The cow bell clunked. The waitresses lined up, blowing on party horns and emitting high-pitched whoops. “Chicken fried,” the Southern anthem by Zac Brown Band, blasted over the speakers.
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You can see in the video of the moment that Jerry Ploeckelmann of Bel Aire isn’t sure what the heck is happening. The chicken fried steak he has just ordered at The Barn, a happening new restaurant in the tiny town of Burrton, has arrived at his table accompanied by a train of squealing women, one of whom shouts, “Winner, winner, chicken fried steak dinner” and drapes a bright yellow T-shirt over his chest that reads “I ate the 10,000th Chicken Fried Steak at The Barn.”
About 10 months in to the existence of the restaurant, a popular Pioneer Woman-esque place with mason jar chandeliers and a grain-bin-turned-bar, owner Lesley Matlack’s husband, Karl, noticed something.
While studying the restaurant’s books, he noted that chicken fried steaks were literally flying out of the door. It wasn’t unusual for the kitchen to fry up 100 of them on a single Saturday night. It wouldn’t be long, he told his wife, until the 10,000th steak was served.
Lesley started planning. And counting. When Saturday, Sept. 25, rolled around, she knew it was the night.
And Ploeckelmann turned out to be the customer. His photo from that night, which shows the confusion on his face replaced by chicken-fried giddiness, now hangs in a hallway at The Barn. And Ploeckelmann, whose prize was one free chicken fried steak a week for a year, makes the 42-mile drive from Bel Aire nearly every week to collect, Lesley said.
At a high-volume Wichita restaurant, this chicken fried steak sales feat might go unnoticed. But to achieve that in a town of 900 people, every single resident would have to commit to frequent chicken fried steak dinners.
But they had help.
As word about The Barn, which also serves hand-cut steaks, chicken wings, fried shrimp and homemade pies, began to spread, it became an unlikely destination restaurant in the middle of Tiny Town, U.S.A.
“People come from all over,” said Lesley, who had never had a restaurant job before opening her own place. “Someone said they drove from Kansas City just to try us out. On Friday and Saturday nights, we always have a wait at the door. It’s crazy.”
Lesley grew up on a farm in Bushton, a tiny central Kansas town in Rice County.
She was raised dining on farm favorites, and she loved to bake. When she married Karl and moved to Burrton, she took a job as a preschool teacher and baked on the side, providing the desserts for the Paradise Grill on Highway 50, one of the few restaurants operating in Burrton.
But in November 2012, a fire destroyed Paradise Grill. Lesley, a mother of five, dreamed of opening her own bakery to continue her dessert making, but her options were limited. She found a spot on Main Street in Burrton that would have been perfect, but it would need to be redone.
“We did a feasibility study, and it was just going to cost too much to do that,” she said. “We might as well have started brand new.”
One day a few years later, she was home helping her parents with harvest when her husband called.
“He said, ‘I bought you a building!’” Lesley remembers.
It was the old Paradise Grill, where she’d made desserts until the fire. But the building would have to come down. The couple decided to rebuild, and they spent months building a brand-new, cavernous building that looked from the outside like a real farm-style red barn.
Lesley went round and round with architects and builders, she remembers, trying to get them to see her vision for the interior. The older and less fancy her building materials looked, she said, the better.
She lined the walls with reclaimed red barn wood. She turned buckets she dug up from the pig barn in Bushton into lamps. She turned mason jars into chandeliers.
Then, there was the grain bin.
It had always been on her family farm, and her mom had used it to store her gardening supplies. Lesley wanted it for the restaurant, though, and envisioned turning it into a bar.
One hot July day, she and her husband rebuilt the bin inside the under-construction dining room. It’s the first thing people see when they walk in the door, and on the other side, the bin holds the restaurant’s bar, where employees serve up beers and glasses of iced tea in mason jars.
Fancy, but not fancy
The Barn opened on Oct. 29, 2015, and Lesley quickly realized she was in over her head.
As anyone who lives in a small town knows, if a good restaurant opens, people go. And they go frequently. This place was pretty upscale for a small town. It even had craft beers from Wichita on the taps alongside the Bud Light.
Jeff Nicholas worked for a food distributor and had recently signed Lesley up as a customer. When he’d visit her every Monday, he’d often find her in tears.
He couldn’t leave her like that, he said, and soon he signed on as head chef.
Now it’s Nicholas who’s in the kitchen on Saturday nights, battering 100 steaks in flour and buttermilk and frying them to perfection.
He’s proud of the steaks, which are bigger than a human face and emerge from the fryer so crispy, there’s an audible crunch when the knife hits the surface.
“I’d put this restaurant’s chicken fried steak up against anybody’s,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people in here that have eaten out of state or around the state and said ours is the best.”
The secret, he said, is the special cut of meat he buys from Kansas City. And people love the sides he serves with the steaks, from bacon-studded green beans to mashed potatoes and gravy. A homemade yeast roll also lands on every plate before it leaves the kitchen.
The Barn frequently has live music. It serves breakfast on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings. And it has a big party room where small-towners frequently stage wedding rehearsal dinners.
Life has gotten easier with every chicken fried steak she’s served, Lesley said. The secret to her success, she guesses, is her customers’ love of home cooking.
“If my dad won’t eat it, I’m not gonna serve it,” she said. “It can’t be fancy. We don’t do quiche and we don’t do sushi. We don’t do fancy things – just hearty home-cooked, make-you-feel-good stuff.”
Where: 307 Dean St., Burrton, 620-463-8056
Type of food: American, home cooking
Alcohol: Full bar
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 6 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays; 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. Kitchen closes at 9 p.m.