Columbia Industry Innovators

Jeff Spencer, Ben Hamrah, Daniel and Ali Bauer, Amanda Elliott and Brad Newkirk.

Each year, we honor the seasoned pros who continue to push the envelope in the local food-and-drink scene, from restaurateurs to artisans to hospitality pros.

Jeff Spencer, Just Jeff’s

Jeff Spencer never dreamed that in his retirement he would open two brick-and-mortar restaurants and attract a bit of local fame. But after he quit his day job as a truck driver, he began selling burgers and hot dogs out of a cart on the University of Missouri’s campus full-time – something he had done only part-time beginning in 2013. Back then he was just a guy manning a grill, without framed culinary degrees or restaurant experience to back him up. To this day, he’s never needed any of that. A jovial personality, simple, scratch cooking and a menu focused on all-beef hot dogs, burgers and other fast-food classics have created a loyal fan base that has followed Spencer from cart to full-kitchen concept. Spencer firmly believes that the best meals start in the cleanest kitchens; he’s proud to showcase his stainless steel grills and spotless prep surfaces in the open kitchen of his south Columbia location. Just Jeff’s lunch-only hours bring in plenty of business, but in the future, Spencer hopes to stay open for dinner to expand his clientele. Until then, he’s rolling with what’s always served him best: just being Jeff.

Daniel and Ali Bauer, The Cherry Street Cellar

For husband-and-wife team Daniel and Ali Bauer, The Wine Cellar & Bistro, now the Cherry Street Cellar, is a place of firsts. It’s where they first met in 2005 – Ali in the kitchen, Daniel stationed in front of house – and now it’s the first restaurant they’ve been able to call their own. All these years later, coming back to the Cellar still feels familiar. Ali once again finds herself in the kitchen, this time as the executive chef, while Daniel manages the bar and front of house. The Bauers lived in Chicago for 11 years, where Ali was the chef de cuisine at Brindille and Daniel worked in a series of fine-dining restaurants. But after the birth of their second son, a cramped two-bedroom apartment and a seven-hour drive from family gave them plenty of reason to head back home to Columbia. This past summer, previous owners Sarah and Craig Cyr passed the baton to the Bauers, who have strived to maintain the best traditions of The Wine Cellar & Bistro while making the concept feel like their own. Besides the name, other changes include a redesigned interior and new seasonal menu items made with local ingredients. The couple hopes to add more fresh ideas in the coming months.

Brad Newkirk, B&B Bagel Co.

Over the years, B&B Bagel Co. has become an integral part of the community in Columbia, Missouri, and so has co-owner Brad Newkirk himself; he has watched his customers’ kids grow into adults and even hired staff that he’s known since they were in diapers. “You won’t find those connections within national chains,” he says. Another thing that makes B&B Bagel Co. different is its New York-style practice of boiling each bagel before baking it. The from-scratch bagels are made with as few ingredients as possible; smeared with complementary cream cheese flavors, including strawberry, honey-walnut, jalapeño and garlic-herb, they’re a heavenly breakfast indulgence. The jovial atmosphere of the shop that Newkirk has created also draws people in: He’s happy to say that there’s a lot of joking around and hugging that goes on whether he’s there or not.

Amanda Elliott and Ben Hamrah, Beet Box

Chefs Amanda Elliott (a Feast columnist) and Ben Hamrah initially bonded over their love of cooking (and indulging in) Middle Eastern fare. However, their passion for the cuisine comes from different places. Hamrah’s is innate: His Persian heritage means that family dinners were often filled with rich flavors and spices of Middle Eastern origin. Elliott’s enthusiasm, on the other hand, was sparked by a holiday in Lebanon, which triggered a desire to recreate everything she ate there in her New York kitchen, where she was operating Rustic Supper as a private chef at the time. After the birth of her daughter, Elliott moved back to mid-Missouri to be closer to family and connected with Hamrah. The two worked at Hamrah’s family business, Peachtree Catering, for years before taking a leap and opening their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Beet Box. Allowing their similar cooking philosophies to steer the menu, Elliott and Hamrah create dishes inspired by seasonal ingredients grown by local producers. To get a taste, try the shawarma, housemade flatbread filled with either chicken from Brush & Trouble Farm in Boone County, Missouri, or pork from Sullivan Farms in Fayette; baklava ice cream sandwich; or weekly special, where the chefs’ inspiration shines.

Jessica is a freelance writer based in Columbia, Missouri. She lives by the words of M.F.K. Fisher: "First we eat, then we do everything else."

More Features articles.