Business Q & A

A conversation with Larry Burke

Larry Burke is a Greensburg native through and through.

Mention May 4, 2007, the Greensburg tornado, and the smile disappears from face of the owner of Wichita's Copper Oven restaurant, 2409 W. 13th St.

"Our son, Denton, was still out there with our two grandkids. We were on the cellphone, frantic," Burke, 64, said.

"Denton was eight miles north feeding cattle, but where are the kids? Dustyn was at band camp at KU. OK. But where's Cameron?

"'Well, he's in the southeast part of town. Why?' Well, I said, 'Oh God, son. Greensburg is getting hit by a massive tornado.' "

Then the cell service dropped, so Burke and his wife, Doris, jumped in the car and drove home — in an hour and a half.

His son and grandkids were badly shaken, their home gone, but they were physically fine. But the town where the Burke name was synonymous with restaurants for 90 years was gone.

"We came into town the back way, and everything was gone. I mean, I grew up there and you didn't know where you were. We were on Main Street, and everything was gone," Burke said.

Everything, that is, except the memories of Burke's restaurateur father, George, and the way he made a community restaurant boom in Greensburg.

What's the restaurant business like today?

"Highly competitive in Wichita. Not only are you fighting a national trend of everybody driving up stock prices and big nationals coming to town, but you have the influx of the local laid-off people who think the quickest way to salvation is to open a restaurant.

"So there's big growth in small mom-and-pop operations. New bars and grills are opening and closing all the time.

"You have QuikTrip and Kwik Shop in the fast-food business. You have Dillons in the fast-food business with the food courts and salad bars. So there's a ton of competition for the food dollar."

Is the food dollar as available from the consumer as it was five years ago?

"Oh, no. I'm doing the same volume of business dollar-wise with less people, and that's not a good thing. I like bodies through the door more than dollars in the pocket.

"The biggest thing I've seen is the cost of fuel ticking up and people making the decision we'll eat at home instead of driving across town. It had a big impact on every restaurant in town, and it's happened twice, now."

How do you stay competitive in this tight market?

"My wife asked me 12 years ago what my strategy would be to make this thing a success.

"And my answer at the time was to run the thing the way Dad did."

What were your dad's business values?

"Take care of the customer. Be knowledgeable about their lives and what they're involved in. Make it a community cafe. Maintain quality.

"And internally, build a family of employees. Stop the revolving door of people and retain your key people. It's too expensive for anyone to do otherwise."

What is your family's history in the restaurant business?

"They built the Queen City Hotel in Greensburg, which my grandmother Carrie operated.

"And from that, until it burned down and Greensburg was well established, so she opened up a little restaurant with my Aunt Maggie about 1903, and that's where it started.

"We were continuously in the restaurant business in western Kansas until 1999. We left Greensburg in 1993, and my brother operated a restaurant in Pratt until 1999.

"I mean, location, location, location. We were right on 54 there and away we went."

What was the hook for your grandmother, your parents, yourselves in the restaurant industry in western Kansas?

"That's best told through a story:

"We went on vacation back in the early '50s. Dad had a new Hudson Hornet and we were headed to California.

"It took us days, it seemed like, because no matter where Dad stopped to gas or eat, someone would say, 'George Burke, is that you?'

"Dad knew everybody, and I guess everybody stopped at that little cafe coming through 54. It went all the way to California.

"So I guess it's always a community-based cafe with a lot of local support."