Rapid City has branded itself as the “Little City with a Lotta Heart” and that showed through at this year’s “What’s the Big Idea?” entrepreneurship showdown in Neepawa last month. When area residents representing the Queens Eatery found itself before the judges, their bid for funding to help with upgrades to the restaurant’s commercial kitchen was an award that required very little deliberation. Recognizing the importance of the community bistro to the residents and visitors to Rapid City was compelling enough to secure a $1,000 prize. However, Kelly Spurway’s story itself was one that wasn’t shared with the competitors and observers on hand.
Spurway, who signed the lease as the new operator for the Eatery in July, has had an interesting journey in the food service industry before arriving at this opportunity which is close to her own backyard. Though never formally trained in the food industry, her passion for working with fresh food was first inspired by her grandmother when she was just five years of age.
“I started learning about canning and preparing food from my grandma when I was a kid,” says Spurway. “It’s something that I have passed on to my kids. It’s important that they know how to feed themselves.”
But it wasn’t just in the home that Kelly was running her own kitchen. She operated “The Uptown Moose” in suburban Toronto for a number of years before the property was sold to a national chain. In Manitoba, she has worked in commercial kitchens and served as a bar manager around her business scheduled as a mother of four children.
In 2013, at the urging of her children, who saw ads for an open casting call to appear on the Food Network’s “Master Chef” program, she submitted her application and was surprised to receive a call with a follow up interview a short time later. She was invited to attend a preliminary tryout with aspiring chefs from across the Province in Winnipeg, where her work placed her in the top five dishes evaluated. It wasn’t quite enough to secure a spot on national television, but it did give her a confidence boost that she was able to use to channel her creative energies.
Returning home from Winnipeg, she launched her own food blog “A busy mom’s cook book” to share recipes and tips for mothers like herself that are on the go with various responsibilities but still want to ensure their children are getting the nutrition they need – even on the run. She has been encouraged to see that her online forum has started to register with people, eclipsing 5,000 viewers who log in for helpful advice in the kitchen.
“When you have an active family, it’s important to get a meal on the table within 30 minutes. So I have included a lot of quick and easy recipes that accommodate this goal, as well as crock pot dishes that offer some heartier meals.”
Taking her expertise from the computer and into a commercial kitchen again was a leap that she felt so strongly about, she signed the lease and then shared the news with her husband Dan after the deal was in place. Some of the earliest challenges were not what she expected.
“Nobody likes change,” she says with her brow furrowing. “Creating the vision of the Queens the way I see it … we’re very ‘small town’ and some people just want to see it continue the way that it always was. Something as small as changing the color of the walls was jarring to people. So it’s an adjustment to show them that we can change the menu to take food from farm to table and that it is affordable to eat well.”
“People can fill up on eleven bucks here,” Kelly says with pride. “I’ve had to compromise a bit. There are about five items on the menu that we don’t make from scratch right here in our own kitchen.”
But not every dish offered has a guaranteed chance of success. Such was her experience with trying to offer some new dishes that conform to her image of food made from original, fresh ingredients in the kitchen instead of something out of a box. She was excited to advertise chicken tortilla soup one day on the menu, but then saw hours pass without anyone ordering the specialty. Finally, a group of men came in and one ordered the soup. When it arrived at the table, the rest of the party promptly ordered one as well. When asked why they hadn’t considered it directly from the menu, they replied “It sounded weird.”
While conscious of her bottom line and keeping her pencil sharp on expenses, Spurway is resolute about steering away from ordering from the bulk suppliers on some of the critical items on her menu – even when that may increase her line item expenses by up to thirty percent.
“Supporting local business is the way to go,” says Kelly. “Sure, I hear that ‘You can get that from Sysco’ but when you deal with the local vendors you know what you’re getting and they will work with you. The best example I can think of is Lauren at Hamiota Bakery. I wanted a burger bun that wouldn’t get soggy when fully loaded with the burger and fixings. They created a custom kaiser for us that is a little crustier – and they produce it with a little swirl on the top that kinda looks like a crown – it’s a bun that’s all our own. And they’re fast. I call my order in and its ready for me the next day.”
She shares that same commitment for local ingredients with all of the meat that is prepared in the restaurant as well. For her, ensuring that it is hand-prepared in the kitchen and will have a consistent taste and appearance for every customer, regardless of who’s on staff that day is critical to the long term success of the restaurant. All the beef, pork and lamb used on site comes from a local producer, A. & C. Hunter straight from the farm southwest of Rapid City.
Since Kelly came on board, Queens Hotel owners Jim and Lianne Christie view the operation of the restaurant, beverage room and hotel rooms as a partnership – each heavily invested in the other’s success. While food service is also offered in the bar, the menu doesn’t switch to processed food just because the restaurant has closed. Instead, there is an assortment of prepared meals that can be warmed up for patrons – ensuring that every dining experience on site offers the same quality.
The Queens Eatery does have a website at www.thequeenseatery.com and is active on Facebook as well for those interested to make the trip to Rapid City and savor the changes being served up daily on the menu. You can also check out Kelly’s blog at abusymomscookbook.blogspot.com