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The chefs and other food business professionals talked about making customers feel welcome, plans for the future and the challenges of getting employees in the restaurant business. They also talked a lot about food – sometimes getting emotional when discussing their favorite dishes. As one chef put it, coming to her restaurant is like a trip to grandma’s. “I feel like it’s grandma’s house. This is what you eat today. And you don’t say ‘No’ to grandma,” joked Elly Vos, head chef at the Nest Cafe restaurant in Rock Island. Ms. Vos was one of five local food professionals participating in a panel discussion at the “A Bite of Knowledge About the QC Culinary Scene” event at the Mercado on Fifth’s new indoor venue in downtown Moline at 423 12th St. The event, held Thursday afternoon, March 16, not only gave people a look into the local restaurant scene but served as a kick off to QC Restaurant Week activities, which will take place Monday-Sunday, March 20-26. The week offers visitors and Quad Citizens a chance to experience some of the region’s many restaurants. About 80 local restaurants are taking part in the week, according to Visit Quad Cities. (Find out more about QC Restaurant Week on this here.) In addition to Ms. Voss, Thursday’s “Culinary Scene” event featured the husband-wife team of Emmanuel and Karen Garcia, who own the food truck Cocina Verde that specializes in Mexican food made vegan; Dominic Perez, general manager at the Verde restaurant in Bettendorf, that specializes in contemporary Mexican cuisine; and K.C. Ross (also known as Chef Keys), who hosts private dinners in her home. One of the main topics the food pros discussed was how to make customers feel welcome at their restaurants and establishments. Several said that a welcoming vibe can be created by simply talking to the customers. Mr. Perez said he wants his employees to say “Hello” to the customers at his business. “You have to keep everybody engaged as long as possible. … Get feedback, talk to people,” he added. For the Nest Cafe – a nonprofit, pay-what-you-can restaurant at 1524 Fourth Ave., Rock Island – it’s all about welcoming people who may feel neglected by society. “It’s all about creating a safe place. … This is a place you want to call home,” Ms. Vos added. For the Garcias, their success centers on treating their customers like members of the family. Mr. Garcia added that getting close to the customers is easier for them because they do business in a food truck. The customers are always just a few feet away from the cook. He added that’s not always the case with brick-and-mortar restaurants where the kitchen is usually separated from the customers. “We always try to serve people like we would want to be served,” Ms. Garcia added. Serving customers and connecting with them sometimes means convincing them to try different types of food. Mr. Garcia said that one of his goals is to get people to try vegan food and show them it “isn’t just rabbit food.” It’s great-tasting food, he added. But making the customer feel welcome sometimes means getting to know the customer. For instance, Ms. Ross, who hosts private diners, told the audience that she had a client with 26 allergies. In this instance, she had to prepare a meal with those allergies in mind. “I like to create something wonderful. … When you come to my house, I like to create bonds with people,” she said. Creating those bonds can also be achieved by making food that reminds customers of great times. Ms. Ross said that she once made key lime pie for a customer because she talked to the customer and found out she just returned from a visit to Key West, Florida. “I love to entertain. I love speaking to the people,” she added. The food pros also talked about hiring employees during these challenging economic times. Ms. Vos said the Nest Cafe has three full-time workers, two part-time employees and many volunteers. If there is a need to hire more staff, they would likely hire someone from among their customers. The Garcias said their food truck has been a family affair with family members and friends volunteering their time and talents to help the business. Mr. Garcia added that they might add a second food truck and may need to hire workers in the future. (In addition to a second truck, he and his brother plan to open an ice cream shop in the region in the near future.) Mr. Perez added that it has been a challenge to find employees. The Verde has about four people in the kitchen and four or five in the serving and customer service side of the business. “It’s kind of hard to get people who have the focus and dedication needed,” he added.