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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life for everyone in Kansas City in ways we don’t even understand yet. KCUR is documenting those changes, one by one, through our individual stories. Share yours.

Meet The Entrepreneur Who Hopes Her Outdoor Food Court Is A New Model For Kansas City

Sylvia Maria Gross
KCUR 89.3
Developer Rachel Kennedy sits in the courtyard of the Iron District, the outdoor food hall concept that she came up with in North Kansas City.

The food vendors in North Kansas City's Iron District are inside retrofitted shipping containers, and diners eat outside. Outdoor dining combined with a business model that emphasizes low startup costs might help the food hall thrive in the pandemic economy.

Rachel Kennedy says she just fell into owning a restaurant. She has degrees in business and nutrition and worked in finance. One day, she was eating out with her husband, who’s from Cuba, when they ordered a Cuban sandwich.

"He thought we could do a better job," Kennedy says. "And so, that weekend, we literally wrote out a business plan for a food truck, and we purchased a truck four weeks later."
That truck became Plantain District, which serves up Cuban and global cuisine. A few years later, she started thinking about a permanent location. And she'd been learning about shipping containers, which have become a trendy material for home-building — tiny and otherwise.

"It’s just basically like a food truck, just not on wheels," Kennedy says. "I started sketching out some containers and the space inside the container. And after I sketched my container, I then sketched out a few other containers."

Sylvia Maria Gross
KCUR 89.3
The Iron District has a courtyard enclosed by its shipping container food vendors.

The concept became the Iron District, a multi-level food hall on Iron Street in North Kansas City, Missouri, not far from Armour Road and the popular Chicken & Pickle, a restaurant with pickleball courts. The complex is home to seven food vendors, four retail shops, two bars, a stage and a podcast studio. It also serves as an incubator for small business owners for whom the cost of opening a restaurant, or even a food truck, is too high.

Though Kennedy conceived of the idea several years ago, but a place where budding restaurateurs can test out concepts with short-term leases might fit better in 2020 with the economy tanking and people who lost their jobs trying out new ventures

"Once they’ve proven their concept, they can either stay on board and go onto the next round," Kennedy says. And if it doesn't work out?

"So be it, too. At least they haven’t lost their house."

Sylvia Maria Gross
KCUR 89.3
The Iron District also includes four retail stores.

Of course, no one knew what was coming when the Iron District first opened in the fall. It closed for the winter, and Kennedy started gearing up for a grand spring opening on March 14. It was Snake Saturday, which is North Kansas City’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day parade. That was the weekend restaurants and many other businesses started to shut down.

"I think my mind went right to triaging," Kennedy says. "What do we need to do for the vendors to make sure they’re OK?"

Before reopening this summer, Kennedy helped her vendors get up to speed on the latest safety regulations. She separated the tables, moved some seating onto an upper deck and started a sanitizing regimen. All of the vendors are wearing masks now. As an entrepreneur, Kennedy is used to pivoting.

"But just having to pivot every day is different from having to pivot monthly," Kennedy says.

Sylvia Maria Gross
KCUR 89.3
An upper deck provided more space to move some of the picnic tables to in order to follow social distancing guidelines.

With the recent protests against racism and a renewed interest in promoting Black-owned businesses, Kennedy, who is Black, has found herself in a position to model what she’s doing for others.

"Obviously, there’s not many Black female developers in Kansas City or even within the whole United States," Kennedy says. "So when I came up with Iron District, my whole point was to ... try to mitigate a lot of the hurdles that women business owners and minority business owners sometimes suffer from."

This July 4 weekend should be the first time since the fall all the venues in the Iron District will be open at the same time. But they, like every other restaurant in the Kansas City area, even with the outdoor dining, might have to be ready to pivot again.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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