What Does A Pandemic-Proof Restaurant Look Like? These Kansas Citians Are Trying To Figure It Out.
When these business owners hung closed signs on their doors, they didn't know if reopening day would come. Now Poi-O, Julep and Westside Local are flinging the doors back open, with the last year written all over some major transformations.
Back in December, I wrote a love letter to the restaurants that had closed by that point in the pandemic, noting that many were in a state of limbo. They'd made the difficult decision to close for the winter. Bank accounts were depleted. Patios had closed. Holiday parties weren't happening. Keeping a sign on the door until spring was a last-ditch hope.
That story left off with Keely Edgington Williams — owner of the cocktail lounge Julep — in tears. The business she'd been building for years was closed indefinitely. On its own, the loss was huge. But it wasn't the only thing upsetting her. What Williams had always loved about Julep was the spirit of celebration inside. People laughing, glasses clanking.
The space had gone quiet, and that really ate at her.
"I just want to be able to survive all this, open the doors all the way up and see people celebrating," Williams told me sadly in December, over Zoom. "I can't wait to see that again. I hope I get to see it at Julep."
That's exactly what she's working on now. When I stopped by Julep this week, Williams was buzzing excitedly around the space. Her big project: install a giant garage door where the north-facing exterior wall used to be. Right now, it's covered in plywood.
This is a huge part of Julep's plan for rebirth.
"I'm like, 'Now the whole bar is going to be a patio. You don't have any reason to leave,'" Williams proclaims.
When she said she missed people, she wasn't kidding. What she didn't miss was the grip industry norms once had on her life.
"I have had a lot of time, obviously, like many people, to reflect on what I want my life to look like whenever Julep reopens," Williams says. "I, like many people, have realized that it was pretty toxic for me before, just because I would be answering emails at 3 a.m. and I would get really, I mean, I'm thin-skinned, I'd get like heartbroken over a bad Yelp review."
So part of Julep's makeover will be visible, in the form of a big garage door, and part of it will be invisible, because it's personal.
It's a strange thing, to have something you've built yanked out from under you without warning. To grieve the loss, to go without it for months, to try to file the illogic of it away somehow — and then, one day, to get it back. Even though the restaurants have survived, that's a journey that changes people.
Carlos Mortera closed Poi-O on Southwest Boulevard in November. The restaurant, specializing in wood-fired chicken served with tortillas, had quickly earned a cult following for a side dish: kimchi fried rice. Something about the vinegary-crunch and the savory rice was addicting in a way that surprised Mortera.
Mortera missed Poi-O, but he was tired. Poi-O was his second restaurant. He also ran The Bite, a sandwich shop in the City Market. And he catered. The hours — and stress — added up.
Early in the pandemic, he and his wife welcomed a new baby into their lives. Mortera was at the hospital when daughter was born, but not for the delivery. His pancreas gave out. He'd gone so hard for so long that his health was a disaster.
"I don't want to work 16, 18 hour days anymore," he says. "I'm trying to see my daughter every day."
He's starting over with just one restaurant, a new location and a new approach. Poi-O 2.0 has a drive-through, a big sign outside, and a digital menu on a big wall-mounted screen. It's on a busy street with lots of traffic — 7th Street in Kansas City, Kansas.
And while pictures of the original murals local artists painted in his old space will be framed neatly inside the crisp new space, he's projecting a clean, corporate image. He even gets calls from people who assume he's some hot shot from a national chain coming onto the scene.
He's not, of course, but that's ultimately the idea. If this business can sustain second and third locations someday, Mortera doesn't want to run them himself. He's laying the groundwork for a franchise. Not one descending on Wyandotte County, but originating from there.
The menu has items from both Poi-O and The Bite. Mortera plans to serve people in their cars, through a window. He's also built a patio, where stacks of firewood for the grill double as low-key decor. Indoor seating in the white-tiled space accounts for a small fraction of the business Mortera hopes to do when customers arrive later this month.
I look around at the drive-through and big patio and I suggest that perhaps he's trying to make a pandemic-proof restaurant.
"Exactly," Mortera says. "Like, I feel like if we go back to a pandemic, if we go back to a recession or whatever, we might go, 'I think this restaurant can survive.'"
Just a few miles away, on the Missouri side of town, the Westside Local has already re-opened. Unlike Poi-O and Julep, it doesn't look very different.
Westside Local closed, after 11 years, right before Christmas.
"We'd gone as far as we could go," recalls Brandon Strick, the owner and chef.
He remembers the pain of telling his staff it was time to call it quits right before the holiday. "Especially the people with families," Strick says. "The one thing I can say is that everybody understood, and they saw it coming."
The toll the pandemic took on Strick's mental health was immense. It started with the disappointment of customers harassing Strick and his staff for wearing masks. Then came the realization that he had no safety net. And then the slog of making food without having people inside the space? That crushed his soul.
"It was very destructive for my mental health," Strick says. "And I had to take advantage of this time of being closed to really focus on my mental health."
After closing Westside Local, Strick quarantined for two weeks and moved in with his parents to heal and find his footing. He says their encouragement gave him the confidence to reopen the restaurant. That, plus vaccines and another round of PPP.
His first calls, after deciding to reopen, were to his staff. Most of his employees have come back, he says. But most want to work fewer hours.
He feels the same way. That's why, for now, the restaurant isn't open as many hours per week.
Otherwise, Westside Local looks pretty much the same as it used to, with one small adjustment. The beer garden-style patio used to feature big communal picnic tables where more than one party could be seated. Strick has replaced those with smaller tables for individual groups.
"I believe it's going to be a little while until people are comfortable with that again," he admits.
The other change is invisible. It's the memory of this time, both the kindness of it and the cruelty. It's the lessons he's learned. And it's the addition of global pandemic to the list of things he should be prepared to weather. For Strick that means aiming for a year's worth of rent in the bank.
Unlike Carlos Mortera, Strick doesn't want to put food in a box and send it off into the world. He's had enough of that for a lifetime.
In the week the restaurant's been open, he's welcomed back two different families whose lives he's witnessed — from his patio — since they were newly formed couples showing up for dates.
"I was like, this is what I've been missing,'" he says.
A lot of people are going to have to figure out how to embrace the return of all the things they'd been missing, without bringing back the not-so-wonderful stuff they've decided they're better off without. Whether it's 3 a.m. work emails, hurt feelings from Yelp reviews, an unhealthy workload, or something else.
That's probably going to take a lot of practice, and a lot of determination. I'll raise my glass to both at a favorite Kansas City hangout I thought I'd lost forever.
My toast? To new beginnings.