It’s not breaking news that brick-and-mortar stores across the country have been through challenging times, and Kansas City’s iconic Country Club Plaza is no different.
“What you’ve been seeing at the Plaza is what has been going on across the nation,” says Breana Grosz, the Plaza’s general manager.
Before the pandemic, a slow metamorphosis had been underway in the retail world, with more customers heading to online retailers to find exactly what they want, which forced more traditional shopping businesses to either shutter operations or offer something more creative. The pandemic just accelerated this inevitable transformation, says Grosz, who took over as the Plaza’s general manager about six months ago. It’s Grosz’s job to shape that transformation.
Grosz has come to the Plaza at an interesting time. She’s settling into her new role and looking for different ways to fill empty storefronts and entice shoppers not only after an unprecedented time in retail history but also during the Plaza’s hundred-year anniversary this year. “We’re looking to offer something at every price point, a mixture of local and unique national brands, community events for this special time,” says Grosz, who’s been tasked with celebrating the Plaza’s milestone and making sure it thrives into the next century.
A large part of keeping the Plaza engaging is finding ways to bring in locally owned businesses and keep them here, Grosz says.
Ice Cream Bae is one such business. The not-so-common ice cream shop was conceived by locals Jackie Faltermeier and Adison Sichampanakhone. It started off as a counter offering in the Made in KC Marketplace on the Plaza in 2018. The brand soon gained popularity and a solid social media following due in large part to its Instagramable products. Offerings include the S’more milkshake topped with a large, perfectly toasted marshmallow, graham crackers and a fat chocolate square; the signature flavor ‘I Love You So Matcha,’ featuring matcha-flavored soft serve, Pocky sticks and Kit Kats; and brightly colored ice cream cones.
“Customers are coming here for an experience,” Sichampanakhone says, echoing what Grosz has cited as the future of successful in-person retail experiences.
When Ice Cream Bae outgrew its KC Marketplace location in 2020, it opened its first stand-alone shop in Leawood. Capitalizing on the Leawood success, Faltermeier and Sichampanakhone were able to open a new shop on the Plaza last spring.
“We want to make sure there is room for local businesses with great ideas,” Grosz says. “It’s some folks’ dream to be on the Plaza.” Grosz is attempting to draw such businesses in various ways, such as with seasonal pop-up stores.
Along with local entrepreneurs, Grosz says the key is to find national and regional retailers that offer something you can’t easily find elsewhere. An example she cites is Parachute, a new high-end home store with around twenty locations scattered throughout the country, or the Normal Brand, a menswear company that began in St. Louis and has a few storefronts but also sells clothes with several select national retailers.
Grosz understands there is an intense community interest to the Plaza and its surrounding neighborhoods and says she has been encouraged by the commitment. That desire has manifested in various community organizations. One such newly formed group is the Plaza Area Council, a group of constituents and civic leaders—many, like Jonathan Kemper and Ken Block, with deep pockets—who are focused on revitalizing the Plaza.
“The Plaza has an extraordinary heritage and a real value as a destination point,” says David Westbook, a council member and the Plaza Area Council’s spokesperson. “This (our group) is not about a sentimental past or a particular problem, but rather looking to the future and how we make the Plaza a unique experience again.”