As 2020 opened, The Wheelhouse LLC was on a roll, coming off the best revenue year in its history and expanding operations to a newly launched food truck park.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Sales swiftly dried up. It forced husband-and-wife owners Zach and Melissa Smallwood to lay off staff and temporarily shutter both their brick-and-mortar restaurant and food truck.
As soon as Springfield’s stay-at-home order was enacted in late March, the Smallwoods say business came to a screeching halt. The couple first closed the mobile eatery at its new home in Route 66 Food Truck Park, followed days later by its restaurant inside the Vib Springfield hotel.
“It was just Melissa and I hanging out in the lobby of the hotel all day long with no customers at all,” Zach says of late March activity in the Vib. “We were closed for nearly two months. That’s a huge impact.”
Both reopened in mid-May.
The Smallwoods started The Wheelhouse as a Mexican-Thai fusion food truck venture in 2012. Six years later, Vib owner-operator Elliott Lodging Ltd. opened the Best Western hotel concept on East Sunshine Street, and The Wheelhouse quickly started service in the lobby. The first full year in Vib, starting in August 2018, set a record for the restaurant, Zach says, noting sales exceeded $800,000. By the end of 2019, revenue reached just over $900,000.
The Smallwoods say sales are likely going to be “way down” this year, declining to estimate a total.
Financial help arrived via the Paycheck Protection Program, as the couple qualified for a $75,000 loan. The funds equate to about 10 weeks of labor costs, Zach says. Since the closures, staff is back up to 16 from its previous high of 22.
“It won’t have a huge impact financially as long as the PPP forgiveness all goes through,” he says.
The right spot
The food truck’s menu offerings are largely Mexican, with burritos, nachos and quesadillas, while the Vib eatery adds items such as pad Thai and drunken noodles.
“We’ve always had a small menu and we throw stuff on there,” says Zach, who handles the kitchen, while Melissa oversees front of house. “If it doesn’t work, then we take it off real quick and try something else.”
The Wheelhouse was initially a side hustle for the couple, as they were involved in other professions at the time. Melissa taught yoga at the now-shuttered Spark Fitness LLC, and Zach was a high school English teacher in Osceola. Investment in the business was under $40,000, including an $18,000 food truck, Zach says.
Customers quickly flocked to the Springfield food truck, and the Smallwoods left their other jobs around nine months later.
“It was immediately about 80 hours a week for both of us,” he says.
After several years in the food truck, the couple were ready to transition. Melissa says it took around three years to find the right brick-and-mortar spot.
They reached a financial arrangement with Elliott Lodging to pay 10% of restaurant sales at the Vib hotel rather than enter a lease agreement. Zach says the deal includes utilities, internet and security. Wheelhouse employees do some of the lobby area cleaning, but hotel staff maintains the bathrooms and floors.
“I wasn’t ever really wanting to go and take out a big loan for a restaurant,” he says. “This is definitely better.”
Coffee and hotel lobbies are a natural combination, and The Wheelhouse has a Mount Vernon connection for its java.
KeenBean Coffee Roasters LLC has supplied The Wheelhouse since 2018. KeenBean co-owner Tracy Bradshaw says her shop provides roughly 10 pounds of coffee beans and two gallons of cold brew weekly to the restaurant, declining to disclose order costs. The order size is currently scaled back from roughly 15 pounds and three gallons before the pandemic.
KeenBean sells from a mobile coffee truck at the Farmers Market of the Ozarks, which Bradshaw says connected her and the Smallwoods. Each business points clients to the other, she says.
“It’s a great collaboration because hopefully we’re giving them more of our customers, and that will turn them on to their food if they haven’t been there before,” Bradshaw says. “It comes back to us the same way.”
Much like the brick-and-mortar eatery, Melissa says restarting the food truck needed the right situation. That surfaced last year when the couple met Route 66 Food Truck Park owner Kirk Wheeler. The park opened in February on St. Louis Street.
“It was his dream to open that food truck park and we were excited to help him make that dream come true,” she says.
The couple floats between working at Vib and the food truck park.
Some of the food truck’s former regulars are visiting the park, Melissa says, adding that each Wheelhouse location has some exclusive clientele. At the Vib, she says around 90% of the customers are from outside the hotel.
“We were excited to be a part of the hotel, but we were depending on Springfield to follow us hopefully into that lobby and continue to be dedicated, regular customers,” she says. “They did and I’m so thankful.”
A menu expansion is in the works, as is the possibility of a second food truck. However, the Smallwoods want to get the business clear of COVID-19-related impacts this year before taking on any new plans.
“People crave the food consistently and have for almost nine years now,” she says. “I feel like we’ll do OK at whatever we try.”
A former employee in the food service industry transitioned into a first-time business owner; grocery chain Aldi made its Branson debut; and Ozark-based nonprofit Garde’n Gate Provisions opened a thrift store and donation center.
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