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Arts & Life

As Options For Dining In Kansas City Increase In 2020, So Does Competition Between Restaurants

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Julie Denesha
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KCUR 89.3FM
Haley Grayless (left) and Amy Leslie meet at Strang Hall, the recently opened collective of six chef-driven restaurants under one roof in Overland Park.

The KCUR news staff presents the State of Kansas City series as a look ahead to 2020 on topics of importance to the region. Find the State of Kansas City report on other topics in the series as they are published each weekday, Jan. 6–Jan. 20. Follow coverage on these topics at KCUR.org and on 89.3 FM throughout the year.

It’s Restaurant Week in Kansas City. This 10-day annual feast (Jan. 10-19) brings people out in the dead of winter to visit trendy or new places they haven’t tried, or just to take advantage of the deals. Even when it’s not Restaurant Week, Kansas City always seems excited about its food scene.

It’s only been a couple of months, however, since the news of some high-profile bankruptcies. The company that owns Leawood-based Houlihan’s Restaurants Inc., which operates 47 restaurants — including Houlihan’s, J. Gilbert’s and Bristol Seafood Grill, in Kansas, Missouri and 12 other states — filed for Chapter 11 in November, as did Bread & Butter Concepts LLC, owner and operator of Gram & Dun on the Country Club Plaza, Urban Table in Prairie Village and the Stock Hill steak restaurant just south of the Plaza, which remain open during the reorganization. And notable recent closures include Hogshead on the Plaza on January 5 and Jonathan Justus’ Black Dirt in November.

Kansas City diners seem to have bottomless stomachs, but has the new year brought warning signals that we don’t have unlimited budgets? Are there enough diners to support this many restaurants? Those are two of the many topics KCUR will be talking about that with our food critics — along with hearing their recommendations for what and where to eat — every other week on Central Standard.

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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Everyone eats! And eating out is a big activity in Kansas City, where the ability to do so factors into the overall quality of life. And though we pride ourselves on our barbecue, we all know we could just as easily pride ourselves on our beer, our Italian food, our Mexican food, our coffee and our chocolate.

But the dining industry is also a major supplier of the city’s jobs. The National Restaurant Association estimates that restaurant jobs account for 10% of employment in Missouri, for example. Lots of local livelihoods depend on our dining habits.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

  • Missouri’s minimum wage just went up almost a dollar, but Liz Cook of The Pitch predicts more labor agitation might be possible on the part of service-industry workers if the job market continues to tighten. Kansas City restaurants are heading into the third year of a staffing crunch, she notes, and she’s heard grumbling from service-industry employees about wages not rising commensurate with the demand.
  • Food halls are proving to be successful. Building on the success of Lenexa Public Market and Parlor in the Crossroads in 2019 were the Iron District in North Kansas City and Strang Hall in Overland Park. We expect another food hall in Mission Gateway, spearheaded by Tom Colicchio, an award-winning chef from New York City. 
  • December brought charges of domestic assault and armed criminal action against Rockstar Burgers owner Brian Smith after a scandal played out on social media. Cook wonders whether this might be a sign of things to come. “I hear rumors all the time, but few people are willing to name names publicly,” she says. “I imagine it's hard to speak out in a tightly connected scene in an industry with a lot of turnover — you can't necessarily predict who you'll be working with next month, let alone next year,” she says. But she’s optimistic that “the hospitality industry might be becoming more hospitable to whistleblowers.”
  • More breweries are opening in suburbs, notes Pete Dulin, author of “Expedition of Thirst” and “Kansas City Beer: A History of Brewing in the Heartland.” Scheduled to open this year are Transparent Brewing in Grandview, Rock Creek Brewing in Mission and Pathlight Brewing in Shawnee. This continues a trend he’s noticed. “Now that we're seven years into the modern craft beer boom, and it has attracted a wider audience, people want to drink fresh local craft beer in a taproom closer to home,” he says, citing BKS Artisan Ales in Brookside, Diametric Brewing in Lee's Summit, Apex Aleworks in Independence, East Forty Brewery and Wind Shift Brewing in Blue Springs, and Servaes Brewing and Transport Brewing in Shawnee.
  • Diners continue to have more plant-based options at places like Pirate's Bone Burgers, Kind Food, Solstice at Strang Hall, Urban Cafe on Troost, The Littlest Bake Shop and Mattie's Food Truck, as well as vegan pop-ups like Taqueria Vegana from The Bite and Dead Beet Taco Shop.
  • We’re seeing more Asian options, especially Southeast Asian cuisine, says Danielle Lehman of the Open Belly podcast. Anousone is now open and serving food from Laos; Sone Ze Ya recently opened with Burmese cuisine; Baramee Thai Bistro is opening a second location; buzz is growing about Linh's Vietnamese; Waldo Thai Place continues to gain attention for its evolving Northeast Thai cuisine. The pop-up Momo Bar KC features Nepali cuisine, and Sura Eats plans to continue its pop-up series this year with a menu of Korean street food snacks.
  • Expect more closings. The post-holiday winter slump is always brutal for restaurants, but increased competition will likely aggravate that, Cook warns. Quick-serve or fast casual restaurants have been driving a lot of the sales growth in the restaurant industry over the past decade, too, suggesting sit-down restaurants may be facing especially great financial challenges. And food delivery services like Door Dash are changing the business, too. In response to this trend, Dulin expects restaurants and bars to improve their hospitality and offer additional services to draw regulars and attract new business.
  • New barbecue restaurants are arriving. You might think Kansas City has enough barbecue restaurants but they keep on coming, notes Mary Bloch of Around the Block. Newcomers include Meat Mitch in Ranch Mart and Harp Barbecue, which will open a brick-and-mortar space after popping up on Saturdays inside of Crane Brewing; it's already earning national attention.

BY THE NUMBERS

100+ — Number of barbecue restaurants listed on the KC BBQ Experience, an app from VisitKC, the metro’s tourism office.
100 — Number of years since Kansas City largely ignored Prohibition, which historians say allowed the city to flourish.
11,200 — Number of eating and drinking locations in Missouri in 2018, according to the National Restaurant Association.
5,328 — Number of eating and drinking locations in Kansas in 2018, according to the National Restaurant Association.

KEY PLAYERS

Zaid Renato Consuegra Sauza
Co-owner and chef, Pirate’s Bone Burgers

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Credit Alyssa Broadus/Little Fixations
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Little Fixations

Consuegra’s plant-based Pirate’s Bone Burgers opened in the Crossroads last fall, building on the excitement of his original coffee shop in Brookside. The completely vegan menu consists of burgers made of Beyond Meat, black beans and beets, in addition to fries, sweet plantains and horchata. In addition to his creativity in the kitchen though, he’s also become a key player in the scene for his activism, especially on immigration, where he often shares his personal story. He’s also trying to make his restaurant more inclusive, being ADA accessible and translating his menu into Braille.

Michael Corvino
Co-owner and chef, Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room and Ravenous

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Credit corvino.com

In addition to being the only Kansas City chef who was a finalist for Best Chef: Midwest at 2019’s James Beard Awards ceremony, Corvino has been a player in the food scene for awhile now. Corvino Supper Club opened in 2017, and later this year Corvino officially opens Ravenous (currently only open for delivery or carry out), a fast casual spot serving his addictive burgers and fried chicken sandwiches behind Corvino Supper Club.

Pam Liberda
Owner and chef, Waldo Thai Place

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Credit waldothaiplace.com

The Liberda family has been serving quality Thai food in Kansas City for a long time. Liberda’s mother-in-law, Ann, opened the original Thai Place almost 30 years ago, but Jenny Vergara of Feast Magazine notes Pam and her husband, Ted, decided to "rock the boat" when Waldo Thai Place debuted in 2018. With Pam in the culinary driver’s seat, she combines her northern-style Thai dishes with her husband's Bangkok-style cooking, expanding the palates of their fans.

Carlos Mortera
Owner, The Bite and Poi-Ō

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Credit thebitekc.co

Most recently, in late 2018, Mortera opened Poi-Ō on the Westside, specializing in wood-fired chicken. Back in 2014, he opened The Bite in the City Market, blending Mexican and Korean ingredients and flavors. The way he’s introduced progressive fast-casual food with Mexican roots and multicultural influences has made him an innovative player in the scene. As Dulin notes, Mortera has found ways to meet demand for plant-based cuisine that's appealing to the senses, satisfying to the gut and affordable for the pocketbook.

KEY DATES

March 7: Union Station will feature over 150 wines from across the globe, gourmet food trucks and live music when Uncorked: KC Wine Festival takes over.

June 19-20: The Boulevardia festival moves from the West Bottoms to Washington Square Park and Crown Center for its 7th year. Besides the usual multiple stages of music and other attractions, Saturday's three-hour Taps & Tastes showcases, organizers say, "beers from more than 50 top-notch breweries from around the country, along with great food from a variety of acclaimed local chefs."

September 17-20: The 41st American Royal World Series of Barbecue will be back at Kansas Speedway this fall. In addition to being the largest barbecue competition in the world bringing teams from over ten countries, barbecue enthusiasts can also expect live music, a full line up of kids activities and a vendor fair.

October 2-3: KC Oktoberfest, also known as "Munich of the Midwest," will return to Crown Center this October. The two-day festival named Favorite Beer Festival in VisitKC's 2019 Visitors' Choice Awards celebrates Bavarian-style bier, food and entertainment. It's presented by KC Bier Co., Kansas City's largest locally-owned brewery.

Danielle Lehman, Liz Cook, Jenny Vergara, Pete Dulin and Mary Bloch contributed to this reporting.

Mackenzie Martin is an associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at mackenzie@kcur.org or on Twitter @_macmartin.