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No Place Like Home

March 03, 2021

Bubba Southern Comforts Supper & Spirits, located in downtown Des Moines, specializes in bringing Southern favorites and classic cocktails to the Midwest. General Manager Kate Willer is an Iowa native who moved to New York City to work in the restaurant industry for 12 years before returning home to Des Moines five years ago.

Kate recently sat down with Justine Nelson of Debt Free Millennials to discuss why she returned to Iowa, how her two favorite cities compare and why Iowa is a great place to visit, live and work. You can watch their full conversation here.

What made you want to work in the restaurant industry?

I’ve always been a people-person. I was a performer for awhile before I got into this career line and it was just a great way to be around a lot of people, things are ever-changing every day, [there are] different scenarios and really just the warmth and hospitality aspect of it. Being able to take care of people and help people celebrate is just a great feeling.

How did growing up in Iowa influence that decision?

I think the general hospitality vibe of like, “Hey, you’re family, come on in,” is a very Midwestern thing and I definitely feel it in Iowa. My family always had somebody at the dinner table joining us, whether it was a friend of mine or my siblings or my parents’ friends or coworkers, so I just think that it’s always just a friendly welcome vibe here.

Why did you make the choice to move back to Iowa? What factors drove this decision?

When I left Des Moines to go to college, I never thought that I would end up back in Iowa. I just wanted to go explore and it ended up taking me to New York for 12 years after school. A lot of things went into play [in moving back to Iowa]. The biggest [benefit] of it all would be the ability to kind of find a work/life balance. In New York it’s go, go, go and everything is crazy expensive. I love New York, I still love it to this day, but the ability to just slow down, still have a really great work ethic and amazing job and career opportunity, but be able to slow down, make that paycheck worth a little bit more and have a little more life with that work was really great.

All my family is here, so that of course is a huge draw. The city here is a completely different place than when I grew up, it is a really cool city. There are so many things here to experience that I never thought there would be, so it’s really been a great change.

You mentioned Des Moines really thriving as a city now. And you’re still getting all of that cultural experience [as you did in New York].

The food scene here has blown up dramatically. The arts and culture, music, all that kind of stuff is so amazing that I never knew was here, you know? I remember coming home for Christmas and my parents were like, “We gotta take you to this new restaurant, we gotta take you to this new shop, we gotta take you to this new museum, there’s this cool band playing or art festival.” So, there was always something new and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is pretty awesome. These were never around.” The fact that our city has a small-town feel in the people and the get-to-know-you-way, but still a bit more of a big-city feel in all of the activity and opportunity that’s around [has been] pretty awesome.

How has living in Iowa (during your adult life) contributed to your financial stability in your career?

Well, first I can say it was about three times as expensive to live in New York as it is in Des Moines. I had a condo there and I have a condo here and it is incredible, not only the difference in price being so much less, but what you get for that price. For example, in New York, I had an alcove studio which is basically a one-bedroom with a little “L” that your bed fits in. For a third of the price here in Des Moines, I bought a two-bedroom condo with [a] full wraparound patio, so I get the outdoors as well which was not something you get in a New York apartment. And then I was able to renovate it and make it exactly the place that I want because there was money to spare at that point.

I have more room than I know what to do with or need now but I’ve got room for all of my friends to come visit and spend the night instead of getting a hotel, so it’s an incredible difference in that. I bought a car, all that kind of stuff that you don’t have [in New York].

Can you speak to your experience with the cost of living in Iowa vs. New York City? What are the most drastic differences?

I owned my last place [in New York] for about nine years. I know that at one point I was paying $1,700 for one bedroom in a three-bedroom [apartment]. Well, a two-bedroom that was converted [into a three-bedroom apartment] and half the kitchen was made into a third bedroom. So, like I said, what you get versus what you pay is quite different.

In what ways do you feel that your income goes farther in Iowa?

Groceries, [I] definitely see a big difference. I feel like even little things like your haircut [are less expensive]. Travel expense is a little difference because it was a lot of trains [in New York], but still, that adds up versus a car and gas. But I know that when I rented a car to get around in the city, gas was crazy expensive. It was upwards of $5-6 [per gallon] compared to what it is here, $2 something. Really everything has that comparison I feel like. A lot of the benefits here, healthcare and stuff like that, I see the difference there. Not only just the price of the healthcare, but what is offered. Some [New York workplaces] don’t have medical, dental, vision, 401(k), all that kind of stuff. A lot of [workplaces] there would have a piece of that, but not all of it. Those kinds of things are great, too.

If you’re saving on those basic needs, then you’re able to give back and do these things to help your community.

I think it really makes sense why there is such a community vibe here. People can be more involved and in turn can meet more people. I’ve met people I never thought I would meet. I wouldn’t meet them through my work, or my family or friend group, but I would meet them through the other organizations that I get involved with or charity events or festivals that I’d meet people walking around. I feel like it definitely creates a bigger sense of community, which is really nice.

What is your lifestyle like in Iowa? Is it dramatically different than New York?

You take your lifestyle and you live the way you’re comfortable within your means, right? Dramatically different in that I can do a little bit more [in Iowa], yeah, for sure. Yes, I work like a crazy person, that’s the restaurant industry no matter where you are, but it’s different. It’s different hours, it’s different amount of people doing different work, so it really gives you the time to be able to go see my family and take days that aren’t holidays to go do stuff with them.

“We’re going sledding today.” “Okay, great, I can do that,” just simple things like that, that are much easier to be able to say “Yeah, I can rearrange a schedule and be available.” “Oh, there’s a cool concert I want to go see.” I can move things around so much easier now. Little things like that are so much easier to do here.

It sounds like overall there’s more flexibility with your schedule.

Yeah, I think so. Again, that’s just kind of the way the city works, and everybody wants the hard work and all that when you are there, but also knows that having a life outside of the job is a part of life. Sometimes in New York, that’s not the case.

What would you say to your friends back in New York who questioned you about moving to Iowa?

I’ve gone farther in my career here than I could have there in the time span. There’s just so many more people and so many more steps there to move forward [in my career]. A big part of why I wanted to move back was [that] I was given the opportunity to take a giant leap upwards in my career path, opening my own place. The opportunity to be able to move up and really have those challenges for my career were really something that has been invaluable, and I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned.

What advice would you give to people thinking of making the move to Iowa?

I say go for it. I said to myself when I moved, “I can always go back.” If I come [to Iowa] and I say, “It was a great try, but it ended up not being for me, you can always pick back up, get in the car and go.” Honestly, every fear that was a part of my move has gone away. You’ll always miss the place that you were because of different things that exist there versus here, but it’s worth it. [With the] quality of life [in Iowa], just give yourself a chance.


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