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Dayton small-business owners in conversation with each other, sharing their experiences, hopes and fears about running a small business during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bouncing Back: Meadowlark and Wheat Penny

The early days of Wiley and Liz.JPG
courtesy of Elizabeth Wiley and Liz Valenti
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Elizabeth Wiley, known as Wiley, and Liz Valenti met 40 years ago and before they were business partners, they were best friends.

In this edition of Bouncing Back – Dayton Small Businesses Survive the Pandemic, we hear from Elizabeth Wiley, known as Wiley, and Liz Valenti, two of three chef-owners from Meadowlark Restaurant and Wheatpenny Oven and Bar.

Before they were business partners, they were best friends. They met 40 years ago and know each other well enough to finish each other’s sentences. And, they say, the past year has brought them even closer. Wiley remembers March 2020 when restaurants were shutting down, and the coronavirus had them both on edge.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity):

Wiley: Liz has a lot of energy, and it was like she just started going even faster, her mind and everything started going even faster and faster and faster. And so she would just talk and she'd just talk a million miles an hour. And my response was more like I slowed down, like slowed down and didn't want to just kind of couldn't deal with it. So the faster she went, the slower I went. And we had to adjust to that. We were so afraid. We read so much about the safety -- it was just overwhelming.

Liz: I think we know each other well enough that on the important things, we share the same opinion. I knew how hard she worked. I knew how dedicated she was. I knew how smart she was, how giving she is to staff. And I know she's going to look out for me and she's looking out for these businesses in a way that I think we had a leg up. The cool thing that we have is that there's two restaurants, there's three partners, so it's kind of a little mini think tank. I would ask her how did that work? And she would say, great, she would teach me, we would implement that at Wheat Penny, because we do talk to each other numerous times a day.

Wiley: Only 10 times a day.

Liz: And initially it was like almost every hour because we didn't know what was coming, or how do we deal with this or how do we deal with that?

Wiley: And how do we deal with reopening? We can't put salt and pepper shakers on the table. How are we going to deal with that? What are we going to do about ketchup? What are we going to do about napkins? What if nobody wants to touch the menu? Each detail and there are thousands of details in a restaurant, each detail kind of figuring out how we would do it.

Liz: OK, we're going to curbside. We're going to have handheld computers.

Wiley: And then we had to close Meadowlark totally because we had three [COVID-19] cases in the kitchen and that meant everyone else in the kitchen was exposed and then there was no one to cook. So we just had to close without one penny of revenue for two weeks. And that was that was tough.

Liz: This has been the ultimate team building experience for us. So I feel like we're going to be in a better position from this pandemic to really take care of ourselves and to take care of our customers.

Wiley: You know, we talk to our customers every day through social media, just saying, hey, Dayton, and then just kind of going around the kitchen and showing what people are doing. And that extraordinary way of staying in touch, I don't know what would have happened to restaurants all over the country if there hadn't been that communication possible.

Liz: That was born out of necessity from COVID-19, but it's a good thing, it's a positive thing.

Wiley: During "The Before Times," we would do maybe, six, eight carry outs. And when we were shut down on March 15 and we started curbside carryout only. Oh, my God, you know, the first day was like 55 carryout dinners. And we were like, whoa, you know, and little did we know. I mean, within a week it was closer to 200. And Wheat Penny, they routinely do 300 carryouts on a weekend night. And that's what I'm talking about -- the customers. We had to change everything and so did they. And it's not just, oh, I'm hungry, let's go get something. It's more like these guys need our support. Let's make sure that we get carryout from an independent restaurant in Dayton at least twice a week.

Liz: Always articulating to us, "thank you." Always saying we're so glad you're here, we're so glad you're doing things right. They saw that we were really taking care of our staff and we were really trying to take care of them.

Wiley: And then the tips that they give for the staff, I mean, unbelievable. It's so giving and so generous. It's just a level of support that I never would have dreamed of before.

Liz: COVID-19 has made me even more committed to Dayton. I'm going to die here. And this is my home. And I am fiercely loyal to this amazing, creative blue-collar town.

Bouncing Back was produced by Jess Mador, at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO, in collaboration with Audrey Ingram at Launch Dayton, a network supporting entrepreneurs across the Dayton region.