After 18 months of collecting dust on their dining room tables, most restaurants have opened their doors again, and owners are ready to improve their businesses for the Muncie community.
“The pandemic has been challenging, but it has also been a time for innovation,” Morgan Roddy, owner of Queer Chocolatier, said. “For me, the biggest challenges are that I can’t have customers in my space, but I still have my employees with me.”
Queer Chocolatier is one of 43 local restaurants that were awarded funds from the City of Muncie’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) to help recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Roddy said the funds will help Queer Chocolatier purchase machinery that will make it easier to produce chocolate and also purchase signage for the restaurant’s new building at 201 S. Walnut St.
“My larger capacity machine will make my best-selling chocolate, and my next largest machine will make my second best-selling chocolate,” Roddy said. “I’m also going to get a custom mold so I can have bars that are the right size and shape for selling.”
During the earlier months of the pandemic, Roddy spent much of her time focusing on her online business. She said developing the web business was a “crucial thing to our long-term success.”
“It’s going to allow me to greatly increase my capacity of production, and the goal is to really expand our online presence,” she said.
Moving forward, Roddy plans for Queer Chocolatier to host chocolate factory tours for children and have chocolate tastings in the store. She said the business is grateful for the funds it received but felt the process “should have been a little bit more organized.” She had to go through a website portal on the City of Muncie’s website to apply, which collected basic information about her business, including her name and address.
Roddy said she was told there would be more information about receiving the funds in about two to three weeks, but she didn’t hear anything, so she called the mayor’s office for more information.
“I called and left a message for Abby [Bledsoe] at the mayor’s office, and then a couple of days after that, I called again,” Roddy said. “She said that I should have received an email by then, which I hadn’t.”
Ten days later, Roddy said she still hadn’t heard anything about her application, so she decided to voice her concerns on Facebook.
“A city council person reached out to me and asked me what I was experiencing,” Roddy said. “Within a couple hours, she came back with all the information I needed. I had to be mean on Facebook, essentially, to get basic information.”
According to a Sept. 24 press release from the City of Muncie, each business applying for ARP funds must complete federally required paperwork after the independent volunteer committees select them to receive funding. The city also offered two informational Zoom meetings in September for businesses to learn more about the grant process.
After Mayor Dan Ridenour established a committee including Muncie administration officials, members of the Common Council and other community members, subcommittees were developed to individually determine eligibility and grant allotments, according to an Aug. 17 press release. The press release said no elected officials have served in any voting capacity for fund distribution.
Following her initial meeting with the committee for the funds, Roddy said there was no follow-up information made available to her. A lot of information she received was put together by other businesses going through the funding process.
“There’s a lot of miscommunication or no communication,” Roddy said. “I don’t know if that’s just because of me, or because of the nature of the volunteer committees.”
However, Scottie Limbird, one of the Twin Archer Brewpub managing partners, said he thought the application process was fairly easy.
“We just had to come up with some financial records proving that we had been in business for the past several years,” Limbird said.
Limbird said the only difficult part of the process was “trying to get that information into the format that the city wanted.” Some of the information requested included sales records and a detailed report of how the business would use its funding.
“We are using the money we’re getting for the unsexy aspect of heating and cooling within the building,” he said. “We are taking the money we’re getting and matching it with our own funds to replace furnaces and air conditioning units.”
Twin Archer Brewpub experienced product shortages during the initial stages of the pandemic, including chicken wings and ground beef, which Limbird said still fluctuate in price and availability.
“We have to be really creative in sourcing and doing some other specials just due to disruptions in the supply chain,” he said.
Valbona Deari, manager of the Red Apple Cafe, said she is going to be using the ARP funds she received to pay for a new espresso machine for the restaurant while trying to compete with other local coffee shops.
Deari said it took about three months to be approved for the funds, but she believes part of it was because she didn’t get everything in order and ready to go sooner.
“I think part of it was my fault … I would say it took a month to get everything in order, so that was my fault,” she said. “I think if I had had everything together sooner, it would have been quicker, because after that last application, it wasn’t too long after that that everything was approved.”
To prepare for using the new espresso machine, Deari is participating in a work-study program with Coal Yard Coffee, a coffee shop in Indianapolis.
“I’ve been emailing them back and forth, and we’re trying to set up times to meet in-person,” Deari said. “And then, in exchange for them teaching me everything, I’m going to work some hours in the afternoons.”
Deari found out about the program after she called places in the area and asked if there was any way she could watch their processes . She said she only looked at shops in Indianapolis because she thought that would be better than looking at competitors in Muncie.
“[Coal Yard was] the second one that I got in contact with and they were like, ‘Yes, that sounds awesome,’” Deari said.
She also said Coal Yard roasts its own coffee, so she’s hoping for a partnership with them once Red Apple Cafe gets its espresso machine. Deari is hoping the new machine and the ARP funding will “create more buzz” for the Red Apple Cafe.
“If the coffee thing takes off, we’re hoping we may be able to transform this place in the evening as a hangout for college students to come get coffee [and] get snacks,” Deari said. “Hundreds of students could utilize the Wi-Fi here or just hang out with their friends. It kind of just depends on how everything works out — it’s hard to tell at this point.”
The $2 billion set aside for the restaurant sector will have nearly $900,000 unspent, according to a Sept. 24 press release, which independent volunteer committees hope to distribute through another application process before the end of the year.
Contact Maya Wilkins with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @mayawilkinss. Contact Mackenzie Rupp with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kenzieer18.