The Golden Ox Restaurant & Lounge was one of the hottest spots in Kansas City last week.
It was not only booked solid for lunch, it was turning away customers who didn’t dream they would need reservations for a restaurant that in recent years typically was far from capacity.
But it wasn’t a typical week at the 65-year-old West Bottoms steakhouse. Many of those customers hadn’t eaten there for 20 or 30 years, and were rushing in to say goodbye before it shut down for good after dinner Saturday night.
And therein lay part of the problem.
“They’re apologizing, saying they would have come more often if they had known,” said Bill Teel, owner of the Golden Ox. “But the economics have to work 365 days a year. It is what it is.”
A dozen years ago, Kansas City boasted more than a dozen iconic restaurants that had been operating in the same spot, or close to it, for 50 years or more.
But like the Golden Ox, more and more of those operations have died off.
While some legendary Kansas City restaurants have maintained or adapted their recipes for success, others were beset by changing neighborhood demographics along with ever-evolving consumer tastes.
Some were forced to close or relocate because of redevelopment, while others — without another generation to pass the business on to — sold out to new owners who opened a more contemporary concept.
Iconic but now gone restaurants that many Kansas Citians had deep attachments to include Italian Gardens, Jennie’s Italian Restaurant, New York Bakery & Delicatessen, Putsch’s 210, Romanelli Grill and Stephenson’s Old Apple Farm Restaurant.
“Nothing lasts forever and nothing is supposed to last forever,” said Carl DiCapo, who had been with the Italian Gardens for 46 years. “You are only in there to make money and when the time comes that you are losing money you have to close.”
Back in 1949, the Golden Ox started out with a built-in clientele of ranchers and farmers doing business at the stockyards. But it also had to draw customers who had to pass by such competitors as the Ol’ Kentucky Barbecue, Glenn’s Oyster House and the Blue Dahlia Room on their way to the West Bottoms.
Two decades later those restaurants had disappeared from the city directories. Golden Ox kept going — through a flood, kitchen fires and thefts.
Many longtime customers marked personal milestones there. They dined in their first formal attire before the prom, fueled up before major sporting events and concerts at Kemper Arena, celebrated business deals over a first bottle of Dom Perignon, had a first date with their spouse and sneaked a first kiss together outside, and celebrated 25th and 50th anniversaries there.
“We’re losing a good part of our history really,” said Ron Miller of Kansas City, who has been a customer since the mid-1960s.
“Good food, good times,” added his wife, Connie.
But when Golden Ox started out it was competing with those other mom-and-pops. Now it has to take on national chains offering fresh, contemporary designs, more varied menu items with updated ingredients, and big advertising budgets to draw in customers.
It lost business when the stockyards closed, and then when concert and sporting events moved from neighboring Kemper Arena to the Sprint Center.
One longtime customer, Deanna Rudd of Prairie Village, tried to frequent the restaurant but “it has gone down, down, down hill, especially in the past year, year and a half.”
Teel said his goal has been to maintain quality. “Frankly that frustrates me.” he said. “We always had upper choice steaks. I think sometimes people just look for things.”
Bill Haw Sr., owner of the Livestock Exchange Building and landlord for the Golden Ox, said business was so dismal it was behind in its rent, and that the owner agreed to close.
So it will go the way of other iconic Kansas City restaurants.
Romanelli Grill in Waldo also saw its neighborhood demographics shift, so the owner sold out to new owners in 2005 who changed the concept, targeting young professionals and families. It has since changed owners and concepts again.
Italian Gardens opened in 1925 when downtown was in its heyday. DiCapo began working there in 1953 when traffic on the sidewalks was so congested he would cut through the alleys. After its clientele moved to the suburbs and it failed to generate many new ones it closed in 2003.
“When they tore down the restaurant I stood across the street and cried. It was like losing your family, you have been there for three or four generations,” DiCapo said.
His son, John David DiCapo, resurrected Italian Gardens as Italian Gardens ToGo, a drive-through operation in Overland Park using many of the same recipes as the 78-year-old downtown restaurant.
Experts say most mom-and-pops start-ups are under-capitalized and fail in their first two years. If they survive they can most likely last for a decade or more before the restaurant runs its course.
“For a restaurant to last 20, 30 years, that’s almost biblical. The mortality rate is so high when they first get started,” said Larry Gaines of Block & Co. Realtors. His late father, Jerry Gaines, and Jerry’s brothers Bernard and Sidney Ginsberg, founded another iconic restaurant, Sidney’s, in the 1930s and operated several locations for decades.
“Some restaurants can weather time, they don’t need to be updated all the time. The charm is in the historical value of it,” Gaines said.
Making it long-term
V’s Italian Ristorante — “celebrating 50 years of being a nice place to fall in love” — attributes its longevity to loyal customers that now span four generations.
“One 7-year-old wanted to celebrate her birthday here last week. When a youngster picks us over McDonald’s I’m thrilled to death,”said Greg Hunsucker, president of the family-owned restaurant on U.S. 40 in Independence.
About 76 percent of V’s revenue comes from just 24 percent of the menu. So Hunsucker won’t touch the baked lasagna, a perennial favorite. But he recently tweaked his chicken Lemonata and orders have spiked.
“You never stop doing what made you successful,” Hunsucker said.
Sara Monnette, senior director at the market research firm Technomic, said the landmark restaurants like V’s can leverage their history to younger consumers who are looking for authenticity.
“They can use it as part of their story,” she said.
Jess & Jim’s Steakhouse — “bring your tradition to our tradition” — opened in Martin City in 1938. It might still be operating on is original site but the F5 Ruskin Heights tornado tore through that restaurant in 1957. The owners regrouped just a half block away at the current spot on 135th Street.
“We work it. This place comes first and that’s how it has to be in the restaurant business. My husband is in the kitchen. I’m working the front of the house and our kids are on the floor serving,” said Debbie Van Noy.
Jess & Jim’s made-from-scratch menu started with the basic steaks and baked potatoes, but now it includes fried chicken, livers and gizzards, 16-ounce lobster tail and frog legs — enough variety to appeal to most any customer’s palate. The owners also offer a variety of price points so consumers can “eat cheap, eat moderate or have a high-end steak.”
They also recently freshened up the facade and plan to open a patio next spring.
“But we don’t try to change too much. One customer said he just came home for Christmas a week ago but when he came in here he said, ‘Now I’m home,’” Van Noy said.
Perhaps the oldest long-time restaurant is the Savoy Grill, circa 1903. A restaurant fire gutted the kitchen in October but earlier this month a top hotel company completed its purchase of the Savoy Hotel and Grill and plans to resurrect the property.
Other longtime restaurants include Dixon’s Famous Chili Parlor, still flashing its “since 1919” slogan in Independence; Cascone’s — “Let our family serve yours” — celebrating 60 years in the Northland and River Market under different members of the family; and Rosedale Barbeque — “the tradition in Kansas City barbecue since 1934” — in Kansas City, Kan.
Winning with relocation
Some of Kansas City’s iconic restaurants have not only continued to draw new customers, they’ve followed them to other parts of the city.
Stroud’s on 85th Street was demolished to make for new road construction, but it relocated to Fairway and now serves its famous pan-fried chicken at a new Overland Park location, as well as the Northland restaurant. More Stroud’s locations are planned.
Los Corrals — a family tradition in downtown Kansas City since 1949 — changed owners two years ago and this year opened a Gladstone restaurant. Kansas City’s longtime barbecues such as Arthur Bryant’s, Gates Bar-B-Q, and Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue also have added locations.
Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant, famous for a toy train that carries food to customers, first opened in Kansas City, Kan., in 1954 and relocated in 1967. It now also has locations in Shawnee and Crown Center, but the owners aren’t in a rush to expand again
“Many people like myself had a good concept and then blew it out. That’s my fear,” said Fred Kropf, whose parents founded the restaurant. “You have to have a great product, but that’s only a small part of a successful restaurant.”
Kropf, co-owner with his wife, said mom-and-pops can’t delegate duties like chains can. He has to constantly keep on top of variety of jobs from food costs to electronic gift cards to legal matters while facing more direct competition.
“You have to grind it out and few people understand what it will take to make it work for the long period,” he said.
He said about the longtime survivors: “We’re a dying breed. There are so many more concepts today than there were 25 years ago, even 10 years ago. So much competition for a little guy like us.
“You just don’t see the little guy like you did before. But I think we will be around for another 50 years. We sure hope to be.”
A future for the Ox?
As the Golden Ox counts down to its closing, landlord Haw has been meeting with restaurateurs who want to take over the space. He plans to hold on to all the Golden Ox memorabilia — the brass steer heads, the black-and-white photos of the stockyards, the wagon wheel light fixtures — just in case a new tenant wants to make use of them.
“I’m open to everything. I do own the name,” Haw said. “But it’s the hardest business in the world, with the highest failure rate and you have to do it right or you are not going to stay at the party.”
Although the Golden Ox was behind in its rent, some fans criticize Haw, saying he should keep the doors open. But other longtime restaurateurs put the blame on the so-called “loyal” customers.
“This is a wake-up call to the people of Kansas City,” said DiCapo. “If you don’t patronize these wonderful restaurants they are going to close.”