Restaurants in the time of Covid-19: How one community rallied around its chefs

4 min read

Small Circle raised 10k for local restaurant workers with just a typeform, Stripe and a heaping helping of community spirit

4 min read
  • ChallengeHow can a startup that produces cookbooks about local cuisine, raise funds for their chef-writers during the Covid shut down?
  • SolutionA typeform set up with two branches: one to collect recipes for a cookbook, and another branch allowing people to purchase the cookbooks.
  • ResultIn just two weeks, Small Circle raised 10k for St Louis’ restaurant workers.

Mary and RJ are a creative couple from St Louis Missouri, and they'd always bonded over a shared fascination with food culture. After all, food is one of the pleasures of being alive. No matter how important the person, life's most joyful experiences almost always include a wonderful meal.

In 2019, RJ, who’s a photographer, was working on a project, documenting chefs at work. From conversations over the grill, he saw many of them get misty-eyed about writing a cookbook one day. At the same time, he and Mary, a writer, were looking to set up a business that would intersect each of their creative passions. They had a brainwave. What if, instead of every chef chasing their own cookbook, they contributed instead to a collective one? RJ and Mary could create an anthologized cookbook. They'd represent the diversity of their local dining scene: from rising stars, to chefs with their own Netflix shows. 

The concept for Small Circle was born. Unlike a regular cookbook, this one would be available on subscription. For a $50 rolling fee, subscribers would get a selection of recipes from a new roster of chefs every month. There were two 2019/2020 editions of Small Circle. They were well received by the St Louis restaurant community, and many chefs were delighted to have recipes in print. Until Covid-19 pulled the shutters down on restaurants worldwide.

The kitchen shutdown 

In March 2020, St. Louis County issued a stay-at-home order for its citizens. Every chef on Small Circle's books became unemployed, virtually overnight. It was—as many things in that time—unprecedented.

Mary and RJ wanted to do something to support the community that had welcomed them so warmly. They decided to make a special edition of Small Circle, with all profits going to unemployed restaurant workers. 

Here's another heartwarming story from the eye of the COVID-19 storm: Brewers, bakers, and furniture makers: turning crisis into opportunity.

Fundraising with recipes — when bake sales were illegal

The plan had two parts. Chefs would donate recipes to a special edition of Small Circle, and the food-loving public would donate money in exchange for a copy.

The challenge was to find a pipeline for collecting these two types of donations simultaneously. It also had to be seamless enough for a two-person team to run without excessive troubleshooting.

RJ's solution was to make a Typeform with branching logic. The first question asks whether you'd like to donate a recipe or money. If you'd like to donate a recipe, you're asked about ingredients and method.

If you'd like to donate money, you're funneled to a donation link, which operates via a Stripe integration.

This way, RJ and Mary ran their whole initiative with one simple form. 

The typeform was embedded into news articles, social media posts, and emails. The payment flow worked without a single hiccup.

“Nothing broke. We never had any problems with credit card submissions. I can't say how much Typeform just works flawlessly in terms of technical execution. That was a big thing for us.”

R.J. Hartbeck, Co-Founder, Small Circle

Because Small Circle's donations link was visually appealing and technically seamless, news outlets took them seriously. 

“Typeform was really doing a lot of heavy lifting for us as a small business, because we were able to present as a company that really had its stuff together.”

R.J. Hartbeck, Co-Founder, Small Circle

RJ approached the biggest local food publication, FEAST Magazine, and asked for their help. The magazine had considered similar fundraising plans from several other groups. However, most had been logistically half-baked. 

“One of the things FEAST said was that we were the first company who reached out to them for a fundraiser, who had also built their own pipeline. The onus wasn’t on them to figure out how to collect the donations, so ultimately they agreed to work with us. ”

R.J. Hartbeck, Co-Founder, Small Circle

FEAST Magazine's promotion increased Small Circle's audience by between 10,000 to 20,000 people, and donations flooded in. 

Finding a solution when heat was on 

The fundraiser ran for two weeks. In that short time, it raised over $10,000. Every cent went to relief funds for now-unemployed restaurant workers: Gateway Resilience Fund in St. Louis and the Chef Collective KC in Kansas City.

“Within two weeks of the lockdowns starting, we were able to build out this system that gets the word out, collects information and collects leads and all of the sort of things needed for a fundraiser.”

R.J. Hartbeck, Co-Founder, Small Circle

Everyone who gave money received a PDF of 100 donated recipes, designed by Mary. The interactive digital cookbook, "Extra Helping", featured a clickable map for users to see where each recipe came from.

Remember those early days of the pandemic, which felt like the apocalypse? Extra Helping kept people connected to their local community in that time, through food.  

At the time of writing this article, St Louis chefs are returning to their kitchens, and Small Circle are producing physical recipe books again. But RJ and Mary are glad to have given something back to their co-authors in a time of need. Not to mention, spread some joy during those long lockdown days. 

Their fundraiser remains an empowering example of how technology can help a community pull together during a crisis. 

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