“During a pandemic?” has become my preferred refrain any time I’m asked to participate in what pre-coronavirus times would have been considered normal activities. So far, this phrase has excused me from: bathing regularly, paying bills on time and drinking in moderation.
“During a pandemic?” is also the phrase that pulses through my brain as I encounter, with somewhat startling frequency, new restaurants hosting grand open-ings amid increasing restrictions—even as Covid-19 has caused many long-standing restaurants to temporarily or permanently close (farewell, Nara—I’ll miss your cheap-as-hell happy hour). In the past few months, Kansas City has welcomed an upscale cocktail bar (Leawood’s Verdigris), an elegant American fine dining restaurant from the owners of Café Provence (Verbena in Prairie Village) and a handful of other breweries, bakeries and eateries.
With rent and mortgages to pay, some new restaurant owners feel like they have little choice but to open. Others—like Blackhole Bakery’s Jason Provo—insist that, pandemic or not, you can’t cancel your dreams. You might have to modify them a bit, though. We talked to three newcomers—Blackhole, Billie’s Grocery and Yoli Tortilleria—about what it’s like to open during a pandemic. Aside from the circumstances, these establishments have one key unifier: an ardent commitment to carbs.
Open 8 AM–3 PM Monday–Saturday
Robin Krause is not new to the restaurant business. After founding Filling Station Coffee in 2004, which she grew to four locations before selling the business in 2014, Krause went on to open Unbakery and Juicery in 2016, which focused on raw foods and cold-processed juices. Billie’s Grocery, a combination restaurant and bakery concept, is an extension of that wellness signature Krause found four years ago. The menu caters to keto, vegan and gluten-free diets. Along with artisanal wellness shop Apothé and culinary education program the Luzier, both operated by Krause, Billie’s is housed inside the newly renovated historical Luzier Cosmetics Building in Midtown.
The idea, Krause says, was to take her degree in nutritional therapy and integrate it with her business.
“The most important thing I learned is how to cook mindfully using quality ingredients and using them correctly,” she says. “For example, you can get a really good olive oil, but throw it on the grill and it’s carcinogenic. We don’t use oil like that, and we don’t have canola oil at all. There’s a lot of ingredients in normal kitchens you won’t find in mine.”
The “grocery” portion of Billie’s Grocery is still coming, Krause promises. She currently offers a bottled fermented hot sauce and some pickled items, and by the holidays, she plans on a full line of dry goods, charcuterie boards and flower arrangements.
In the meantime, diners can enjoy a handsome dairy-free Reuben (with house-fermented kraut and vegan mayo), bountiful bowls (deconstructed sushi, veggie Thai, beet hummus) and an array of vegan, raw, gluten-free and processed sugar-free pastries and desserts. The latter are particularly stunning: Billie’s long glass cases are filled with decadent sweets, from stout lemon-basil-honey scones (gluten-free) and pretty layered Twix caramel bars (vegan, gluten-free) to a celebration-worthy layered carrot cake (gluten-free) and a striking raw tiramisu cake (vegan, gluten-free).
For the moment, most people are opting to take their meals and treats to-go instead of enjoying them in Billie’s light-filled dining room—and if they are dining in, they’re doing so on eco-friendly to-go dishes.
“It’s not the presentation we wanted, but the food is still good and it’s safer for every-one,” Krause says.
Open 7 AM–2 PM Wednesday-Friday and 8 AM–2 PM Saturday
Jason Provo has been working in the space at 5531 Troost since last July, but the sign for Blackhole Bakery didn’t go up until a month later. That’s largely because Provo wasn’t baking at first: There were improvements to make to the building, like new equipment and a fresh coat of paint, before he could get into the kitchen and start creating.
“I wasn’t under a tight schedule until February 2020,” Provo says. “The remodel was finished, and we had a good idea of what direction we were going in. We were planning our opening right at the same time that the coronavirus started becoming a news story.”
Provo delayed opening until April 1, cut back on staffing and augmented his menu to fit a grab-and-go model. The new tables went into storage before the grand opening and have yet to be christened—Provo isn’t sure when that will happen. For now, he’s not worried about it.
“Ninety-nine percent of our business is just carryout,” he says. “We don’t have seating and we don’t allow anyone to hang out, which is not how I saw the business running, but we’ve received positive feedback.”
When Blackhole first opened, call-ahead orders were de rigueur. That practice has dwindled as Provo’s customer base has gotten more comfortable coming in and selecting their pastries. “Nine times out of ten, when people come in to pick up their call-ahead order, they wait in line and purchase additional things,” Provo says. “They’re really just calling ahead to reserve the items they really want.”
Usually, those items include Blackhole’s perfectly spiraled cinnamon rolls and signature mochi donuts. In no time, Blackhole has developed a rabid fandom for the latter: The impeccable spheres come in punchy flavors—peach, mocha, berry lemonade, the signature chocolate—and have a feather-light marshmallow texture thanks to the use of glutinous rice flour. They look like oversized bon-bons and are just as satisfying.
“We’ve been pretty blessed and lucky, despite opening during a pandemic,” Provo says. “We were immediately overwhelmed with a really large following, which is crazy, and gradually, we’ve found an equilibrium.”
Open 8 AM–4 PM, Tuesday–Saturday
For the past three years, Marissa Gencarelli has been on a mission to bring quality, traditional Mexican-style tortillas to Kansas City. If you shop at the Overland Park Farmer’s Market or local grocery stores, you’ve likely seen her brand, Yoli Tortilleria. Perhaps you’ve even picked up a pack of those stone-ground corn tortillas, made from local, organic, non-GMO white, yellow, red and blue corn. Maybe you’ve stuffed those tortillas with carne asada and marveled at how they curve into your hands with a friendliness that mass-produced corn tortillas will never have, or how the toasted corn lends a bite of earthiness.
Gencarelli, who was born in Sonora, Mexico, has long wanted to introduce the famed flour tortillas of her home state to the company’s offerings. Her Sonoran flour tortillas are traditionally made with lard (or avocado oil for a vegetarian version) and are tissue-thin while remaining delightfully pliable and chewy.
“We wanted to make sure we kept our corn tortilla facility gluten-free,” Gencarelli says, so she and her business partner and husband, Mark, began looking for a second location to produce their Sonoran-style flour tortillas. They found one in the Westside neighborhood: a small space that’s mostly a commercial kitchen with one slender counter and a cooler stocked with every variety of tortillas the company has, in multiple sizes. The idea has always been to offer drinks and snacks along with the tortillas.
“The tortillerias in my hometown were small, and they would have little snacks and coffees and sodas and local cheese,” Gencarelli says. “It becomes a community spot where you grab your fresh tortillas for that day, you get a tamale, you see your neighbors and say hi.”
Currently, Yoli offers breakfast burritos (made with local Campo Lindo Farms eggs and Local Pig products), homemade salsas and cold brew, and Gencarelli has plans to introduce horchatas and tamales. The menu is entirely to-go.
“We didn’t plan on opening during a pandemic,” Gencarelli says with a laugh. “We had hoped to be open by the end of 2019, but there were delays with equipment and permits, and then we thought, ‘Well, it’s now or never—we’re already paying rent.’ But so far, so good. This neighborhood is perfect for us. We feel like we’ve been welcomed home.”