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KANSAS CITY

Popular Kansas City restaurants Black Sheep and The Rieger are closing their doors, marking the start of a long, cold winter

  • 4 min to read

Although Kansas City restaurants will be able to continue to seat guests outside through the winter, keeping guests comfortable in the cold will be a major challenge. With indoor dining at only 50 percent seating capacity and no vaccine or additional stimulus packages on the way to support dining out at independent restaurants, many places will be forced to make difficult business decisions that will change the landscape of the Kansas City restaurant scene.

The latest in a string of Kansas City restaurants closings is chef Michael Foust's Black Sheep, which closed its doors a week ago. Foust announced on Facebook that he and his family will be relocating to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he has accepted a job as an executive chef at a local university.

At Foust’s first restaurant, The Farmhouse, he earned rave reviews for his brunches and his dedicated use of farm-fresh ingredients. He sold his share of The Farmhouse in 2018 to his business partners, chef Vince Paredes and Marty Enslein, who continue to own and operate it in the River Market today.

Driven by a passionate farm-to-table mission at both of his restaurants, Foust gave his hometown an incredible culinary gift, one that has both educated diners and helped the local farmers. “I set out to create a new and better food system for my restaurants, initially The Farmhouse in the River Market, and more recently, Black Sheep on 39th Street. The city and region’s farmers provided fresh, wholesome, nutritious produce, meats and artisan products – the raw stuff that has inspired a style of dishes and a conversation about where our food comes from,” Foust wrote on the Black Sheep Facebook page.

Kansas City was dealt another blow when chef-owner Howard Hanna also announced plans to close The Rieger on Nov. 1. The popular, critically acclaimed restaurant will serve its last meal on Halloween night after almost 10 years in business in the Crossroads. Manifesto, the speakeasy located in the basement led by Ryan Maybee, did not reopen after it closed in March, and will remain closed along with the restaurant.

Kansas City's J. Rieger & Co. distillery shares more than just a name with this restaurant; it shares a founder, too. The idea for the distillery was originally proposed to Andy Rieger by Maybee, who was a co-owner in The Rieger and owner of Manifesto at the time. The two had a conversation about the distillery on The Rieger’s opening night; after becoming friends, they went on to become partners in the distillery that bears Rieger’s family name. The distillery has managed to survive during the pandemic by making and selling booze and hand sanitizer in equal measure, and remains open for tours, tastings and reservations to drink and dine in the Monogram Lounge.

Foust and Hanna, who are also good friends, followed each other’s lead at the beginning of the pandemic too, closing their restaurant doors to reopen a few weeks later as community kitchens, turning cash and donated produce and protein into thousands of meals that helped to help feed the hungry in Kansas City.

The two chefs took inspiration from José Andrés, the James Beard award-winning chef, restaurateur and founder of the World Central Kitchen, who gave them the idea to create their own hybrid model based on his mobilized kitchen meal delivery system. The Crossroads Community Kitchen at The Rieger served more than 85,000 meals in the six months it was in operation.

Hanna also co-owns Ça Va, the Champagne bar in Westport, which he confirms will stay open, in addition to the two new restaurants he is working on at the City Club Apartments. “I am still planning to do the diner and natural wine bar across the street next year, pending my current fundraising efforts, and Ça Va seems to be doing okay. They have a much different business model than The Rieger, and they have been able to hold their own right now,” he says.

Many of the financial and operational issues that have plagued the hospitality industry have come into hard focus during this pandemic in a way that is impossible to ignore. The hope moving forward is that the restaurants that do build back after this global health crisis will do so with a new and sustainable business model that will allow them to pay their employees a livable wage. This will, in part, be subsidized by customers being willing to pay a little more when they choose to dine out.

When The Rieger reopened a month ago, Hanna announced that they had done away with tipping, adding instead a flat service charge to the bill in order to pay both those waiting tables and working in the kitchen a fair and livable wage. Any voluntary additional gratuity was to be split fairly among all hourly staff based on the number of shifts worked during the pay period. Additionally, since 2011, Hanna has offered 50 percent employer-sponsored medical benefits for all employees, both salaried and hourly, and recently added paid sick leave for full-time employees – all policies he plans to carry forward into his new concepts next year.

“During the pandemic, I realized that the restaurant industry will not change unless we change the way we each operate our own businesses within it. I didn’t see the point in waiting to make the changes that needed to be made to support my staff right now,” explains Hanna. “There had been a lot of fear in the past about whether our employees or our guests were ready for us to eliminate tipping, but now more than ever it has been well received and understood by all. By doing this, we are creating more financial stability for all of our employees and we are changing our work culture so people don’t feel like they have to come to work sick. It also eliminates much of the systemic racism and sexism that is built into tipping in this industry – something many people may not be aware of due to their own implicit biases.” 

As restaurants in Kansas City make plans to deal with the winter months, some will continue to offer limited dine-in and carryout this winter, creating smaller, more casual menus full of food that will hold well. Others will take their chances closing for the winter, like Beer Kitchen in Westport, which cited its intimate dining room and lack of an outdoor patio in announcing its decision to close for the season. Finally, there will be some who will simply close for good, unable to continue to operate profitably during the global pandemic. Those goodbyes will be the most painful ones.

The goodbyes are sad not only for the city but for the chef, as Foust said best in his final post on the Black Sheep Facebook page. “I will always be Kansas City proud, and for anyone who has broken bread at our tables, we all thank you for allowing us to feed you the best way we knew how.”