One Community Conversations: Cindy Wallace of Cilantro Specialty Foods

Cindy Wallace, co-owner of Cilantro Specialty Foods & Coffee Roasters in Guilford, joined us to discuss why she is keeping her restaurant open – and it’s not solely for paying customers. 

Keep reading to learn how she leads from a place of entrepreneurship and social justice to meet the needs of her employees and community. Tune in to the full conversation here

 

Tell us a bit about what you were doing and how that has completely shifted over the past couple of weeks. 

Cindy Wallace: So on a normal day, I have my bakers come in here and at 5:30 am, open the cafe, I am home having some coffee. We do our menu planning and the ball just rolls. That’s what I say, you know, every day, I’ll just push that ball and just get it rolling. And it’s beautiful: incredible staff, amazing customers, we really got this thing down to a science.

I would say about four weeks ago, I was texting a friend of mine in Italy, someone I had met, while I was chaperoning a trip for St. George, a mission trip to Italy last summer, and I met this woman. We were talking about this lockdown and what’s happening to them, and she was talking about essential businesses. And I thought,

How am I going to position myself if that happens, because I don’t want to close down with everything that we have here and all these employees.

So that was really the concern. When we opened 30 years ago, we were this little gourmet market, we were this little specialty food store, imported and domestic foods and all kinds of things. Then we just went with the food trends, we evolved with the times. We always had coffee and we always roasted ground coffee, pre-Starbucks going public, there were no coffee shops in the state of Connecticut other than Willoughby’s downtown New Haven. That was the story – a little too ahead of its time. It was very challenging, wasn’t always super busy. But coming back here now and changing back into a grocery store, really it’s kind of surreal.

 

You’ve essentially turned into a grocery store overnight. You have been in business for 30 years. So you’re entrepreneurs who understand the need to adapt very quickly. How long did it take you to make that decision? 

Cindy Wallace: I woke up, you know because, I’m texting Italy, so I woke up in the morning and I’m like well this is just what I have to do. I spoke with some of my sales reps and said this is what I’m thinking, and then it kind of just happened. So I was taking on more inventory and honestly during that time my stomach is turning because this could be an absolutely terrible idea.

 

What are some of the items you have in the store now?

Cindy Wallace: There are no chairs in here and there are very few tables. I left the tables in the front windows because quite honestly, that was one of the hardest parts, when it cleared out. It’s just a big lump in your throat because it’s completely vulnerable. You’re just naked, you know? 

Slowly we just started filling in. So I’ve got a little produce section, eggs. That’s what started to happen too. It was an economic decision, but very quickly it became,

“What do you mean? You can’t find toilet paper? I can get toilet paper. What do you mean? Why are eggs a problem?”

 

On top of also turning your store into a grocery, you’re now back in the kitchen most of your days. Who are you cooking and supporting back there?

Cindy Wallace: I also am an ambassador at St. George for Catholic Relief Services with my friend Claire Nichols and we were working with the hungry and the food insecure. Really my first concern here, after my employees, is with people who are going to be hungry and who are hungry right now. 

So I reached out to Columbus House and we’ve been cooking – 48 chickens yesterday. They’re dropping us food, and we’re now buying food for them and we’re cooking it here. State health code has changed some, you know, everybody is like shifting. So there are people who have cooked for them in the past who can no longer cook for them. People are afraid to be around each other, so a commercial kitchen is very valuable to them. 

A lot of food pantries are going to have to close down because it’s too risky. And let’s face it, the people who are volunteering to help people in need are older. So that’s a very sad piece for me. I know that they’re not going to get food in the next few weeks. 

Canned goods are so important. Go in your pantry and something that’s not expired, something that’s good. Bring it down to St. George this week. 

 

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