For 16 years, PotPie and its loyal staff have actively worked to protect the secret sauce – the one thing they believe continues to make their cozy, unpretentious Westport bistro a favorite spot for lunch or dinner in Kansas City.
They believe the secret to their success is in their relentless pursuit of “good food, not fast food,” a slogan coined by original owner and chef John Williams. In February, the team at PotPie welcomed chef Brian Aaron into the fold as the new executive chef for the American and French comfort food restaurant.
Aaron has worked at a number of kitchens in Kansas City including fine-dining spots like Zin and Starker’s Reserve, as well as more casual spots like JP’s Wine Bar, which became Tannin during his 8-year tenure there. He most recently worked for his friend chef Charles d’Ablaing at Brookside Poultry Co.
Yet he says working in the kitchen at PotPie was the one opportunity he just could not pass up. In particular, he was drawn to the size of the restaurant (at just 40 seats) and the seasonal menu, which changes twice a day. “It is also about working with these people who have all worked together here for over a decade,” he adds. “It is like coming home and working with family.”
Aaron thinks of PotPie as his home, quite literally. He has known Williams since middle school, and when a death in the family brought him back home to Kansas City in 2003, he helped Williams sand the bar as PotPie was preparing to open its doors. Williams then helped get him an interview at Zin.
Williams opened PotPie in 2003 with his business partner and now-wife Sarah Williams, who is still known to wait tables a few nights each week at PotPie. The couple is so intertwined with the restaurant that, to this day, new owner (and longtime PotPie bar manager and waiter) Victor Swerdlove still quotes them as if they were still in the building calling the shots.
“I didn’t make any kind of announcement when I decided to buy this place because I didn’t see the point. Nothing was going to change on my watch; we were still going to be dedicated to providing excellent service, great food and drink and to continue to enjoy working together as a team,” says Swerdlove. “John and Sarah are still around if we need them; we are not doing this alone by a long shot.”
Swerdlove worked for the couple at PotPie almost from day one. In 2017, he quietly purchased the restaurant with a promise to the Williams and the staff that they would continue to “take it easy,” the tagline of the restaurant that John added to the original PotPie logo.
However, Swerdlove quickly realized he needed someone like John in the kitchen to oversee the back of the house. “I realized that I had 14 years of experience not having to manage the kitchen, which is why it has been amazing with [Aaron] now with us,” he says. “His priorities are well placed, and he produces food we know is great, and that is ultimately his job.”
Aaron and Swerdlove clearly like working together – something that is very important for this little restaurant with its lean, loyal and longtime staff. The two have already started talking about the future of PotPie, as they continue to honor the past. The focus for the past month has been on pushing out a quality daily menu full of items that, to the delight of guests, have not changed much over the years.
The menu always includes two pot pies, as well as PotPie's famous pan-roasted chicken, in addition to mussels, a scallop dish, a fish dish, a steak dish, a pork dish and the chocolate chip bread pudding. “I know it seems like the menu never changes, but I have made small changes to each of those classic dishes, sourcing better quality product and tweaking the recipes to refine and deepen the flavor of them,” Aaron explains. “I have also added some new appetizers to the menu, and a new dessert, and I have the freedom to change the presentation and sides on each entrée on the menu daily to represent the freshest products and produce that are walking in my back door that day.”
Right now, Aaron is excited to see the first asparagus popping up, and plans to offer soft shell crab on the menu for Mother’s Day. He also hopes to weave in some international inspirations to the menu with dishes such as shakshuka. Although the restaurant is named for its warm and comforting pot pies, diners can expect to see some lighter, more refreshing items added to the menu just in time for warmer spring days.
Aaron and Swerdlove are also talking about hosting a few special wine dinners on Monday nights at PotPie. Aaron made a name for himself in Kansas City when he first started hosting wine dinners at Tannin, with creative themes and menus that had people still talking about them the next day. Guests can expect nothing less from him at PotPie.
“John once told me the secret to happiness is having low expectations,” Swerdlove says. “That may be true, but we want to set and meet – and hopefully exceed – our customers' expectations of us every day.”
Aaron acknowledges that he has big shoes to fill with Williams no longer in the kitchen. “John put out really great food, and I just want to make sure the work I am doing represents the high standards he set,” he says.
A talented chef in his own right, Williams is no doubt pleased to have these two friends working to keep the spirit of his restaurant alive and kicking.
PotPie, 904 Westport Road, Westport, Kansas City, Missouri, 816.561.2702, kcpotpie.com