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The Divine Cinnamon Roll Deli

Columbia, South Carolina

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Interview with The Divine Cinnamon Roll DeliMeena Khalili
00:00 / 23:07

Interview recorded:
September 24, 2021

Jody Kreush, Owner

​We sit a lot with the doctors and nurses—I can hear it in their voices—they're beyond exhausted.

 

Conversation with passerby...

 

Jody

It's a city with a small town feel. Coming from New York City. This is like, you know, heaven for us.

Meena

And it's very it's got to feel very small coming from New York too.

Jody

It's good though, cause in New York I would probably, I don't know if I would stand out, you know, like here we're been recognized. We've gotten an award every two months. You know, pretty much we've been published in every famous magazine. And we've been in People magazine and the Food Channel and Southern Living and Low Country Living and Columbia Metropolitain, and The State... So I don't know if we get that kind of recognition up in New York because there's so many. And it's so funny because I am from New York City and I'm in People magazine for grits. I’d never even seen grits before until I moved down here. My father would be laughing hysterically if he was alive, but it's funny, you know.

So the reason we have the cinnamon rolls is cause my brother lives in Hawaii. He fell in love with a Hawaiian girl and she couldn't adjust to the climate change here. So anyway, long story short is I went out there to visit them one time I tasted Hawaiian sweet bread fell in love. It doesn't taste anything like, you know, stuff you get in the store here. And I was like, this would make a really good cinnamon roll. So I started working on it. Until I came up with these, have you? Had any of these yet? OK. Well, if you want, come here. Some were open one day and I'll make your family like lunch. You could take them for dinner or something. This way we could really try our food. You know, we have amazing Cuban sandwiches, amazing Italian sandwiches. We were published for Best Hot Dogs. You know, that kind of stuff.

It doesn't end when we close.

So yeah, the shrimp and grits are the thing we've become famous for. It's crazy. So we have a pretty big staff of like 20 people on our staff, 22 people and you know. There's not a day that they don't walk in that I don't make their breakfast for them and you know, we feed them their lunch and I'll, you know, take care of them. Like if they have hardships, you know we're we weather it with them. That's why we you know have put off dining inside because we have a few people who are at risk, you know.

Meena

Have you always been interested in owning your own business?

Jody

Well, OK, so I actually went to college for business marketing. We moved to Maryland and I did not go back into my field. I went into the restaurant field because my husband was working so many hours at night that I didn't want to put my children in daycare. So I started managing an Italian restaurant at night, and it wasn't until I started having all these chefs that I was having to retrain. They get technical skills but they don't get real world skills like how to get a ticket line of 60 and deal with the pressure. And I was having to teach them recipes and this and that. And I was like, I just thought everyone could cook because I was raised having to cook for my brothers because my parents worked so many hours! I could always taste a recipe and just go home and make it. I thought everyone could do that! So I did that for about 15 years, the owner asked me to take over the whole Italian restaurant and then he opened two more that he had me take on three Italian restaurants and I wasn't a fan of how he did things. So I decided, you know, if I'm going to work this hard, I'm going to do it for myself and I'm going to try and do a little bit better for the way I treat people. So when my husband worked for the paper industry and was relocated here we bought this property and we own that one with my sister-in-law and decided to do something our way.

Meena

That reminds me a lot of my dad. My dad felt the same way. He started as a line cook. Well, first he had a hot dog cart and then he was a line cook and he felt the same way. I always saw his rapport with his staff and how familial everybody was. That was my first job. My first job was to work for my dad. My brother's first job was to work for my dad. But that is so important to have that solid bonded working space all together. Knowing that about divine cinnamon roll deli is very important, I think.

Jody

I think our customers give us a little extra patience and stuff because they know how hard we work to take not only care of them, but everyone here you know? Just like every single time we get extra rolls it's going to all the nurses at the ICU units. And they're always posting stuff like thank you. You know, we send them platters or sandwiches, whatever we can. You know, I can't even imagine what they're going through. They look like zombies, you know. So anything we can do and they've and they've been dealing with it for as long as we have and a lot harder. Oh God, I can't even fathom what they the trauma of what they see every day and having them. And we get a lot of them here and we sit a lot with the doctors here and the nurses and we bring them out food and drinks and just let them decompress, you know, and talk. And it's—I can hear it in their voice. Beyond frustrated and beyond exhausted, yeah.

My immediate concerns were for my staff.

Meena

So about how many people do you say you employ? Did you say something about 20 people?

Jody

Roughly, you know we have about. Maybe 10 full time, 10 part time. And my husband helps out. I’m obviously am here from 4:00 in the morning. My son is here from 4:00 in the morning on, you know, it's a long day, but.

Meena

I was going to say you your hours start. At 7:00 AM. Uh, today is a Friday. It's 3:00 o'clock now!

Jody

And this is like our Wednesday because our Saturday and Sunday is the height of it. And we'll go to 2:00 o'clock just continuing—That's our manager right there. It's Misha. Right?

Meena

It’s Meena.

Jody

I'm so sorry! Beck is a powerhouse. She's just unbelievable. We have two managers and she, her name's Beck and Paul, and we have a team here that they're just phenomenal and they're from all over the country. We call it The Island of Misfit Toys.

I was just bragging about you. This Meena. Her dad used to have a restaurant—

Meena

—outside of DC.

Jody

Pork BBQ?

Meena

Yeah!

Jody

We love that. She worked in the restaurant business as a kid. Like growing up.

Meena

Yeah! I remember being 3 years old taking orders. I remember sitting on the counter, with the ticket and I couldn't write! But I remember it.

I am an eternal optimist.

Jody

Yeah, I was just telling her how you guys work, like all the time. Like it just doesn't end when we close. You know how hard you guys work. We’ve got a great team. Eden's from Chicago and she's our like pastry chef here. She rolls and she does all the dough. All the icing. She loves your food, Eden.

Meena

Yeah, I'm a fan of your work.

Eden

Jody taught me, everything.

Jody

Oh, I don't know about that.

Jody

These girls are always teaching me something. I'll tell you.

Meena

This is great to see how you are with your team. I was going to say family.

Jody

They are. They're like family.

Meena

Well, OK, so let's. Go back. To March 2020.

Jody

Oh, I remember that day it was. A Friday. So. I'll never forget it.

Meena

This is when the hospital started to get overwhelmed. Businesses started to shut down, schools started to shut down. They started not knowing what was going on. Parents started not knowing what was going on.

Jody

No one knew. There was so much non information that everyone was panicking. They were clearing out the stores. They were coming here, clearing out our food, you know everything.

Meena

What were your initial thoughts? And your immediate concerns?

Jody

My immediate concerns were my staff, how they were going to survive this if we had to shut down. Thank God we own these buildings. But you know we immediately told them that the city had a mandatory shutdown. And we had told anyone who needs food help, you know, just call us that we're going to be shutting down for a little while we figure this out and there was a disruption immediately in getting supplies like immediately. It was like, so we were like, you know, we can't operate like this.

We spent two months closed to be sure we could have a flow of inventory. It just wasn't happening.

Meena

So when did you air on The Food Network.

Jody

Ohh God, that was the second year we're open: 2017. We're on Ginormous Foods and then the following year we got into People magazine and then. I mean, 2019 was our best year, we were on schedule to break every record and we were making good money. And then everything changed. We have not made a profit since COVID. Not a cent.

Meena

It's a lot to take in.

Jody

Well, it's all because of food prices. I mean, everyone's like ohh, raise your prices, raise your prices, you can only raise your prices so much before people are like, “I'm not coming. I'm going to McDonald's.” We've seen restaurants do that, raise their prices, raise their prices, and they're out of business. Because people will just go so far before they'll eat at home.

Meena

So your immediate concerns were about your people?

Jody

Our staff, for sure, how they were gonna, you know, make their car payments, make their rents. You know, a lot of these people live from paycheck to paycheck, you know?

Meena

You were also set to be having your best year yet?

Jody

We were. Yeah. Increasing volume, increasing profit, increasing everything, visibility, you name it, and then everything just came to like a screeching halt. Like the brakes lights. And the uncertainty of not knowing how long it's going to take to come out of. You know, we're still in it. You know, a lot of things have, you know, accelerated and done really well. The restaurants are going to be struggling. For a long, long time until supply chains get normal until pricing gets normal. And it has nothing to do with inflation and these prices.

Meena

Well, my next question was going to be about how folks have been getting vaccinated since March of 2021 and how that might be impacting your business.

Jody

It's hard to know right now how that is affecting everyone's business. People are still scared to bring their little children out who are under 12 years old. You know, I've had so many families keep their kids in the car while they get their food because they're so concerned, you know. You know, people don't know. So my son, who has a three-year and a half year old, a four year old and a 1 1/2 year old, they would go out to dinner every two weeks. And because of their concern for their children, even though they're vaccinated and they feel comfortable, they won't. And that is going to affect the economy. You know there are more opt to make a dinner at home which might help Food Lion or grocery store. But you know it doesn't stabilize the restaurant industry.

Meena

So you mentioned something about the fact that you're redoing the interior of your restaurant. I'm curious, I spoke to a reporter a year ago who was asking me questions from a design standpoint about the way that people will feel going into spaces, and the design of spaces during and post-COVID. Do your decisions—and this is not a question that I have in here—Do your decisions on the change of your interior design or what you're doing inside have anything to do with your hopes for how people will see or perceive the interior of your space?

There was no getting anything so we had to scurry like everyone else.

Jody

We bought this building thinking maybe we get 20 people a day. And my son and I could operate it with maybe one or two other people. We didn't know the response we were going to get.

Normally Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we have a line from here that goes all the way to that tree before COVID. OK, so now with COVID, we can't have that people standing shoulder to shoulder, you know, and they tend to do that inside if we don't monitor the door, so now there's only going to be X amount of people that we can let go in there. We had to take out our community table, the big community table, so we could have a better flow with the line. And we're more focused now on before we were 30% to go 70% dine-in. So we're hoping to balance 50% to go 50% dine in, you know like more balance. So we're now setting up. The system with more focus on to-go.

Meena

I want to be clear about this: It's just your team. There's no DoorDash. There's no other group coming in and delivering.

Jody

We're not using any delivery service. So we've been #1 on TripAdvisor for four straight years out of 680 restaurants because we're so obsessed with the quality and we we're one of those restaurants that if you call us and say, “hey, this wasn't to my liking,” we're like, “OK, what can we do to make it right?” We'll do whatever because we know how hard people work for every single dollar. So if we can't do that, you know, with another service, then it's not for us. So we've paid a price for it.

Like I said, our sales since COVID-19 hit we wound up staying closed from March 20th, we reopened July I think 28th. So we were down four whole months. And we have a few people on our staff that have health issues. So that's one of the things that we took into consideration and we didn't want to reopen again until we could get our supplies. I mean, we literally you know we spent two months like calling to make sure we could get a flow of inventory and it was not happening.

So we had to make a decision, OK, we're going to open. But my son is going to wind up putting miles on his car and trying being as safe as possible, going from place to place, getting our product. They could not give us a supply chain. And this was before they had the 100 or more employee mandate for vaccination. So their whole warehouse, went down for two whole weeks. So there was no getting anything. So we had to scurry just like everyone else. You know, just groceries wherever and ever since everyone was doing that, prices went through the roof again. Everyone's after the same product.

Before COVID, we used to pay for our containers or clamshells that the cinnamon rolls go in, I think we pay maybe 6 to 8 cents a piece. Now we're paying close to $0.30 a piece. And that's every single item. Bacon was $30 a case. Now it's $109 a case. And that's what it was right from COVID on, it hasn't changed. It's not like, you know before that we had some fluctuations. You know, there would be like you know it would go up. $15 and come back down. Depending upon the seasonal fruits, you know like strawberries are up—the frozen strawberries that we use to make our strawberry cheesecake topping—even fresh strawberries, I think those went from a case was like $22.00 and they're like $130.00. Forks, just plastic forks went from $9 a case to $42.00 a case, Napkins... You know, you name it.

The easiest and hardest decisions were the same thing.

There's not one thing that we carry that didn't go from being affordable to being ridiculous, and that there was your profit margin, right? There was the money that every business makes. You know there was an article I read about how many florists in the United States have closed because people can't afford flowers, you know? That's one of the last things they think of now. They couldn't afford the boxes and the things, the plastics and all the things that went into it....

Meena

If you can think back to it, what was the hardest decision that you had to make. And what, if any, were the easiest decisions?

Jody

So the hardest decision was deciding to close because of my staff, I was worried about their pay. And the easiest decision was because of my staff, because I was worried about their health.

Meena

Yeah, yeah. Easiest and hardest. Yeah, they're the same.

Jody

They were the same thing. The whole group of us talked about how to open and just doing to-go and setting up everything outside and all of this masking and you know, sanitizer and...you didn't know what to encounter, because you've never encountered something like this.

Meena

And, you were still within that first few years.

Jody

Ohh yeah.

Meena

Of course you had a lot of fanfare. But it was also within the those first few years.

Jody

Ohh yeah yeah. Most businesses. The first five years are crucial.

Meena

Are you hopeful for the future of the devine cinnamon roll deli?

Jody

I am. I'm an eternal optimist because I believe that there is more good than bad, and I believe that everybody wants the same thing. Everyone should be treated with kindness, love and respect, and I feel that.

You know my dad was a Korean War veteran. And when we help each other, you know, everyone has the same common goal. We need to think about the best ways to help our children, our grandchildren and I do think that this will be behind us one day, you know. My dad lived through World War Two when he was a young boy and he put in perspective for me about how they never thought they were going to come out of it, and there's always going to be horrible periods and time you're going to in retrospect look back on and, the whole thing is just getting to the other side of it, learning from it.

We hope that everything gets back to a place where we can start hugging people again—Hugs are therapy.

I've learned a lot and any place that we open now will have a dramatic amount of outside seating. Yeah, because that is something that is essential regardless because regardless of COVID or not, it's what people want, you know, they want it even in the cooler weather. You can have heaters or the warmer weather, ceiling fans, they people want to bring their dogs, they want to bring their kids outside, you know? I should have had a giant front porch with seats. You know, and this would have been easier, you know, because people are less likely to be uncomfortable in an outside seating area, you know, with everything now going on.

Meena

What's next for you?

Jody

Have some things on the horizon. I am a believer in not talking about things until they're done because of bad luck. And things can always change. You never know when life is going to throw your curveball as COVID did, you know, we hope that everything gets back to a place where we can start hugging people again one day. And you know that type of interaction is definitely needed.

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