Opening a restaurant is always a risky endeavor, but opening during a pandemic with the ever looming threat of a lockdown is a real roll of the dice. Nevertheless three new restaurants have chosen to make Keizer their new home– and now they’re in need of community support.

Though there is some COVID relief available for small businesses, the grants require records from pre-COVID to prove that a business has been affected. Because the Chicken Shack, Wicked Sweet Bakery and El Vaquero Santa Maria BBQ opened up afterwards, they are ineligible for the grants.

If these new restaurants are going to survive it will be based off of sales and revenue generation. In short, they need Keizerites to start coming through.

“Every person who owns a storefront here started with a dream,” said Markey Toomes, who co-owns The Chicken Shack with his wife Monica. Monica was handling the store during the interview time.

Markey’s specific dream was to own a franchise of his family’s favorite restaurant, the Chicken Shack. Originally from California, they fell in love with Oregon on a camping trip and decided to relocate.

The Toomes family found Keizer charming and after a year of planning, praying and searching, they opened The Chicken Shack’s first Oregon location in the Keizer Village.

“COVID is here and that has to be taken seriously, but to say that it’s strong enough to take away the dreams we’ve had? We can’t allow that,” Toomes said.

Though they came here to sell chicken, they also want to invest in the community. Part of why they love Keizer Village is because of all the community events the shopping center hosts – most of which have been canceled due to COVID.

“The other day at six o’clock half of my dining room was full of people in karate gear and gis. That’s not a liability, that’s a benefit to the community,” Toomes said. 

They gave over 50 kids free meals because of their accomplishments at the Keizer ATA, a martial arts studio. The Chicken Shack is also hosting Cook’s Night Out on Wednesday, Nov. 18.

“We would love to see the community come out and support us. We understand that they’re going through the same things we’re going through, it’s not like something where we’re asking them to carry us, but at the same time we do need their support for us to stay around,” Toomes said.

Their neighbor, Wicked Sweet Bakery, also started from a dream. Michael Peters and his wife, Kati, owned and operated The Doughnut Shop in Stayton for a little over a year before moving to Keizer with the hopes of making more money to support their family. Kati was busy prepping for the next day and was not present at the interview.

“There’s just less foot traffic than we had anticipated. In Stayton, which is a tiny town, I had more customers per day than I do here, and we did not expect that” Peters said.

In Stayton they focused on specialty donuts, but the larger space in Keizer has allowed them to expand to a full bakery with scones, cupcakes, cakes and donuts. They were originally slated to open in November of 2019, but got caught up in permitting issues and weren’t able to open until June.

“It hurt us because we didn’t have all the foot traffic to get known before it all closed down. I think it would have helped if we opened [then],” Peters said. Though he added from an employee standpoint it was probably better because they did not have to go through months of unemployment.

When the bakery opened in June they kept their lobby closed in an effort to be as COVID-conscious as possible, but with winter around the corner they’ve opened up their lobby to keep customers out of the harsher weather.

The Peters are friendly people who love food, and when they make friends with other people who love food, collaboration happens. So far Wicked Sweet Bakery has collaboration donuts in the works with The Chicken Shack, Uncle Troy’s BBQ and Sweet Licks.

“I’m like, ‘Hey, you guys have chicken, I have a waffle, let’s put them together,” Peter’s said. They are exploring more savory options for their menu.

El Vaquero expanded from a catering business to a sit-down restaurant in hopes of making more money, as COVID has been extremely rough on the catering business. They’re paying the bills but it comes with a price.

“We’re probably sitting at 60% take out right now compared to dine in,” said Orlando Cepeda, who owns El Vaquero with his wife, Kelly. Though it’s a good thing that people are eating their food, Cepeda misses the face to face interaction.

“I think it’s at par level for the situation we’re at right now and we’ve been very supported by the community, and we’re very grateful for that,” Cepeda said. According to the professionals he talked to before opening the restaurant, he expected more than 50% of orders to be take out.

Cepeda believes that this is the new normal for the time being, but he hopes one day he will be able to make personal connections with everyone who buys his food.

“I’d love to see everybody’s faces that eat our food. I’m always out on the floor, talking to folks and seeing their smile and hearing them say how wonderful the food is, but when people take it out you don’t get that same satisfaction,” Cepeda said.

All of the business owners understand that the community has been hit hard by COVID, but since they don’t qualify for any of the aid they are in more need of community support than some larger, chain restaurants.

Wicked Sweet Bakery and The Chicken Shack are located in the Keizer Village on River Road. El Vaquero Santa Maria BBQ is on River Road next to Dutch Bros.

“Thank you to the community for supporting us, we look forward to meeting more folks out there and we look forward to having you come in and say hello,” Cepeda said.