This Kansas City Restaurant Owner Leaves The Industry Better Than She Found It
Caitlin Corcoran has been a fixture in Kansas City's hospitality industry for about 20 years. She started as a barista on the Plaza as a 15-year-old and went on to tend bar, serve, manage and finally own a restaurant, Ça Va in Westport.
Now she's taking a break — possibly a long or permanent break — from this city's restaurant scene.
For a good chunk of her career, she figured, as many women do, that a hostile work environment came with the territory.
Then she had an experience that has now been well-publicized that pushed her to act: She was working in a restaurant when the man charged and sentenced for raping her showed up for a drink. She hadn’t heard he'd been released from prison. When a panic-attack seized her, her male manager told her to take a breather but pull herself together and get back to work.
"I never wanted to be an employer or a boss that made my employees feel that way," Corcoran says.
Her idea was that if she didn't feel supported and safe at work, she wouldn't be able to help her staff feel supported and safe either. And if no one on staff felt supported and safe, none of them would truly be able to provide hospitality to their customers.
At Ça Va, Corcoran instituted training on what she calls "radical inclusive hospitality."
She educated her staff to be sensitive to past and potential sexual trauma concerning each other and their customers. She had them identify their personal biases so that they'd be able to make a conscious effort to treat all people well. And she trained staff in sensitivity to gender and sexuality spectrums to minimize offense and maximize customers’ comfort in her space.
Corcoran intends to continue this work — for which she was recognized by the James Beard Foundation in 2018 — in a consulting and freelance capacity, just not every day in a restaurant in Kansas City.
The long hours have worn her out, and she wants to explore.
Additionally, she doesn't want to be thought of as "Caitlin the bartender."
"I want to be Caitlin who goes to guided meditation and does yoga. I want to be Caitlin who rides her bike," she says. "I want to be Caitlin who loves to go out and eat oysters and have a nice glass of natty wine."
Corcoran leaves an astonishing legacy for a 34-year-old.
Her parents, a pastry chef and a financier, did not want her working in restaurants at all, she says.
"Toxic restaurants still exist, but in the '80s, that was like the pinnacle of coked-out line cooks, sexual harassment out the wazoo, and now I realize, like, 'Oh, I get why you didn’t want me to work in kitchens,'" Corcoran says of conversations about her mother's early career.
Restaurants were the settings for some of Corcoran's favorite childhood memories, though, and her family has a sort of mythos around the spots where her parents' dating years took place.
So the service industry is much more to Corcoran than to others who might simply work in a restaurant. She thinks of the whole scene differently from most, even the closed-down restaurants people still talk about.
"I just think the idea of community, and how you can really create a community around certain spaces and how people gravitate toward that and have nostalgia for these memories," Corcoran says. "And it's not necessarily the food they miss, really it's the feeling that they miss of that space."
The notion of her community members' attachment to spaces seems to have guided her, and she says she works from the idea of leaving things better than when she found them — exactly what her legacy is all about.
"My idea at Ça Va was that if I can make this little 725 square-foot piece of Westport that is mine, if I can make that the ecosystem I want to see throughout the world," Corcoran says, "then maybe my guests will start to have those conversations with their friends and eventually that affects the whole Kansas City area and eventually the world."
Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @AnneKniggendorf.