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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Cautious Kansas Citians take refuge at The Campground, where everybody knows you're vaxxed

Nine people, all wearing surgical-type masks, gather around a restaurant bar. Some stand some sit. Lots of bottles of liquor and stemware are seen in the background.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Campground owners Cristin Llewellyn and Christopher Ciesiel gather with staff, along with their daughter, prior to opening the restaurant on Thursday, Feb. 3, for the evening dinner crowd.

In the absence of citywide mask and vaccine mandates, this cozy West Bottoms restaurant put its own rules in place. For Kansas Citians who don’t want to ignore COVID precautions, The Campground offers a rare chance to take a break from their worries. “It’s not that hard,” the owner says. “It really isn’t.”

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In the West Bottoms, after workers leave century-old brick offices to go home for the night, after deliveries to and from warehouses come to a halt, a black-painted shoebox of a building sits among fire pits, newly planted pine trees, and a utilitarian pile of chopped wood covered in snow. In the window, dim lights flicker with the seductive smolder of a campfire.

Inside, couples huddle close over food and drink. A bartender surrounded by campy decor — like a taxidermied raccoon — prepares a house gimlet. The recipe calls for Douglas Fir tea, Douglas Fir eau de vie, and stone pine liqueur. It makes the air smell like Christmas trees.

This restaurant, named The Campground, has the vibe of a wooded campsite, if not the dirt underfoot.

"I want people, when they walk through that door, to hear and feel the music," says owner Christopher Ciesiel, who opened The Campground with his wife, Cristin Llewellyn, in 2018. "I want to hit all the senses: the smell, the temperature. I want people to feel like they're going to their friend's house and just be able to relax a little bit, you know? Let their guard down."

Easygoing conviviality is the bread and butter of the place — more than the food (although the burger is tasty) and more than the drink (and I'd put their cocktails up against anyone's).

This isn't a space, though, where the pandemic's been forgotten for the sake of good vibes.

The Campground is, to Ciesiel's knowledge, the only restaurant in Kansas City where proof of vaccination is still required for all dine-in service. (Some places that double as entertainment venues, like The Ship, require proof of vaccination during evening hours, and when musicians need to unmask to perform).

Masks are still required while moving through The Campground's dining room — a rule that's spanned the duration of the pandemic, predating Kansas City's own mandate and enduring long after.

The Campground even shut itself down for a weekend, voluntarily — during the winter holidays no less — because so many people on staff had the sniffles and they wanted to play it safe, as they disclosed on social media. That gave everyone time to get tested before they opened back up again.

"It's just being honest," Ciesiel says. "It's not that hard. It really isn't."

A man wearing a blue, denim shirt and black cap uses a long-handled lighter to ignite some incense which creates a small cloud of smoke. There are some ferns in the foreground and a bar with employees milling around in the background.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Campground owner Christopher Ciesiel lights Palo Santo for some smokiness at the bar.

As Kansas City trudges into a third calendar year of this COVID-19 pandemic, deciding how to handle public activities feels like a multiple choice test with no good options: total caution or total disregard. The former can feel punishing in its monotony and solitude, the latter reckless in its revelry.

The stark divide is a self-fulfilling truism: If going out means abandoning not just personal caution but care for others, those who can't or won't ignore the risk have fewer options.

At The Campground, Ciesiel attempts to carve out a third option: fun that's protected, with informed precautions, specifically for the cautious crowd. Which includes himself.

Prior to opening The Campground, Ciesiel's resume wasn't in food or hospitality, but in health care.

"I was an EMT in Chicago," he says. "And then I was an ER nurse at Research Medical Center."

Early on in the pandemic, Ciesiel's training compelled him to find a way to be useful during this public health crisis of historic proportions.

"I tried to put myself out there to be a travel nurse," he says. "But nobody would touch me because I was out of it for two years. And I just felt like, well, if we can't be at the bedside, then this is our decision: to make this place really safe and take this seriously."

Several people who are staff of a restaurant along with their owners stand around a polished bar talking. All are wearing masks except a young girl who is holding a pen and listening to the discussion.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Cristin Llewellyn and Christopher Ciesiel, along with their daughter and their staff, get ready to open the doors to The Campground for the night.

The Campground was one of the first Kansas City restaurants to turn itself inside out — transforming the dining room into a staging area for staff, first for takeout, and eventually for a parking lot filled with tables and chairs, a move that enabled the restaurant to double its capacity. Ciesiel also plopped down a shipping container on the property as an outdoor bar.

Ciesiel loves what it's done for his business, and now, he wants to make every inch of that parcel of land into something more like an actual campground, even beyond the pandemic. With the blessing of his landlord, his wife even started planting pine trees, making the metaphor that much more literal.

Turns out, camping is a decent model for having ridiculous fun while fully honoring the cruel whims of nature.

"You can't not have a good time when you're camping," Ciesiel explains. "It could be really buggy, it could be really hot, it could be really cold. It could rain, and you know, you can't get a fire started, but you embrace the moment, you laugh, you have fun, maybe you cry, but it's one of those experiences that you'll never forget."

The Campground
These images from The Campground's Facebook page show the outdoor space, both snow-covered and in use.

The fusion of restaurant name and pandemic business ethos is mostly unintentional, inspired originally by act of petty theft. On a camping trip in Weston, Ciesel and his now-wife found a sign, directing folks to the campground, that had been torn from the ground and vandalized with spray paint.

"It was kind of beaten up in the grass. And so I took it," Ciesiel admits. "I probably shouldn't have."

Back at home, Ciesel and Llewellyn owned an 11-by-16-foot shed in their backyard. When they started having people over for cocktail parties — and, once, a birthday party during a snowstorm — they hung the sign over the door.

"People used to say, 'Hey, we're going to the campground,'" he recalls.

At the restaurant that now carries that name, revelers sit by fire pits in a converted parking lot, drinking beers with their friends — even on recent weekends, when highs have been in the 40s.

Some folks might say it's too cold. But as Ciesiel — a native Chicagoan — puts it: “If you live in the Midwest and you can’t sit outside in 40-, 50- degree weather, what are you doing?”

But there are still nights when it's too cold for outdoor service, even by Campground standards, like this past week when the patio filled with snow and ice, and temperatures stuck in the single digits after sundown.

Having an indoor dining room in operation isn't a choice, Ciesiel explains. It's a necessity.

"No place can survive on carry out only," he says.

A small sign at the hostess station tells customers that "Proof of vaccination is required for anyone dining or drinking inside." Behind the sign is a person wearing a mask and looking at a cell phone.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A small sign at the host's station alerts customers at The Campground that they are required to show proof of vaccination before entering the restaurant.

This is where the self-imposed COVID restrictions come into play.

"People are delighted to show their vaccination card, whether it's on their phone or a hard copy," Ciesel says. "I mean they're honored to show it."

The restaurant has gotten pushback for these rules, of course, although mostly on social media.

"We get called Nazis and whatnot," Ciesiel mentions. "It makes me giggle cause it's just, you don't know what you're talking about."

When that happens, Ciesiel says his customers always rally behind him. "It's pretty humbling, you know, to have that kind of community here."

Like Ciesiel, I'm in the cautious crowd. Once a cold-weather wimp, my outdoor socializing these last two years has made me resilient. I'll sit outside anytime I can talk companions into it.

But this past Thursday, I did something I haven't done since the pandemic started. I had a drink at an indoor bar — The Campground. At the host's stand, I showed my vaccination card with all the eagerness of a 21-year-old showing ID.

Wide shot of the interior of a restaurant. One person is leaning on the bar while sitting on a stool. Others are working behind the bar. A woman stands near the entrance. You can see a large glass rollup door on the right, six tables with chairs and a long row of ferns in the middle of the room.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Campground offers an intimate setting inside a former mechanic's garage where the owners require patrons all be vaccinated and masked to enter.

Inside this happy little snow globe, a friendly bartender made me the famous house gimlet, a beautiful pink drink served in a dainty glass. I couldn't help sniffing it delightedly between sips, just for aromatherapy purposes, as music emerged from a record player behind the bar.

As soon as I'd finished my drink, I put my mask back on, and I didn't feel self-conscious about it. I knew I was in a place where that gesture would be met not with hostility or offense, but gratitude.

And gratitude is what I felt, too, as I headed home, recharged by this all-too-rare outing.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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