© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In a remote Kansas farm town, this chef is inspiring pride through locally-sourced food

Fly Boy chef and co-owner Grant Wagner bartending
Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3
Grant Wagner took over Fly Boy Brewery and Eats in Sylvan Grove, Kansas, a few years ago, after leaving the Kansas City restaurant scene.

One of the best restaurants in Kansas opens four days a week on the wind-swept plains, an hour beyond the nearest stoplight. In a county that’s lost more than half of its population, Fly Boy Brewery & Eats offers a renewed sense of hope — and a cheeseburger worth driving for.

It’s rush hour on a Friday evening in Sylvan Grove, Kansas, and Main Street is mostly empty, save for the rare truck or tractor.

But inside one of the rough limestone buildings, Fly Boy Brewery and Eats are filling up.

“We eat here as often as we can,” said Sandy Labertew, sitting at a table of eight. “Because the business is in Sylvan and we want to do as much as we can to keep things open here.”

Like thousands of other small towns, Sylvan Grove was built around agriculture, to supply and educate big families running lots of small farms in the area. There was a rail stop here where the grain went out and money came in.

Those days are long gone. Now the families are small, and the farms themselves are generally enormous and are increasingly owned by people living in distant cities. The railroad pulled out years ago. Since 1880, the county has shed 65% of its population.

It’s tough to make a living out here, and not the most obvious place to buy a restaurant. But that’s exactly what Grant Wagner did three years ago.

“I just got tired of making food for rich people,” Wagner said. “I wanted to go back to making food that I cared about for people I cared about.”

The front of Fly Boy Brewery and Eats, a limestone building with a red awning
Frank Morris
Fly Boy Brewery and Eats in one of the old limestone buildings in downtown Sylvan Grove, Kansas.

Wagner grew up in Bennington, Kansas, another little town where Wagner says people knew how to work with their hands, fix stuff, and make do.

Like many ambitious rural kids, he left town after high school. Wagner went to culinary school and worked his way up through some of the best restaurants in the Kansas City metro, like Bluestem and Justus Drugstore.

Eventually, Wagner became executive chef at JJ’s on the Plaza, where he says customers might drop $2-3,000 on dinner.

“I couldn't relate to the people that I was cooking the food for, and cooking, it’s a passion project, making any kind of food,” said Wagner.

When he quit JJ’s about a decade ago, Wagner moved back to central Kansas. He did consulting for local restaurants, helping them open and, often, helping them close.

That’s how he met the original owners of Fly Boy: Clay and Linda Haring, who hired him to plan their menu and run the kitchen.

Wagner left to operate a food truck, but in the middle of the pandemic, he got a call from the Harings. They were going to close Fly Boy — or sell it to him.

Cook Kylie Kingsbury and Fly Boy co-owner Grant Wagner at work in the kitchen
Frank Morris
Cook Kylie Kingsbury and Fly Boy co-owner Grant Wagner at work in the kitchen.

Wagner called up his friend Lucas Hass. They put the money together and went into business.

These days, on Fly Boy’s busiest nights, Wagner says they’ll serve 300 people, more than the entire population of Sylvan Grove.

Some of his customers are hunters from out of town, some are traveling to or from nearby Wilson Lake, and some drive in two hours from Wichita for a steak or a top-flight cheeseburger.

Fly Boy works off a pretty standard menu for a steakhouse or brewpub, with an interesting selection of beers that are made on-site, like the Hotel Oscar Whiskey (a light honey-infused ale), Tail Spin IPA, and BarnStormer Brown.

Grant Wagner, Fly Boy co-owner draws a beer from the aviation-themed taps at the restaurant
Frank Morris
Grant Wagner, Fly Boy co-owner draws a beer from the aviation-themed taps

Prices range from under $10 for a kid’s burger meal, to almost $40 for a Kansas City Strip. Prime rib is a favorite special, but another week they might serve house-made gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream sauce, with spinach, steak, and curried pecans.

All the cuts of meat are vacuum sealed and slow-cooked, a French process called sous vide, before they’re finished on a grill or super-hot oven. Wagner says this means the steaks and prime rib are cooked perfectly to temperature, every time.

Wagner said the technique still isn’t seen much in these parts of Kansas.

“Outside of Kansas City or maybe Wichita, I don't know any other restaurants are actually using sous vide to cook,” said Wagner. “It was something I learned at the Justus Drugstore. Chef Justus taught me how to do that.”

Most importantly, Wagner says everything on the menu is made from scratch, most of it using local ingredients.

“I’ve got 100% local beef, and man it is fantastic,” said Wagner. “A lot of our produce is coming from within 60 miles.”

Fly Boy chef and co-owner Grant Wagner at work in the kitchen
Frank Morris
Fly Boy prioritizes local ingredients, including beef and honey, on its menu.

Fly Boy uses honey from right down the street in one of their beers, local cucumbers for the pickles, and mushrooms grown in a local basement.

Lucas Hass, Fly Boy’s co-owner and brewer, says this commitment to local sourcing isn’t so much about the environment, as it is about supporting the economy in a place that’s seen its vitality ebb away.

“You gotta do what you gotta do to survive out here, but where we can we try to support local, because it keeps it here,” said Hass. “I really hate seeing so much of our wealth being vacuumed to a different coast.”

Fly Boy’s approach to quality and local sourcing is appreciated up and down Main Street.

“It’s just a wonderful place. It’s just a place to be proud of,” said Ramie Schulteis, from behind her desk at the Sylvan Grove Public Library.

“The food is fantastic, and it is a fun place for local people to go and enjoy themselves,” said Schulteis. “The service is amazing, the drinks are good, and it’s also important for our economy.”

Schulteis says some Fly Boy customers stay in one of a few short-term rental properties in town.

A smiling couple, Stan and Sandy Labertew, sit at a table at Fly Boy Brewery and Eats in Sylvan Grove Kansas
Frank Morris
Stan and Sandy Labertew are regulars at Fly Boy, and they sell honey to the restaurant

And of course, the restaurant creates jobs. Hannah Pahls, a junior at Sylvan Grove High School, was hired on as a server here last year. She says she’s proud to be part of a small-town success story.

“This restaurant, it’s been through everything. It’s been through COVID... I just feel like it’s a big inspiration to the town being so well known here in Lincoln County,” said Pahls before starting her shift.

The idea that a restaurant can inspire a town may seem overblown if you’re living in a city with plenty of them.

But in a region where towns are shrinking and restaurants are closing, Fly Boy has given Sylvan Grove a renewed sense of pride.

It’s proving that there are still ways for creative young people to make a living in small towns and that rural people will reward high standards, even if it means paying $16 for a cheeseburger.

“We deserve this,” said Labertew. “Rural America is kind of going by the wayside, but there are reasons to come back.”

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.