‘Pretty desolate’ in the Stockyards as ‘actual tumbleweeds’ replace diners and drinkers

The Campground started in a shed.

When Cristin Llewellyn and Christopher Ciesiel bought a house in South Hyde Park, they also acquired a shed, which they painted pastel pink and adorned with antlers. It was a fun place for friends to try Christopher’s drink experiments and offer feedback on recipes like the couple’s signature bacon-wrapped avocado.

The Campground morphed over time, first into a monthly get-together complete with cocktails and small plates. After having a child, Cristin and Christopher wanted to hold parties somewhere they could grow into a full-fledged business.

The Campground, as it exists in the Stockyards today, is an oasis for unique experiences. Cristin and Cristopher are obsessed with tweaking existing cocktail ingredients by infusing them with herbs or smoking them with sage.

Normally, you’d walk into the place to find an ambient pedal steel player performing, palo santo wafting through the air and perfectly balanced cocktails taking you to a refined version of what a campground bar in upper Wisconsin might feel like in the mid-50s.

But this time is anything but normal, and today The Campground sits among deserted bars and restaurants. The Stockyards doesn’t have much of a residential population, so under the stay-at-home order, it’s become so quiet you could pop a bottle of natural wine in the middle of Genessee Street and nobody would even notice.

What’s it been like being the last restaurant open in the West Bottoms/Stockyards?

Cristin: Just the other week, Lucky Boys opened up for carryout food, Amigoni Winery has to-go wine and Stockyards Brewing has to-go beer, but the other restaurants all closed up. It’s pretty desolate. We’ve been in our space for only two years, but I have been working in the Stockyards District for ten years. The neighborhood, just in the last few years, was really starting to take off and get that bustling neighborhood vibe where you see people going from place to place. It was becoming more walkable and people would make a night of it before all of this. It’s eerie because it’s turning back to like it was before. It feels like how it felt eight years ago. It’s very quiet. We’ll be at the restaurant and no one will pass by for hours. It’s weird.

Christopher: It seems like it’s reverting back to the “Wild West.” I have seen actual tumbleweeds roll down Genessee Street. It’s a one-stop-sign town, and it’s literally dangling by a nail.

Christopher has a background in the nursing field. Can you tell us about how that has influenced your approach to this?

Christopher: Owning a bar and restaurant, we have always had really high standards for sanitation. We’ve been taking extra care in regard to making sure we are wearing masks, gloves and offering all our food to-go. We were definitely prepared for this. It’s keeping us grounded, in reality. Many people think this can be over soon, but I guess just knowing what I know, medically, this hasn’t really even started yet here.

Cristin: Chris has a lot of connections in the health industry, so we’ve been doing food for hospitals. People are buying meals that can go directly to them. It’s been cool to see all of his old coworkers and people we know. Even those who don’t work there are donating money so that we can send food to hospitals around Kansas City every week. Chris knows what it can be like to work in an ER and how things get crazy. He can relate to that and knows how important it is to boost morale. Everyone at the hospitals right now is working so hard and risking their lives. We’ve already delivered five large meals that feed up to forty people, and we have two or three more that we are delivering in the next week. We also see a lot of nurses and doctors ordering food and drinks to go because they just need a break from all the work they are doing. Some people may not think that restaurants are essential businesses, but I think for some people, it’s just about being able to do something normal while their life is not normal. It’s really important.

When the stay-at-home order is lifted, will you still keep your carryout system?

Christopher: I think for sure it’s going to be a part of our business one way or another. We’ll see how the laws change moving forward. It’s going to be a different time. It was a part of our original plan to do a bottle shop and bar, so this isn’t really that foreign of a concept to us. If we are able to maintain the right to do this, then for sure it will be there.

Cristin: We’ve been changing everything as we go for the past month, just figuring out what works well for us and for other people. I think the need of the community and our customers is going to change as well. It’s hard to make a plan right now when everything is so uncertain, so we’ll just ease back in and figure out what feels best for us, our staff and the community. We definitely want to get our staff back and working. I think it will be different than it was in the past and hopefully for the good.

What challenges do you face trying to give someone an elevated cocktail experience in a take-home cocktail?

Christopher: I think the biggest challenge is only being able to make the connection with the guest for the fifteen seconds they are here to pick up their bottle to take home. I would hope the main reason any of us are in this industry is the human interaction, to make people’s lives or days better than they were before they came in your doors. It’s been kind of exciting yet challenging making that connection and trying to gain people’s trust in the fifteen to thirty seconds they are here picking up a cocktail to go. On the other hand, just like our glassware that we would serve a cocktail in, we’re trying to delineate our bottle sizes, crown cap covers and things of that nature so you can still make the experience unique. So literally each cocktail coming out in a to-go fashion has a different bottle, a different color or is associated with a different style.

Cristin: We’re also trying to make it easy so that anyone can do it—so that it’s not intimidating when you take it home. People love coming in to get our martini because it’s a whole experience. You get the sea salt and vinegar chips, olives and a lemon twist. That way when you go home to have your martini, it feels special.

What one skill or idea should every home bartender know or learn now that they have a ton of time on their hands?

Christopher: Honestly, it’s how I taught myself: Keep it simple. That’s what we try to do at The Campground. The best drinks only require three ingredients or less. Also, don’t overthink it. Now is definitely a good time to get creative because we all have nothing but time, but at the end of the day it’s about keeping it simple.

What are you looking forward to once things go back to normal?

Christopher: Just the laughter and banter of people, playing the music loud, all the smells of the drinks and the food, the palo santo and sage that we burn.

Cristin: Having people dine in our restaurant again. Being able to see it full. Seeing everything working again and having our staff come back and having their jobs. We want those people back to take care of. It’s been really cool for Chris and me to have this time because we had never worked together before. We always tried to switch shifts so one of us was home with our daughter. It’s been our first time working side by side, and it’s been nice. It’s been a family affair at The Campground.

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