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Arts & Life

The Rieger Is Among The First High-Profile Kansas City Restaurants To Close In The Pandemic, But The Chef Is Sad About Something Else

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Howard Hanna, left, is chef and co-owner of The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange. Here, he is preparing an order for takeout.

Howard Hanna loves being a chef with every fiber of his being, but he won't bring back the Rieger unless he can figure out how to make restaurants better for the people who work in them.

If you follow Kansas City restaurant news, you already know that the Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange — a beloved Crossroads haunt— has announced that it's closing at the end of the month.

When his restaurant goes dark on November 1, Chef Howard Hanna will leave Kansas City's dining scene more adventurous than he found it, with regulars pining for not just duck confit or pork soup, but the vibe of the place, combining the detail-oriented service of any white tablecloth establishment with the easygoing warmth of a neighborhood dive.

This announcement is a big deal, and it likely heralds just the beginning of a season of more announcements of its kind.

But Hanna has other news that's gone under the radar. He finally has a dog. And that's not as unrelated as it may sound. "I always considered myself a dog person, but I was like, 'Well, I can't be a good owner because I'm not home. I have to work 14-hour days,'" Hanna confides.

The pandemic has brought a lot of challenges, like the absence of big parties scheduled for the holidays; those are always key to evening out the unpredictability of week-to-week business. But it's brought realizations as well.

"Having a dog is cool, seeing my kids more is cool. I'm reading more and I'm listening to music more. All of those things are really big reminders of how much it took to be chef Howard Hanna instead of just Howard Hanna," he says. "All I did was work like the first year the Rieger was open. My then-wife gave birth to twins and I only took two days off. Three weeks later my mother died and I only took two days off," he says, shedding tears. "I don't want to do that again."

Hanna knows that as the owner and chef at the Rieger, he's had it better than his staff, many of whom worked two or three jobs to pay their bills. That's why his next step will include not just food, but activism.

"In most of the rest of the world, you can be a server or bartender and that's a respected professional job, and you of course have health insurance and you of course have paid vacation and paid sick days. We got it all wrong here, and it's really unfair."

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Customers settle in for distanced dining at the Rieger.

The Rieger's unofficial motto, Beautiful Food For The People, originated early in Hanna's career, before he had his own restaurant. It was part of what he'd mutter to himself while working in other people's kitchens, when he felt his creativity being stifled by the grind: "I just want to make beautiful food for the people," he'd say in frustration. So when he opened the Rieger, he inscribed that phrase above the passage from the kitchen to the dining room so that he wouldn't forget it.

The message was simple: "If I can't do it here, it's like, I did it wrong, it's not anybody else holding me back."

By most standards, Hanna did it right. He's enjoyed feeding young people who have grown up on food shows, who crave novelty and experience, an exciting opportunity for a chef. He's also enjoyed feeding older customers, who remember what chickens used to taste like before factory farming, or whose eyes light up when they see Braunschweiger on the menu, because they love it but can't get their kids to try it. The Rieger has been a place for birthdays, anniversaries and special occasions, and the compliment is not lost on Hanna.

He treasures those memories, but he now thinks he wasn't expansive enough in imagining who "the people" should include.

"When I said the people, I was thinking about diners. I should have been thinking more about us," Hanna says, meaning his staff. "We are the people."

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Bartender Eric Simbeck prepares a drink at The Reiger Hotel Grill and Exchange.

This is a kind of reckoning that people in a wide range of careers are experiencing, both on the individual level and industry-wide. In the midst of so much loss, potentially irrevocable loss, what have we reclaimed that we're not willing to give up again? What have we gained that's made our lives better? And what has that exposed about what might have been wrong all along?

Hanna spent the early months of the pandemic converting his upscale restaurant into the Crossroads Community Kitchen, serving free meals to anyone who needed them from a kitchen that ran on donated food and a Go Fund Me. Serving largely a clientele of unhoused Kansas Citians was an eye-opening experience, and Hanna can't go back to overlooking that segment of the population. Customers of all income levels deserve good food, he says.

"Even though we were throwing it in a Styrofoam box as fast we could and getting it out the door, we were still trying to make it nice. They noticed and they cared."

He would have kept the community kitchen going, but the money for it ran out; the Rieger needed to start turning a profit again to survive. Hanna considered his most obvious options: running on a leaner staff and limited hours, or closing immediately and holding onto the money he had left in the bank.

He chose something else. "I'd rather be who we are and do what we do and be able to maintain the same standards we always had, and then when we have to stop, we have to stop," he says. "From a business perspective, people would say that was stupid or crazy, but we're going to finish strong."

And then what's next for Hanna is honestly true for all of us. It's a big gaping unknown.

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