|By Joyce Smith, The Kansas City Star, Mo.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 3, 2005 - It's a title many area restaurateurs would like to claim: "Oldest restaurant in Kansas City."
The title bestows an air of success and historic significance that sets a restaurant apart from the hundreds of other food operations across the area.
And several area restaurants have the history to support such a claim. For example:
The Savoy Grill dates to 1903. It shut down for 10 days in 1937, so some sticklers say it hasn't operated continuously.
The New York Bakery & Delicatessen claims to be 100 years old and the oldest restaurant to continuously operate.
Dixon's Famous Chili in Independence may be the oldest family-owned restaurant in the area, flashing its "Since 1919" slogan in red neon across its front window.
Accurso's Italian Restaurant & Catering says it is one of the oldest food operations in the same location. The building dates to 1923, according to the Landmarks Commission, but the business' name and ownership has changed over the years.
But while oldest is nice, an abundance of other local restaurants also boast decades of history -- and that makes Kansas City unusual, industry experts say.
"Most markets only have a handful of independent restaurants that have lasted beyond 25 years," said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based food industry research and consulting company.
Goldin noted that restaurants have a high failure rate in their first two years of operation. If they manage to survive, they have a good chance of lasting 10 to 15 years. But after that, many independent restaurants run their course, he said.
"Kansas City can be proud of its loyalty to local restaurants," Goldin said. "The restaurants have evolved, but not too dramatically so they alienated customers. And they probably have some point of distinction, family involved in the operations, and they really know their customers."
Many Kansas City's landmark restaurants play up their longevity to draw customers. V's Italiano Ristorante says "for over 40 years." At Cascone's Italian Restaurant it's "serving their homemade Italian specialties since 1954." Acapulco Mexican Restaurant thanks its customers "for our 52 years in business," while Rosedale Barbeque says "the tradition in Kansas City barbecue since 1934!" The Savoy Grill uses "over a century of service" and Stephenson's Old Apple Farm Restaurant adds "since 1946."
Harry S. Truman was known to frequent two dissimilar Kansas City restaurants -- the Savoy and Dixon's -- and the operations promote that connection.
Kansas City's landmark restaurants also distinguish themselves through unique items or presentations --The New York Bakery & Delicatessen's towering Reuben sandwiches, Torreon Mexican Restaurant 's "fishbowl margarita," and the toy train that carries food to customers at Fritz's Railroad Restaurant, which dates to 1954.
Art Siemering, editor in chief of The Food Channel Trendwire, an international Internet newsletter, and former restaurant critic for The Kansas City Star, said location doesn't seem to matter too much because many diners will seek out good restaurants.
"I think you can get people to go about anywhere, but I think you have to have someone people can identify with, which obviously doesn't apply to these faceless chains," Siemering said. "(Owner) Don Lee is there looking after things at the Savoy Grill, greeting people he knows. And the Savoy is as famous for their steaks as they are for their seafood; that's pretty hard to do over a period of time. And they have the special booth where Truman sat."
Katharine Kim, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C., said restaurants can become a cornerstone of a community.
"These restaurants in Kansas City have been a part of people's lifestyles, almost a home away from home," Kim said. "It only enhances the dining experience when you are able to walk in and not only have a great meal but feel welcomed and feel almost part of a family, almost feeling like you are sitting down at their dining table."
Italian Gardens, another longtime Kansas City favorite, even had a community table where people dining alone could gather.
"It had to be hands-on, one of the owners or their nephews were always there so when you walked in it was like walking into their home," said Carl DiCapo, former chairman of the board who left the operation in 1998. "Everything was homemade, fresh every day, and we had the finest service, really taking care of the customer."
Italian Gardens was founded in 1925, but during the Depression, the owners had to relocate to 1110 Baltimore Ave. to be closer to evening diners staying at area hotels. They borrowed $1,500 from the retirement fund of one of their waitresses, bought a barrel of cracked china and had one pair of good shoes for whoever worked the front of the room. They soon developed a loyal following.
When customers began dining closer to their suburban homes, Italian Gardens counted on convention business to make up for slow months. But when some conventions moved elsewhere, the restaurant struggled. Members of the next generation also were too young to take over the family business or had gone into other professions, restaurant officials said at the time. The restaurant closed in late 2003 after 78 years of operation.
Today's independent restaurants have a harder time reaching significant anniversaries because they have to compete with national chains that can get better deals from vendors and have bigger advertising budgets.
"I've seen them come and go, nowadays they are fighting the deep pockets of the corporate chains that can build $2 million structures," said Jerry Gaines, chairman emeritus of the Missouri Restaurant Association and a restaurant specialist at Block & Co. Inc. Realtors. "It's a tough field for independent operators."
Gaines counted 149 restaurant closings in the Kansas City area in 2004 -- from longtime local operations as Tippin's Restaurant & Pie Pantry and California Taqueria to chain operations such as a Romano's Macaroni Grill and a Perkins Restaurant & Bakery.
Restaurateurs who own their own buildings usually can better weather the ups and downs of the market, Gaines said.
"Then they don't have the landlord's wrath when they are having trouble paying the rent during periods of bad business," Gaines said.
Zin recently celebrated its fifth anniversary and hopes new development and condominiums downtown will help it build its clientele.
"The key for any operator if they want to last into an old age in the restaurant business is have a good concept to start with and deliver on your promise," said Alex Pryor, owner of Zin. "Consistency, that's what people are looking for."
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Copyright (c) 2005, The Kansas City Star, Mo.
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