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In what now feels like a lifetime away — the time before coronavirus — Conscious Eatery in Seattle was "at the lowest level of a springboard — we were ready to fire up," according to co-owner Chaz Rowlan. Rowlan and fellow co-owner Cierra Laub, who are also engaged to be married, saw a bright future for their philanthropic restaurant, induding opening a second location and perhaps starting a nationwide chain.
But while so much has changed for their business over the last six months, they've been steadfast in their commitment to giving away meals to those in need.
"We've seen so much struggle, there's more people on the streets than usual," Laub said. "Our own non-profit partners are losing their staff."
When CBS NewsConscious Eatery in October of 2019, they were a bustling, well-oiled machine. Every table was filled during the lunch rush and every moment of Laub's and Rowlan's day seemed to be a balancing act of managing the restaurant and supporting their non-profit partners. A fundamental part of Conscious Eatery's business plan is built around giving. Each guest can choose to "make it a meal" when ordering — adding a side item or soup to their entree — and in turn the restaurant donates a meal to those in need.
You read that right: For every meal served at Conscious Eatery, they give one away. They have donated more than 42,000 meals since opening in 2016.
"We're not here to be those millionaires or billionaires," Laub explained. "We're here for the sole purpose of helping the community and bringing everyone together."
CBS News returned to their establishment last month and found a starkly different scene. Conscious Eatery had shifted almost all their sales online. They'd opened and closed to the public multiple times, following Seattle's COVID-19 guidelines. They'd even encountered some unexpected hardships like needing to update their sprinkler system and kitchen equipment on the fritz. Under the circumstances, one could expect the chipper couple's outlook to have soured, their commitment to help others ebbing in the face of adversity.
You'd be wrong. The two donate meals twice a week to Food Lifeline and White Center Food Bank, local nonprofits in Seattle that feed the homeless and hungry. They've partnered with Frontline Foods to feed Seattle's essential workers. And they've started a new relationship with Operation Nightwatch, an adult shelter.
This combination of their original business model — setting aside money for donating meals regardless of monthly income — along with a handful of grants, small business loans and some donations from supporters, has kept them afloat and others fed.
"We really just built a whole new community outreach and connection program," Rowlan said. "So we can still give the services that we were providing before COVID-19."
Still, Laub and Rowlan are candid about the uncertainty they're facing. They're not sure the restaurant will survive exactly as it was before the pandemic. They've considered leaning more into their catering business, turning the eatery into a commissary kitchen or fresh market, or even creating an educational program to train unemployed people on the basics of running a restaurant.
"You need to find your purpose and then you need to launch and adjust," Laub said. "And you need to be resilient, because pandemics can be thrown at you."
Facing all this uncertainty, their personal lives have been put on pause, too. They were planning to get married in November. That's on hold indefinitely until they feel it's safer to gather with friends and family. The idea of expanding also has been shelved. The only thing they know about the future is that they'll still be following their dreams as one.
"I think that Cierra and I fell so deeply in love because we share a common passion in giving back," Rowlan said. "It made it so simple that we really love to give to the community. Let's do it together."