip, filet mignon, etcetera — he also educates customers about lesser-known and equally tasty cuts of meat. “We’re able to provide people with a wholesome, all natural, local product,” said Meisel, reflecting on the difference between mass-produced meat sold at grocery stores and what he sources from small, local farmers.
Yet simply offering a quality product is not enough amid a pandemic. As an entrepreneur, Meisel has had to think outside of the box every step of the way.
Carry-Out, Curbside Pick-Up, No-Contact Delivery
It started with rethinking the safety of their fast-casual model. “We immediately removed all self-serve items from our dining room and shifted to offering full-service at the counter,” Meisel shared.
When a statewide shut-down was imminent in Kansas, Leeway Franks closed its dining room entirely. “We met with our team to discuss options and all agreed that we would remain open for as long as feasible while offering carry-out, curbside pick-up and no-contact delivery for both the restaurant and butcher shop,” Meisel shared.
Risk remained a primary concern. “We offered our crew members the option to resign with the promise that we would not oppose their unemployment claims and that they would be eligible for rehire at a later date,” Meisel said. All but one staff member stayed on board — and Meisel has been able to retain each of those employees, while hiring more when delivery orders increased.
Among other adjustments, constant cleaning of surfaces became the norm for Leeway Franks and Leeway Butcher. “We put strict cleaning measures in place by double-disenfecting all surfaces, wiping down touch-points between walk-in guests and providing washable, reusable masks for our team,” Meisel said.
Among other measures, the businesses “installed a second phone line as well as call waiting.”
Building an Online Marketplace
Ordering online may seem par for course in the restaurant industry today, but it just wasn’t essential for Leeway Franks or Leeway Butcher until COVID-19 hit. Of course, multiple third-party avenues exist for businesses to accept orders online: Doordash, Postmates, Uber Eats, etc.
But as a small business owner, Meisel has always been wary of giving up “control over any aspect of the business.” And for good cause.
“These third-parties often take 30% or more of ticket totals which crushes small restaurants like ours, wiping out any potential profit margin,” he said.
So, Meisel recruited a local web developer to build out an online ordering system for the restaurant. “The online platform has allowed us to streamline ordering…. While we never saw ourselves in the online ordering or delivery space before COVID-19, now that we have it in place, it’s become a crucial part of our model,” he said.
Creatively Reimagining Socially Distanced Dine-In
When talk stirred about Kansas reopening, Meisel had to reimagine his space in the age of COVID-19. “Although the state now allows restaurant dining rooms to be open, the long, narrow shape of our dining room means we can only have 10 guests total indoors,” he said.
So Meisel and his wife added picnic tables outside, built by their retired dads. “Our landlord has generously allowed us to utilize a lawn area adjacent to our building,” Meisel explained.
He continued, “The outdoor seating has greatly expanded our ability to welcome guests back to Leeway, and while we continue to do the bulk of business as pick-up and delivery, we recognize how much it means to people to be able to come in, order and safely enjoy their meal together with us.”
When Meisel looks to the horizon, he doesn’t see things returning to “normal” in the near future.
“I don’t think that people are going to be flocking to restaurants anytime soon to pack them up to the bar,” Meisel laughed. While that may seem obvious, it’s a surreal and sometimes painful reality for some industry veterans whose careers and businesses, up until now, have relied on high volumes of people, oftentimes in tight quarters.
Change Is the Only Constant
The restaurant industry is forever altered, and more reevaluation and evolution will be required. “In this environment, especially in our industry, there is a tidal wave of change coming — everything from fair wages to representation in our industry,” Meisel told Native Business.
Adaptability is a core tenet of entrepreneurship at all times, and naturally the dial gets turned up on agility and innovation during a crisis.
“The ability to adapt and change quickly, and being flexible with your model” is pivotal, Meisel said. “These last few months have really taught us that you need to adapt to survive.”
The ways that all entrepreneurs show up may shape whole industries for decades to come. “We’re writing the history book on this right now,” Meisel said. “And the world’s watching.”
Meanwhile, he’s committed to staying in the game. “We’re two weeks away from celebrating 5 years in business as one of the only Native American-owned restaurants,” Meisel said. “This is nothing we could ever have imagined for our business even a year ago, but we’re glad to still be here, still serving the food we love and giving back to our community.”