Published September 3rd, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Have you heard the pandemic version of a-guy-walks-into-a-bar joke?
A gal walks into Drastic Measures in Shawnee and asks bartender Jay Sanders: “Hey, where’d you get your mask?”
Sanders emits a slightly muffled laugh through his gray mask with a “KC Heart” logo. “Charlie Hustle,” he says, while rattling two cocktail shakers in unison, then punctuates his pour with quick wit, “It’s the Cold War of masks in KC!”
Sanders is referring to the new sport of stockpiling the local t-shirt company’s cotton masks, which are continuously coming out in new styles and colors.
Drastic Measures opened June 22, and despite mask and social distancing protocols — not to mention closures and dire predictions of catastrophic business failures throughout the hospitality industry – the bar is attracting its share of thirsty customers.
Drastic Measures is a sister concept to the popular Swordfish Tom’s in the Crossroads. Owner Jill Cockson’s project was well under way when the Kansas City metro went into lockdown. Her landlord happens to be a business partner and a contractor, so they “kind of had the situation to push through.”
But there’s another reason Cockson thinks Drastic Measures will succeed: She is comfortable with the streamlined operations necessary to turn a profit.
Cockson’s model includes minimal labor. There is no kitchen. All cocktails are $12. She only accepts cash to avoid paying for costly electronic payments systems that also take a percentage of profit. The bar has an ATM onsite and she receives $1 per use.
At 4 p.m. on a recent Saturday, no one is waiting outside the door. Within the hour, guests begin to fill the alcove seating pods staggered throughout the former medical office. To enter the bar, guests must wear masks and wait for a green light indicating there is a seat.
The stop-go light system gives staff time to determine the proper social distancing and allows for sanitizing between customers. Maximum occupancy is 42, but 25 is the norm for now. Those who must wait their turn usually land at the nearby brewery or the new McClain’s Bakery.
A masked host greets guests with a hand sanitizer bottle and takes down contact information in a pocket notebook in case there is ever a need for contact tracing. Customers order at the bar and take drinks back to their seats.
Sanders, who honed his craft at Room 39, SoT and Manifesto, pours cocktails into glasses and wields a pair of extra-large tweezers to place garnishes on top and snag a few metal straws.
The most popular cocktails on the seasonal menu are The Dead Eye Diaz, mezcal and passionfruit with dots of cilantro- and chili-infused oils applied with an eyedropper, and the Constant Gardener, a breezy riff on the Pimm’s Cup.
Cockson is already working on Chartreuse Saloon opening in January 2021. The Crossroads pool hall concept will pay homage to “saloon culture.” The bartenders will rely on jams and jellies instead of infused syrups (which require refrigeration not available in saloon times) to create cocktails. The single-item menu will feature nachos.
“We’ve stumbled on a model that works for us,” Cockson says. “We’re like a speed boat. But in this industry, we have spent a lot of years building cruise ships instead of speed boats.”
As Lawrence, Kansas, went into lockdown mode, Taylor Petrehn of 1900 Barker Bakery & Café removed the door to his bakery.
The three-time James Beard semifinalist replaced the door with an order window and a speaker. By creating a contactless bakery, he maximized baking space and created a barrier to keep his staff safe.
Petrehn thinks his business – which has never closed — has continued to be successful in the midst of a pandemic because his customers are craving comfort. And there’s not really much that is more comforting than a flaky croissant or a loaf of bread.
Average tickets have climbed as more customers are buying a week out rather than making daily orders. Many customers are also tipping generously as a show of support.
“Our community has been really accepting (of the changes to the bakery operation), and we’ve stayed super busy during it,” Petrehn says. “I think we provided a little bit of normalcy at a time when everything was crashing. Business is still actually growing, which is crazy to say.”
Petrehn was able to keep all the workers who wanted to continue to work, and he has added three new hires. Perhaps most surprisingly, he’s also working on a new project.
Taylor’s Donuts will be inside another former laundry at the corner of 19th & Louisiana streets in downtown Lawrence. Petrehn bought the property more than a year ago but was only issued the building permit in March. Now, he’s designing the donut space with social distancing in mind.
“We’ve already put motion to it and we’re going to finish it,” he says, adding the target opening date is early 2021. “We’ll launch as a closed shop, and as we get used to baking in the new (commissary) environment, we’ll do a soft launch for the donut concept.”
Meanwhile, Petrehn and his staff already are gearing up for the holiday season. “We can show the world that there is something enjoyable and safe and can add a glimmer of hope. I think there’ll be a market for that,” he says.
As invited media took their seats at a mini tasting a week prior to Cultivare’s opening on July 8, partner and social influencer Kasim Hardaway delivered plates of salad to a few socially distanced tables.
At the time, Managing Partner Kerry Goebel joked that additional seats and tables were on their way. But a few weeks later an order for more seats and tables were on hold.
The fast-casual, health-forward grain and salad bowl concept in Overland Park was slated to open in April and the initial design was for customers to walk in and order their food via a Chipotle-style counter service line. But with online ordering picking up, Goebel has hired a delivery service.
“Our mindset is, go where consumers are,” Goebel says. “We almost unintentionally created a concept that is well-designed for the COVID consumer.”
COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the high cost of a no-contact delivery service – average take is 30-35% of each sale – but Goebel looked instead for services that would negotiate a flat fee.
Goebel grew up with a father who worked in the restaurant industry. Before starting Cultivare, Kerry and his brothers (he’s a triplet), and his sisters, learned the ropes while operating a half dozen Pie Five locations in Kansas City.
Although pizza is a food closely associated with delivery, Pie Five has been harder to re-tool than Cultivare, in part because the concept is based on an in-person make-your-own-pizza experience.
The Pie Five stores experienced an 80% drop-off in sales during the lockdown, but the team pivoted and began offering family pizza kits and have since found new footing by upping their catering and online delivery services.
“I have a rock star team that has been with me during thick and thin over the years. We’ve been through some crazy ups and downs. Things are good,” Goebel says.
Then he checks his own optimism: “Actually, I have no clue what ‘good’ is anymore, but I have the confidence to keep on pushing.”
A secret stairwell with a definite speakeasy vibe leads to a lounge equipped with a well-stocked bar that debuted at the end of May as the Conductor Club.
The Belvedere Room space is on the second floor, tucked next to Pierpont’s at Unions Station. A ribbon of rectangular windows offers a peek down into Union Station’s Grand Hall. The room previously served as an overflow bar for weddings and other large events but during COVID-19 has become a space for hosting five sold-out guided spirits tastings held every other Thursday.
Under the rules of social distancing, there is room for 20-25 people. Kenny Cohrs, director of guest services and special events, says there’s been a 60% return rate to the Thursday night events. The space also has hosted a few private events, including a private birthday gathering for a local TV personality.
“People still want to get out a little bit. They just need to feel good about the level of comfort and safety,” Cohrs says. “The people who come here don’t want to go to a big sports bar.”
Conductor Club expands Pierpont’s footprint and is also a way to experience Cohrs’ exceptional talents.
“It’s been an opportunity for me to get back behind the bar and have an intimate space to work in,” says Cohrs, who was previously at The Parlour at Monarch Bar.
Conductor Club guests receive their choice of welcome cocktail and spirit tastings. Then they are free to stay for full-sized cocktails and food items ranging from a sampler plate to steak dinners. The next tasting club event from 6-8 p.m. on Sept. 10 is $59 and features Woodford Reserve, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.
One of Downtown Lawrence’s charms is bustling foot traffic. But many restaurants and shops have remained shuttered during the pandemic.
It’s all been too quiet for chef Alejandro Lule, who on Monday night revived the brick-and-mortar version of the beloved Lawrence staple La Parrilla at 712 Massachusetts Ave.
“The reason I’m doing this is the streets of Downtown Lawrence are dead. Everything is shut down,” Lule says.
In the early days of the pandemic, Lule spent his time sprucing up the interior of Zen Zero, a restaurant he owns with longtime business partner Subarna Bhattachan. Lule also helped feed farmers at his friend’s restaurant 1866 Bar & Grill in Tonganoxie.
La Parilla initially opened in 1999 featuring Latin American fare. It eventually became a food truck. Lule’s new hybrid concept will offer a street food menu, including tacos, rice bowls with meat or organic local tofu, ceviche, guacamole and his famously thirst-quenching Brazilian Lemonade.
Lule has prepared plenty of fine dining throughout his career, including working at the fabled Pachamama’s. But the times are right to focus on stripped-down counter service and feeding “the people who want to eat.”
Menu items will ring in at $10 and under. The restaurant’s workers are his friends who needed jobs, and his customers can stay safe by taking food to go or sit at four socially distanced tables.
Lule says he’s not sure yet of La Parrilla’s hours. He figures he’ll probably stay open seven days a week.
“We will go day by day,” he says. “If one day we can have more tables, that’s good, and we’ll add them.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Among her many food-related pursuits, she is the co-host of the Chew Diligence podcast. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.