A Lot of Sleepless Nights… Soup & Such Emerges the Other Side of COVID
By Evelyn Pyburn
As it was for so many restaurant owners, 2020 was a year like no other for Mike and Antonia Craighill, who own Soup & Such in two locations in Billings.
Without the Paycheck Protection Program and a loan program through Big Sky Finance, they would not have made it, they readily concede, with only some tiny bit of worry that they still might falter. That’s a worry that only comes of looking over their shoulder and wondering if it’s possible for the economic impacts to happen once again with a resurgence of the COVID virus.
This month marks the Craighills’ tenth year in business, having started out in a small store front in the Heights. Ten years ago, as tough as the going was for their shoe-string endeavor, they never imagined their tenth year would be even more challenging.
For the Craighills, a pandemic could not have happened at a worse time – not that anyone plans for such a thing, but the timing was about as bad as it could have been. They had just ended a foray into trying to expand their business into Bozeman. They discovered that long-distance management was just too great a drain on effectively managing their existing businesses and took too much time away from family. The failed attempt had exhausted their reserves and they were still in the process of recouping when the pandemic hit.
That they had so many other people depending on them and the success of their business, was the Craighills’ motivation throughout the economic impacts imposed because of COVID-19. And, it was hard. They speak of many a sleepless night. Lying awake with minds racing about how they could make it work.
The Craighills employee 20 people, almost all of whom stuck with them through thick and thin. “We are blessed,” said Antonia.
“It was fight or flight for us,” said Antonia, “We wanted to keep our family and team safe and keep our community safe, and we wanted to survive — we didn’t want to go out of business. It was an emotional roller coaster. We would go to bed exhausted, just from trying to figure out what we were going to do next.”
“We slept on egg shells. Then we would say, ‘ok bring it on’”
One day Antonia said to Mike, “Can we just go for five hours without anything changing, or have a lunchtime without the world changing.”
Mike said, “We didn’t know what the world was going to bring… it felt like the world was ending.”
In a way Mike saw it coming. He had been following the news about what was happening in other countries and started planning what they could do should the need arise. They immediately started doing enhanced cleaning, but the impact descended faster than his planning. Part of that planning was a call to a businessman whose insight he valued, to set an appointment to “pick his brain.” Before the date ever arrived, “the world had changed.” Business closures were imposed and Soup & Such was closed.
Mike had a different conversation with his advisor than what he had intended. It was about how they were going to survive.
They had to close the restaurants for two weeks because they had never offered take-out service before. Things were changing quickly and in no time they became “carry out only.” In order to do that they developed a website where customers could make their orders which staff prepared to be picked up.
Being a buffet style restaurant, Soup & Such was far more vulnerable to the restraints imposed than more traditional style restaurants. Soup & Such, with a downtown location and a Shiloh Crossing location, is a soup and salad buffet with seven kinds of soup made from scratch every day, and 60 items of fresh fruits and vegetables, and four kinds of meats and cheeses. They are open from 10:30 am to 9 pm on weekdays, and 11 am to 7 pm on Saturdays.
Normally patrons build their own salads and serve themselves, but when it became obvious that that wasn’t going to be permissible, the Craighills quickly adapted a system of repositioning the buffet line so staff could prepare a salad and serve it as the customer identified what they wanted. In the beginning they barely had 25 percent of the business that they used to have on a normal day, and yet they were employing just as many people. Since they didn’t need bussers and dishwashers, some of the employees were brought back as delivery drivers.
Every other day Antonia made face masks which at the time were in short supply. Also in short supply were materials used for making the face masks. Antonia encountered a deal at Walmart for aprons, which she bought and quickly made into face masks.
The Craighills also own Velvet Cravings at 225 North Broadway, which was impacted in a different way by the COVID protocols. While the business was temporarily closed and was able to re-open without many restraints, it lost considerable sales because so many large social and entertainment events were cancelled. Sales are just now starting to rebuild as many people who put off weddings and other celebrations are now holding them with something of a vengeance.
Before COVID, the Craighills’ goal had been to get rid of as much debt as soon as possible, they were now desperately needing operating capital. At the onset of COVID restrictions, they had enough capital to carry them through for only two weeks.
While PPP funds were a godsend they couldn’t be spent on supplies, which were needed because in closing the business they gave away most of their inventory which would have otherwise spoiled. And, PPP only covered payroll. That’s where a $15,000 loan from Big Sky Finance at Big Sky Economic Development became a life-saver. They also got a EIDL loan, which Antonia said was a very difficult decision because it was not forgivable and they didn’t want to put their house “on the line.” But, seeing that a vaccine was “right around the corner, there was hope.”
Antonia said that she talked to other business owners who were closing their restaurants because they were afraid of losing their home.
“All this time we had our foot on the gas. We were peddling as fast we could. Working hundreds of hours.” Things are only now starting to return to normal. “We really only now have started to feel that, for sure, we are going to survive.”
The Craighills are no strangers to being able to roll with the punches. When they started their business they were the parents of three very young children, and the children went to work with them every day. The oldest was nine and the youngest six months. Today the oldest child is an engineer and the other two are in high school. All the kids were raised in the business, with ample opportunity to earn spending money, and without doubt having learned what business is all about.
Asked if Soup & Such had been a goal of his, Mike laughed and said not at all. It was Antonia’s life-long dream. Antonia said she wanted “a different version of fast food. Something that was healthier than a typical fast food.” Starting out, while Mike helped in the restaurant, he maintained a “real” job for a while, but when the time came, he discovered he had come to enjoy the restaurant business. “I fell in love with the people, the ownership and the entrepreneurship,” he said.
Mike has come to be known as “The Innovator” in the business.
Antonio’s really great love is baking, and hence they opened Velvet Cravings.
Despite all that they have been through, the Craighills still hold a positive attitude for the future. While they have abandoned the idea of expanding into any distant towns, they might consider opening a location in Laurel. And, said Mike, “I would love to go back to the Heights.”