As Women’s Month comes to a close, we recognize the millions of people all across the globe that are sacrificing to support their families, communities, and businesses during these uncertain times. Our gratitude goes out not just to every woman, but every human being that has done their part – from volunteering at test sites to sharing a simple word of encouragement to a friend.
Last week, we had the opportunity to speak with Executive Chef and Partner Erin Eastland of the Rustic Canyon Group – a woman who has been a pillar of strength for her employees amidst a global crisis, and our featured highlight for the Celebrating Diversity Series this March. In this article, we will hear her story; beginning with her first introduction to the restaurant scene and closing with her behind-the-scenes insight on managing Huckleberry, Milo & Olive and Milo SRO through COVID-19.
I’d love to get a little insight into your story; what first brought you into the business of food?
I started by working at sandwich shops during my high school summers. I did summer in Vermont and even worked at a very famous sandwich shop called Provisions on Nantucket. That was kind of my first taste of what I wanted to do: very busy, line out the door, sort of stressful – but fun and upbeat at the same time.
Every job I’ve had since then has been in the food industry, in one way or the other. I’ve done many things: right out of college I ran a cheese shop in New York City, then a gourmet deli, then an in-house catering company. I had a couple of regular restaurant jobs here and there too, bouncing around to hone in on what I wanted and to experience different aspects of the industry.
What led you to join the Rustic Canyon Group?
You know, I actually met Josh [Loeb] and Zoe [Nathan] just by going to the farmers market out here while I was still working at Cube in West Hollywood. Zoe and I were both pregnant at the time, so we kind of connected on what that was going to look like for us. About a year before I started, I had actually been approached by Josh and Zoe a couple of times to come work with them but I was hesitant – I liked my job and didn’t want to make the jump! But the third time was the charm.
What has kept you there?
I started first at Milo and Olive. They asked me to come over and help out a little bit at Huckleberry, and it eventually transitioned into running both places. I can’t even tell you how many awesome things keep me here. But I think it starts with the people you work with. The best part of my job is my CDC [Chef de cuisine], her name is Jen and we just work so well together. I hired her three months after I started at Milo, so she has been with me through the whole process. We thrive on humor, taking on challenging situations, and problem-solving. This is great because in this industry if you don’t have a sense of humor or an ability to problem-solve, you’re going to run into trouble!
In addition to this, working for owners that are truly hands-on and invested in their business – that is super inspiring too. Any time we make a change or have a meeting, they’re there and actively participating.
And finally, I absolutely love developing managers. I have shifted from putting all of my focus on food to being more 50/50 with managing food and managing people. I think it has helped me to grow as a leader. There are a lot of reasons to stay when you’ve got people that stay. Most of my managers have been here for a long time, some straight out of culinary school. Being a part of that process, it makes all the difference.
Now to the hard part – what has been your process to cope with COVID-19?
We have a really involved process. We called an owners meeting, talked through what was happening, and decided to have staff meetings to make sure everyone is on board. There was just a lot of fear and panic, and we wanted to curb that as much as possible. The next day, I held four separate meetings: two at Milo and Olive, one at Huckleberry and one at Milo SRO. We talked through safety protocol, what we would do to ensure everyone’s protection, and how to best protect our customers.
But we also talked about being mindful. We knew everyone was going to process this fear and anxiety differently. There shouldn’t be any hugging, but let’s be kind. If you need to vent or be angry, that’s okay. Take a moment for your mental health. We actually closed the restaurant for a few hours during the day to have these conversations.
Then, we got the word that we were not open for dine-in, which drastically changed our plan.
I actually sat down with every single staff member to talk over what that was going to look like for them. You can probably hear it in my voice, but my voice is gone! I’ve been talking so much. I mean it took two days to get through all of the employees. I think in this kitchen alone, we have nearly 80 employees. We went over what their schedule would look like now that we’ve reduced their hours, and to be honest, I was nervous to ask about six-hour shifts. We did this in order to keep everybody on because if we kept eight-hour shifts, we would have to cut some people. I didn’t want to do that.
I’m going to say almost 75% of the people I spoke to said that their other jobs had closed.
It was scary to hear how many people had lost their jobs elsewhere, and I mean I didn’t have one person that was like ‘What do you mean you’re cutting my hours?’ Every single person was understanding and happy to have a job. These are in-it-to-win-it people. They are an incredible staff.
What do you need most from the community right now?
I think the best thing to do right now without trying to sound cliche, is come buy our food! That’s what we need. We need people to trust how we are handing the food, the checkout process, any kind of interaction. Also, communicate what you need! If you don’t have eggs? Well, we’ve got eggs. You want chicken pot pie? We can probably figure that out.
Milo is a well-oiled machine and has been set-up for to-go orders for a while, so it has been a pretty seamless process. We have a pasta kit and a pizza kit for making at home, so we haven’t needed to change much over there. SRO is just doing their thing because it’s pizza. But at Huckleberry, we’ve shifted our menu to be more family-style. Our whole display case is a take-home meal plan. If people need to see more vegetarian or vegan options, tell us. We can certainly make adjustments to what we are offering.
To be honest – any smile, anything from the community is helping us along.
1014 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401
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Eric Ong of Mee & Greet stays true to his roots.
Images by Erin Doll | Editing by Tableside Staff