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Neighbors Fight To Help Johnson Drive's Small-Town Feel Survive COVID-19 Crisis

042220 Greg Fuciu clears out his bar by Lisa Rodriguez.jpg
Lisa Rodriguez/KCUR 89.3
Greg Fuciu, former owner of Lucky Brewgrille in Mission, Kansas, says he couldn't see a future for his bar, restaurant and event space after the coronavirus pandemic.

Not every storefront along Mission, Kansas' commercial stretch will outlast the pandemic, but small business owners are doing what they can to help one another.

Since Kansas enacted a stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, many businesses along Johnson Drive between Roe and Metcalf Avenues, have posted handwritten signs that say they’re temporarily closed.

But the sign on the window of Lucky Brewgrille reads “For Sale — Everything.”

Another reads, “Thank You!! 20 Awesome Years!”

042220 Lucky Brewgrille will close after 20 years on Johnson Drive by Lisa Rodriguez.JPG
Lisa Rodriguez/KCUR 89.3
Lucky Brewgrille has been a staple on Johnson Drive for 20 years. It closed permanently on March 17.

Standing in the middle of his bar and restaurant, now cluttered with kitchen equipment and overturned chairs, owner Greg Fuciu recalls the day he decided to close for good.

“I woke up on St. Patrick's Day with no clue what my restaurant's going to do and decided to retire at that time and walk away and start a new chapter,” Fuciu says.

Fuciu had planned one last hurrah at Lucky’s on March 17. But the night before, metro area officials ordered bars and restaurants closed.

As a sad reminder, stacks of newly-printed T-shirts on a table in the corner read, “Lucky — St. Pats. 2020.”

Fuciu, who had been keeping up with news of pandemic long before it arrived in the United States, says he couldn’t see a future for a restaurant as big as his.

Statewide stay-at-home orders in Kansas and Missouri have taken a toll on small businesses across the metro. But for the stretch of small, locally owned businesses along Johnson Drive, the economic fallout of the pandemic is threatening the unique small-town feel of the corridor.

Fuciu says he might not have made it 20 years in another part of the city. He says the mix of small, mom-and-pop businesses and smaller chains, surrounded by residential areas makes for a lively neighborhood.

“It gives a little guy like me a place to still do our businesses and still feel like we’re part of the community,” Fuciu says.

Neighbors helping neighbors

On a warm spring day in April, Mack True Value Hardware had a steady stream of people coming in to buy paint, flowers and gardening equipment.

Owner Kelly Mack says neighbors have been keeping the Johnson Drive corridor afloat during the pandemic.

“We know people when they come in, we know people by their name. We've seen the same people come in for years,” Mack says. “So, you know, that's a great neighborhood. It’s quintessential small-town USA, right in the middle of a big city.”

042720_LR_Kelly Mack at Mack True Value Hardware.jpg
Lisa Rodriguez/KCUR 89.3
Kelly Mack says he's been lucky his hardware store, Mack True Value Hardware, has been able to stay open throughout the pandemic.

But Mack worries that character could be lost if too many businesses don’t make it through this current crisis. He saw the neighborhood change back in 2013 and 2014 when Johnson Drive underwent a two-year road reconstruction project.

“I mean, we were lucky they were able to squeak through,” Mack says.

But Mack says he's never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic. As long as his doors are open, he says he’s there to help in every way he can.

A few blocks east of the hardware store, Werner’s Fine Sausages is doing steady carry-out business.

General manager Rachel Cochran says her small staff is surviving, thanks to a loyal customer base that’s been ordering food to go. Cochran says she’s trying to spread the love by sending people to other places along Johnson Drive.

“You know, ‘Oh, you need some drinks to go? Go down to The Bar.’ We just try to keep them in the neighborhood,” Cochran says. “Our loyal base, if we recommend another shop along the drive, most likely they will heed our advice and go there.”

Deb Settle, president and CEO of the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce, says she’s seen that spirit of collaboration all along the corridor.

“It's just a neat little community where people gather around to make sure that we are staying healthy by working together,” Settle says.

Setting up for the next generation

Settle says the closure of Lucky Brewgrille is a tough hit to Mission. But she’s still optimistic about the future Johnson Drive corridor.

“As sad as it is, I think everything has a season,” Settle says. “We might see some people not be able to make it back out of this, but I think other things will come out of it because of what we've been through,”

Like Kelly Mack of Mack’s True Value Hardware, Settle says she saw Johnson Drive come out stronger after the rehabilitation of Johnson Drive more than five years ago.

She says new business owners have come in to fill the shoes of others who didn’t make it through that period of construction.

Sandhills Brewing, based in Hutchinson, Kansas, opened a small taproom on Johnson Drive last year.

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Lisa Rodriguez/ KCUR 89.3
Jonathan Williamson opened Sandhills Brewing's Mission taproom in 2019.

Co-owner Jonathan Williamson says they’ve had to completely change how they do business to stay open. Normally, most of their business would come from selling beer by the glass.

“And now obviously we can't sell anything by the glass. And so we are canning everything in cans to go and as a teeny tiny brewery that is very, very labor intensive,” Williamson says.

He says the community has stepped up in a big way to keep them open.

“Right now we are selling the beer faster than we can can it,” he says.

Williamson is also trying to pay it forward, often ordering lunch from Urban Prairie Coffee next door.

The coffeeshop is owned by Mason Hans, who also owns the adjoining Mission: Board Games.

Hans says with game nights cancelled and the shop closed to customers, it’s hard to tell how long they can hang on. But he’s been overwhelmed by local support.

“We had a customer who came in and said, ‘How many pastries do you have left? I want to buy the rest and donate them to the local fire department so you guys don't lose money,’” Hans says.

“She spent $150 on one ticket and we didn't have any pastries go bad that day,” he says.

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Lisa Rodriguez/ KCUR 89.3
Mason Hans says he's been overwhelmed by community support of his game store and coffee shop on Johnson Drive.

Fuciu, of Lucky Brewgrille, says while he’s finished with the restaurant business forever, he’s passing along his restaurant equipment — and some of the knowledge he’s gained along the way.

“Why not share as much of the experience I've had over these 20 years? There was something here that we've done right to keep here all these years,” Fuciu says.

Fuciu hopes that may help the next small business that moves into this community after the pandemic has passed.

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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