Locally Sourced: Rodina in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
October 15, 2020
While COVID-19 is altering nearly every aspect of life, small businesses are being hit especially hard. These changes are forcing business owners to adjust, but their uplifting stories of perseverance and creativity are showing what Iowans are capable of in difficult times.
Rodina means family in Czech, and Phoebe and Samuel Charles have worked hard to cultivate an environment where every one of their customers can feel like family when they visit their Cedar Rapids restaurant. But just as the duo was beginning to discover Rodina’s voice and customers, COVID-19 changed the way the restaurant business operates.
Phoebe and Sam’s journey to creating Rodina started with a move out of state. The two moved to Denver to work in the restaurant industry with no plan to return to Iowa.
Though Iowa wasn’t part of the plan, the desire to start a family and buy a house had them feeling the call to move back across the Midwest. The couple has family ties to the Cedar Rapids area and Iowa offered affordability, community and easy access to ingredients that would eventually fill their menu.
“When we first moved back, we knew opening a business was our goal eventually, but we didn’t know what it was going to look like,” said Phoebe.
Through pop-ups in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, the couple started to meet farmers and purveyors to figure out what exactly they wanted for their restaurant.
“We built up the restaurant and had our concept in mind – Midwest comfort food with sustainably sourced items,” said Phoebe. “We wanted to be casual, yet refined, so people can come as they are, but feel like they’re getting special treatment.”
Sam’s brother, who lives in New York, helped with the interior design and made the space feel like home. Walk into Rodina and you can see artifacts close to the owners’ hearts, including a painting from Sam’s grandpa from the 1960s, a table from Phoebe’s grandma, works of art that Sam created as a child and more.
“We wanted things that remind us of home. We wanted to feel cool and modern, but explicably homey and familiar,” said Phoebe.
That comfortable vibe extends to more than just the restaurant’s dressings. Guests can expect a warm and familiar style of hospitality from their hosts, as well as fresh, locally sourced food.
“A good portion of our vegetables are 10 to 15 minutes away from the restaurant, which is pretty incredible. We really wanted to celebrate that,” said Sam.
Sam hasn’t always had that luxury, with experience cooking in Chicago and Denver. “It’s really hard to have farm to table in big cities because it’s so expensive and hard to make accessible to the general public,” he said. “Here in Iowa, it’s a lot easier to accomplish that.”
But as the couple finally felt like they had figured out their clientele and their voice, COVID-19 hit. Rodina felt the impact immediately and had to furlough almost all of their staff.
Phoebe and Sam quickly got creative. They offered craft cocktails to go and take-and-bake options. They started a pop-up corner store of fresh produce, specialty items, meats and more from local farmers. The couple also created a program called Feed the Frontlines that allowed individuals to purchase meals for hospital workers and provided nearly 1,000 meals in a span of four months.
“It was really big for us to have the means to help when we felt very helpless too. It also brought money into the system so we could keep paying our farmers, purveyors, producers, etc., to help them stay alive,” said Sam.
Through those initiatives, Rodina had been able to go back to full service and reservations in a limited capacity. However, 2020 once again intervened.
“We were feeling this nice uptick and the derecho hit. We lost power for nine days, seven services. [The] derecho was the second time that we pretty much had to gut our inventory. And it’s huge, it’s tough,” said Sam.
“Yes, it’s been a struggle, and yes, it’s been hard, but it has been really cool to see what our community is capable of. I felt warm and fuzzy when people came in after they all had been through this shared traumatic experience – both with COVID and the derecho hitting,” Phoebe added. “It feels heartwarming that we can offer people a place of escape.”
As the colder weather begins to descend upon Iowa, restaurants with outdoor seating options will have to adapt even more. Feeling safe and welcome is going to be the biggest priority for those who decide to dine out. Rodina appears well positioned to offer an environment that emphasizes safety and hospitality.
“We have a consistent stream of individuals that tell us we are the first restaurant they have gone to since the COVID closure,” said Sam. “And to be able to provide an environment where individuals feel safe to dine, has always been number one.”