Q & A with Milk and Honey
When Darlene Morgan and Chris Hartman opened their new coffee shop on March 16, they had no idea it would take place in the midst of a pandemic!
The new small business owners had partnered with our team at Architect One back in 2019 to help transform an old bank building in East Topeka into a cozy and inviting coffee shop. When construction wrapped up in the early part of 2020 and it was time to officially open their doors to the public, news of a deadly virus was picking up steam and before they knew it, they were forced to close their newly renovated lobby and find creative ways to still serve their customers.
Q & A with Milk and Honey: Opening A Business During A Pandemic
What inspired you to open a local coffee shop?
Doing something that would help others is something I (Darlene) have prayed about for years. So when I met Chris, he was wanting to make a career change and I had been running my own lawn care and photography business for a while. I knew this wouldn’t sustain me so, Chris and I talked about having a food truck. However, a food truck would not provide for the community the way we wanted it to. We wanted to have a place where people could come inside and sit and relax. We met with Kevin Conard of Blue Jazz and spoke to him about having a coffee shop. Kevin told us about this bank building that was for sale. We contacted the realtor and a few days later we were meeting with the realtor and owner and everything seemed to fall into place after that. It took months but we knew this was God’s calling and where we were both finally meant to be. We also wanted to make sure we are partnering with local businesses the best we could. So partnering with Blue Jazz and serving a local coffee to our city was one of the best ideas.
What was the process like renovating the old bank building?
How was your experience working with Architect One?
When we made plans to purchase the coffee shop, we thought we’d do most of the work, such as painting and remodeling. I had no idea the City of Topeka required so much involvement when it came to opening your own business; so once we made plans to purchase we met with Cassandra and her team. Cassandra explained her part in the design and working with the City and it was quite a relief, although relinquishing that responsibility over to someone when you are investing money was a little unnerving. However, I must say the Architect One team was very helpful and responsive to all our questions and concerns. Throughout the process, there were several times when questions would arise from the contractors and ourselves and someone from Architect One was there to help us and often times with a quick response.
When did you officially open Milk & Honey?
We did soft openings on March 12 and 13th, but our first actual day open was Monday, March 16th, 2020.
What was your first reaction when you found out you’d have to close your business (or alter operations) due to COVID-19?
I remember hearing the news by text from our district city council member. I didn’t want to think it was true but knew that if neighboring counties were closing down, we could not avoid it. My stomach dropped and I wanted to cry. My daughters were there and asked what was wrong and I didn’t know what to say. I told them our coffee shop needed to shut doors because of the virus, but I didn’t want them to feel more concern than necessary, so I hugged them good night and went to bed. I texted Chris and asked him what he thought and he reassured me we would get through this. I woke up with the same sinking feeling and I prayed for God to give me strength knowing I needed to be strong for our team and my daughters. I got to our coffee shop and our team was working hard as if nothing had happened. They were brainstorming ways to get through this. Suddenly, my mood lifted and we just started working our drive thru the best we could. It wasn’t easy but as the days went on I realized how resilient we could be. I also noticed how much our city wanted to support local businesses. It was encouraging and I was (and AM) thankful!
How did these circumstances affect your employees and staff members?
It was devastating to our high school students, especially the seniors. I really felt for them. On the other hand, we got busy during the day which allowed the students to work when they were supposed to be in school. I think this really helped our students work through the grief of not being in school; or the sorrow the seniors felt for missing out on their last year of school. I don’t know if we got busy because of the stay at home order or because we are now East Topeka’s coffee shop, but I don’t know what we would have done if our students couldn’t work during the day. For the most part as Chris and I worked through this new way of handling business, our team worked along side us and we all seem to come together, support each other and lift each other up. In a bittersweet way the shut down was devastating, but it gave the students something to do to get their minds off not being in school and I think this has been a valuable life experience for them.
What initiatives have you been taking to continue serving clients during these unprecedented times?
Sanitize, clean, sanitize and clean more! As soon as our workers arrive, they wash their hands thoroughly and do so often. We do not let the customer handle the hand held payment device. We take their cards with a sanitizing wipe and ask if we can sign for them. Everyone has been very understanding and we even had a nurse tell us how much she appreciated us doing this instead of wearing gloves. We do our best to keep our distance at the window, too.
How has the community supported you during these difficult times?
The support has been amazing. I am in such awe over the people who come through our drive thru and continue to tell us how much they are happy we are here. Hearing this just makes us want to try harder, be more careful and take care of our customers best we can.
Are there any changes you’ll be making to your normal business operations when the stay at home order expires?
Yes. Once we are able to open our doors we are considering limiting the hours we stay open. Perhaps we’ll only open for a few hours in the morning and/or late afternoon. If we do this, we may continue it for a few weeks or until we get a better idea of the safety of our city.
We will continue many of the sanitizing and touch-free operations even after we open our doors. I think our community will continue to practice protective health safety measures for a long time, so we will respect this and continue to work hard to create a safe environment for our city as well as our team of workers.
What has been your biggest takeaway from this experience?
Patience and knowing God always has a plan. We initially wanted to open October of 2019, then December 2019 and then February 2020. We opened March 16. It wasn’t until a week ago I discovered the numerology of this. 3:16. Our wifi password for our customers is John 3:16. I think God knew we needed the time to get used to running a business. It’s been a big challenge for Chris, myself and our team. We ran out of money by the time we opened. Chris invested tons of his retirement into opening and it’s not been easy. This is all new to us and in order to do it correctly, God seemed to know we needed the time to gain knowledge and strength in running a business. This was a huge leap of faith and knowing nothing is in our hands. Its all in Gods hands and only having the drive thru has allowed us to get plenty of practice on making food and drinks. Although, we’ve had some pretty amazing days where we had cars wrapped around our building, I felt our team handled it well, and did so because of how we have been forced to operate with the limitations. They were ready. Now, we just need to adjust accordingly once we open the doors and handle the drive thru and the dining room.
I will also say that God has shown us to trust Him. He has really blessed us with orders like a big gift card order from the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce Host program that brought me to tears and more gift cards purchased from us. Not only that, but on very good sales days we took the money and paid a couple of accounts we needed to take care of. One particular contractor came through our drive through and gave us our check back. I cried and the lady who was with her husband cried too. I told her how happy we were to be able to pay the account and she told us, ‘I know. But we prayed about it and felt this was the right thing to do and now you can use this to help pay for another account.’ Indeed it did help. We have just seen God work in so many ways as we continue to work hard at being disciplined and diligent about helping our community.
What do you want your local community to know about your company?
How thankful we are that they are trusting us. How much we love our city and although this was a long time coming, God knew this was the right time. Even during a difficult time in all our lives, He is showing us how to be present to our community. Our goal is to be able to make people happy and blessed with a simple cup of coffee.