Country Waffles is a classic American restaurant. It serves breakfast and lunch, and on an average weekend there's a healthy wait for a table. The restaurant is part of a small franchise with 19 locations throughout California, and the restaurants are individually owned and run. The Country Waffles outpost in Hayward belongs to Neeru Brar, who purchased the business two years ago this month.
Brar had a varied career prior to purchasing the business, but she always wanted to do something that would benefit the community. When she was in her mid-30s, she realized that she wasn’t happy with the way her career was going and decided to do something about it. She took a leap of faith and decided to go into business for herself.
Country Waffles was one of her family’s favorite restaurants, so when she found out the business was for sale, she “jumped into in the car and went to see the owner right away.” Within six months, she was the owner of the business.
“My first reaction was panic.”
When the shelter-in-place order was announced, Brar said her “first reaction was panic.” As a relatively new business owner, she was “still learning, and still going through the growing pains.”
“I remember the exact date when they announced shelter-in-place,” said Brar “It was heartbreaking to say the least. Me and my staff are close—we’re like a family. When we heard the news, we all got together and cried.”
Despite her initial alarm, she was determined to focus on solutions rather than problems.
The first thing Brar did was sign up for all of the food delivery services. Once those were in place, she started using social media to reach out to the community.
“I’m very involved in the local community, so I put the message out there,” she said. “The support I got from the community was amazing. It brings me goosebumps. They’re the reason I was able to keep my doors open. It’s what kept me and my staff going every single day.”
One of the next things Brar did was apply for an Emergency Food Production Grant, a program created by DSAL and ALL IN Alameda County to provide $15,000 to local food businesses to prepare up to 1,000 meals for distribution to people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The grant initiative was made possible through funding from the Stupski Foundation.
“One of my friends, Luana, receives DSAL’s newsletter,” said Brar. “She emailed me to let me know about it, and I applied right away.”
“When found out we were selected, I was so grateful for the opportunity,” she said. “It helps vulnerable members of our community and it helps our restaurant as well.”
“Look for the good, and leave the bad behind.”
The food grant also helped Brar address her highest priority, which is taking care of her staff.
Right after shelter-in-place was announced, Brar put her staff on rotation. She gave the highest priority to staff members with kids and people who might not qualify for unemployment benefits. She plans to bring the rest of the staff who are on unemployment back as soon as she’s able.
“There were days when I wasn’t making any money in the restaurant, but I figured if I could keep my doors open to pay one of my cooks, that’s good enough for me,” she said. “As long as I can keep one of those guys fed and keep their families fed that makes me feel better.”
Today, Brar and her team are preparing for the time when they will be able to reopen the restaurant for seating with social distancing. She’s adding additional space between booths and installing partitions as an extra layer of protection.
“We’re taking those extra precautions and mentally getting prepared, but until it happens you don’t know exactly how it’s going to be,” she said.
Regardless of what happens, however, one thing Brar knows that she can count on is support from the community.
“Hayward has been amazing, she said. “The support from the community has just been so uplifting. If there’s anything we can take away from this is that there’s still good in the world and we just have to look for the good and leave the bad behind.”