At a Lawrence butcher’s ‘Franksgiving’ feast, everyone is invited to slow down
Lee Meisel of Leeway Franks has been going hard for 18 months, and he's ready to take a breath. His revived Franksgiving — a casual holiday meal at his small restaurant — will reflect that by embracing togetherness, simplicity, and a heightened appreciation for enough.
Most Thanksgivings, when Lee Meisel hosts a celebration at his no-frills lunch counter in Lawrence, Kansas, he delights in coming up with creative riffs on holiday food clichés.
"The slice of turkey breast, the mashed potato with the divot, you know, with the gravy," Meisel muses. "The stuffing, the green bean casserole..."
Meisel calls his annual tradition "Franksgiving," because his restaurant, Leeway Franks, specializes in Frankfurters. He prepares a holiday feast for his family and invites any employees or customers looking for a low-key way to enjoy the day.
The concept came to him, initially, as a way to make Thanksgiving special for service industry workers who don't have time to travel home before they're expected to clock back in.
"I just want to be open that day because I have been in positions where I haven't had a place to go, and it's a very tough, lonely feeling," Meisel explains.
Despite taking place inside his restaurant, Meisel has never actually served franks for Franksgiving — instead, he's featured such main courses as turkey-leg tacos and rabbit stew, livening up the homestyle gathering with a hint of irreverence.
But this year, Meisel tells me, he's eager to indulge in the cliché, rather than serving it up sideways.
This is the first proper Franksgiving he's hosted in two years, due to COVID-19. It's also the first without Meisel's best friend: his grandpa.
"If you've ever been here," Meisel says, "you've probably seen my grandfather here drinking coffee."
Martin Meisel — Lee Meisel's actual grandfather, although all the kids in their North Dakota hometown called Martin "grandpa" whether they were related to him or not — died in September. The loss hit Meisel hard; he can barely get through a sentence about his grandfather without choking up.
"It just makes you wonder, like, you know, there's gotta be some sort of reason for what we do," Meisel says.
The first time I interviewed Meisel, back in 2015, he described his grandfather as a kind and soft-spoken man. Martin Meisel grew up on a cattle ranch in the Great Depression, knew how to raise his own food, and could fix just about anything. "He's just kind of an old cowboy," Meisel told me.
Meisel initially envisioned opening a whole animal butcher shop, but even though 21st century consumers love the idea of using a whole animal, most lack the skill and dedication it takes to transform every cut of meat into food.
So Meisel decided on a concession stand, like the ones he visited with his grandfather in North Dakota, on fishing trips in the summer and hockey trips in the winter.
"Every little place you go has a concession stand, and someone's grandmother is back there making chicken noodle soup. Just a simple little concession stand," he reminisced. "It would be like this oasis. It'd be so cold, you know, but just that the hot chocolate, and whatever somebody made from scratch — those are just some of the most fun memories that I have of childhood."
At Leeway Franks, Meisel could serve those obscure cuts of meat in the form of tasty hot dogs or gravy-topped biscuits. "My grandfather is in every part of this place," Meisel says, his eyes welling up.
It was the lunch counter's success that allowed Meisel, three years later, to finally open his butcher shop just a few doors down.
The timing of his grandfather's death, as the restaurant industry emerges from pandemic uncertainty, has made Meisel question where he wants to go from here.
For this small business owner, COVID-19 brought an all-consuming scramble to adapt. "I had financial obligations," Meisel explains. "Like, I owe money to banks and stuff for opening the business, opening the restaurant and the butcher shop."
Survival meant compromise. Meisel's own livelihood wasn't the only one on the line; he had employees to think about, too.
"We had said 'never' a lot. You know, we're never going to do this or never going to do that. And we had to go back and, and see if 'never' was really something that we were in the position to say," Meisel recalls.
One of the compromises that affected Meisel profoundly was his decision to keep longer hours, in order to accommodate a wider range of customer schedules. The move worked, but it was physically and mentally exhausting.
That's why, in 2020, Franksgiving just didn't happen. Leeway Franks opened for brunch on Thanksgiving morning, with the same biscuits-and-gravy menu they offered every weekend. But Meisel didn't come into his restaurant at all.
"My wife and I are always here, we always work it. Last year, I thought I needed a break," Meisel says, pausing. "And I probably did."
2021 feels different, in part because Meisel is at a point in his business where he can finally relax, just a little.
"This year," he says, "we're just kind of wanting to, instead of plow through it, we're wanting to take a little bit of time and slow down to really appreciate that we're still here," Meisel says. "Appreciate what we have."
Although Meisel's grandfather won't be there, he did inspire this year's Franksgiving menu in a few ways — namely the stuffing and dessert.
"We normally don't have a dessert option," Meisel says. "But my grandfather had a sweet tooth. And so, we're doing dessert this year. Normally, again, I would say never. But this year, why not?"
As for stuffing, that was always something Meisel's grandfather made when he was a kid.
"I remember waking up to the warm smell of sage and hearing grandpa working away in the kitchen," Meisel recalls. "He would cube day-old bread from the discount bakery, sprinkle with poultry seasoning and then lightly bake on a sheet tray in the oven for about an hour."
Meisel explains how his grandpa cooked giblets in a pot, then ground them up using an ancient meat grinder clamped to the kitchen counter. After adding celery and onion, Meisel says, "grandpa stuffed the turkey until it was overflowing."
Meisel will be making a stovetop version, but he says it's pretty close.
This Franksgiving will be untraditionally traditional. Meisel isn't trying to wow anyone; that's one part of Thanksgiving he thinks we could all do without.
Instead, he'll put on a playlist starting with "Alice's Restaurant" by Arlo Guthrie. He'll provide a relaxed space where people can hang out as long as they want. And he'll keep it simple enough that he can enjoy it, too.
"Just enjoy it for what it is," he says. "It doesn't have to be more than that."
That's probably good advice for the rest of us, too.