Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater talks with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Colby and Megan Garrelts. [Photo: Bonjwing Lee/courtesy Rye]
When Colby and Megan Garrelts opened their "progressive American" restaurant bluestem in 2004, they were largely credited with revitalizing the Kansas City dining scene, bringing an "Upper East Side" approach to fine-dining in Missouri. It took the couple eight years — and lessons learned from writing their first cookbook, Bluestem — before the Garrelts decided to tackle their second restaurant, a return to casual Midwestern cuisine called Rye.
Rye debuted in the Kansas City suburb of Leawood three days before Christmas last year. "As soon as you've got all your permits, everything's done, and everything's checked off the list, the lights are on, you open," Megan says of the unorthodox opening date. "It was crazy." In the following interview, the Garrelts reveal the inspiration behind Rye's killer fried chicken recipe, the risk behind placing KC's most-debated dishes all together under one roof, and the possibility of future expansion of the Rye brand.
How did the initial concept for Rye come about?
Colby Garrelts: I'm from Kansas City originally, and through the evolution of bluestem — I think when we started writing the [bluestem] book — it got us to really take a look at the heritage and culture from this part of the country. And I was watching everyone else around the country kind of do the same thing. The nice thing about where we're from, the food culture here is based on the farmers in the country. So, we decided to take those ideas and the food we grew up with and kind of build a restaurant around it. ... We'd actually been trying to open another place for quite some time, and I was really kind of struggling with the concept. And as soon as we kind of got the concept down, it took us about another year to get everything together.
Tell me about the Mission Farms development where Rye is located. It's a little out of city proper: What was attractive about opening in a hybrid retail/residential complex?
CG: It's in the suburbs, and I think essentially it had to do with the owners of the property. Most of their property experience was from the inner city, and so… they happen to get a lot of midtown [tenants], urban people that go out to the suburbs, that normally wouldn't happen. And I think it's just because they had experience in talking to people like us: the younger, not as corporate people. The more artistic and creative type of business owners. Because the whole retail division is all local, midtown kind of people.
"Kansas City is kind of a 'big small town,' in regards to we all have the same diners." — Megan Garrelts
Megan Garrelts: And we looked downtown, we looked in midtown, where bluestem is located. Kansas City is kind of a "big small town," in regards to we all have the same diners. The only diners that maybe don't travel as far are the people that live south on the Kansas side, they'll do downtown I'd say less often than midtown residents. And so, we didn't want to cannibalize bluestem by putting Rye — which is a big restaurant featuring Midwest comfort food, which is popular here — too close to our fine-dining restaurant. Because everybody in town kind of pops around to the same places; I think being a little further south and in a different demographic helps us space out our demographic a little bit also.
How did menu development go? I hear Midwestern and I think comforting, sort of stick-to-your ribs stuff.
CG: The whole base is barbecue and fried chicken, basically. And there's a lot of meat, too. The restaurants that are the most successful restaurants here in town are those iconic ones, barbecue places, steakhouses, and chicken joints. And that's the food I grew up on, and when I'm at home on the weekends, I cook that stuff the most. So, we just decided to really embrace that.
Colby's fried chicken. [Photo: Facebook]
Your fried chicken is front-and-center on the menu, and is your best-seller. Is there a story behind the recipe?
CG: There was a restaurant that was — probably about less than two or three miles from where Rye is now — when I was growing up, was just an old roadhouse called Boots and Coates. It was a fried chicken place and it was my dad's favorite restaurant. We went there every single Thursday growing up. Based on that, where we're from, we do a lot of pan-fried chicken around here, and I really spent a lot of time developing the recipe and getting it to where I wanted it. Because times have changed, there's other chicken places here in town and they're still doing the same thing they were doing 30, 40 years ago. But I truly believe that Americans' diets and their palates have gotten more sophisticated, I really tried to put my brain into what we were doing there. I thought I had a recipe ready-to-go when we first put the concept together, then I quickly realized that it wasn't up to par. It took me about six months to a year.
What about the Rye garden? Was that always part of the plan, to have a garden on-site?
CG: We have two. We have about 12 boxes outside of Rye, and then my father has a 160-acre farm about 30 miles southwest of Kansas City. So we grow as much stuff as we possibly can. The farm, no one lives there, so we spend a couple days a week down there, it's a little bit more of a challenge. But we grow squash and peppers, tons of tomatoes, blackberries, cucumbers, okra, you name it. And then in the gardens by the restaurant, we do beets and chard and herbs. We take those things and just supplement. We obviously can't supply both restaurants entirely, but we do what we can. Plus, we don't want to take away from the business we do with our farmers, also. We had it going when we opened. Maybe a few weeks after we opened, in the Spring. One of our managers, Kate, she is a big urban farmer and she really kind of headed up the project.
Do you remember opening night?
CG: Yeah, it was terrifying. [Laughs] We had friends and family night, and then a regular night. To give you an idea, we do between 500-650 [covers] a day at Rye now. Our first night, I think we did 300, something like that — all friends and family — we had no idea what we were doing. We knew what we were doing, but we had a whole line of cooks on the line...
MG: It was a long service, too. Everything we did was from scratch, we had no format for that scale of a restaurant. So as we were opening, we were still building. Just trying to get everybody trained. We didn't have your typical two or three weeks because it was a brand-new restaurant, so there was really no way to test. We were all kind of in training.
"We kind of took all the foods that everybody loves in town and put them all under one roof." — Megan Garrelts
Let's talk about the reaction from diners. How is the Rye diner different from the bluestem diner?
CG: I think at Rye, we definitely jumped in feet first, because we're basically taking — in a town like this where everyone's opinionated on where to eat barbecue and who's grandma's pie is the best, who cooks the best fried chicken — we basically went to all those and challenged all those things. It's been good.
MG: We kind of took all the foods that everybody loves in town and put them all under one roof. So, we were very prepared in the beginning to get a lot of opinions on "Your burnt ends should be this way" or "Your pie should be this way," and we've evolved some of those things as the years have gone on. But it's been pretty successful, we've had a lot of good reception as to what we're doing. I think the restaurant Colby was referring to, Boots and Coates, it's not there anymore; some of those older restaurants are kind of fading a little bit, and I think we breathed some fresh air into that kind of cooking and that kind of food again… It's been really good. We've had a lot of good customers, we've seen a lot of people from bluestem out there and visa versa.
When you opened, were most of your customers at Rye familiar with bluestem?
MG: I'd say it was about 50/50. There's a lot of people that knew "Megan and Colby from bluestem." bluestem is 10 years old, or will be, in March. So we've been around in the city for a while, so for the most part, I think people are familiar with us. But Rye has helped grow our reputation. bluestem's a lot smaller, more niche, prix-fixe menu.
When I spoke with Eric [Willey, bluestem's GM] a few months ago, he mentioned that Rye did sort of siphon some of the regulars from bluestem.
MG: Yeah, I think so. I think there's people who frequent Rye that probably would have never gone downtown and try what we do at bluestem, but they understand more who we are and what we do. But they're totally different restaurants, totally different spaces, totally different menus. I think they're great restaurants for different instances and different things. If you're going to the theatre downtown and you wanna have snacks and cocktail, you go to the bluestem lounge. If you're wanting a more family-style, heartier meal, you're gonna go to Rye.
Eric also talked about the space remodel. How's that going?
MG: Well, we haven't started anything; we're not planning anything until March. Our 10-year anniversary is March 15, so we're still in the midst of getting organized in terms of getting the contractor and everything involved with the remodel. But it is on the plan. We just want to give ourselves a new look here and quite honestly, give our kitchen some much-needed repair that will help the traffic back there and be a lot easier to make great food. It stemmed from needing to make some repairs, then blossomed into, "Let's celebrate 10 years here with giving Kansas City a new appearance."
We're in a brick building in an old part of Kansas City, and we want to keep true to the era of the building that we're in. But we're going to do some of the metalwork, the kitchen design, will be a lot cleaner. More tiles, more of a build-out wine cabinet. More natural elements. We built bluestem with very little money and used the furniture that was here when we opened; there are pieces from the previous restaurant that are still here, in bluestem now, that we kind of want to do away with and start with a new fresh look.
Rye's dining room. [Photo: Bonjwing Lee/courtesy Rye]
So let's talk about James Beard. Colby, you won that [the 2013 JBA for Best Chef Midwest] for bluestem: Do you see a bump in guests at Rye as a result of that, as well?
CG: Yeah, it was nice to win it. It was good timing, and good publicity for both restaurants. But for the most part, obviously, it's been seven years [since our first nomination] and the clientele, the people that live here, I almost feel like it was old news by the time we won it. Like every single year, they'd be like, "Ohhh… he's nominated again." Obviously, once we won it, we got amazing support, people were very excited. But yeah, I think it's definitely helped both restaurants. We see a lot of chefs from out of town, and they come see us, and I think that really helps.
MG: We were able to celebrate, too, in both spaces, which was really fun. Just having bluestem with its small tiny space, small staff, with Rye being open, we had a great opportunity to share the moment a lot more than we would have in previous years.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
CG: No. It seems like it just shot by so fast. Between both places and the Beard Award and everything else, this year just skyrocketed by.
MG: It's been a whirlwind.
"I think we have something that has legs on it; I'm excited to see where we go." — Colby Garrelts
So ideally, where do you see Rye one year from now?
CG: I really would like to concentrate on that concept. For this part of the country, even though there's a lot of steaks and barbecue and fried chicken, we do a lot of entrees, a lot of the menu is very composed. And I think there's something special in that place that people really relate to. So, a couple years down the road, at least in this part of the country, we would maybe consider if we could expand that brand a little bit more. Obviously, we'll wait and see. I think it'll be good, I think this town would respond well to it. I'd like to do another one here, or expand into the Midwest. It's funny, we've seen a lot of our competitors around town start picking up little ideas we have, and they're starting to show up in their restaurants. It's pretty amusing. But I think we have something that has legs on it; I'm excited to see where we go.
You could probably just do a fried chicken food truck.
CG: I haven't really thought a lot about that. We have a good friend of ours that owns a very, very popular restaurant here in town, and he just built this huge, $100,000 crazy food truck that they want to do barbecue out of. And he's very interested in having us come and fry chicken in there, too, with him. We haven't really moved past the having-a-beer-and-talking-about-it stage, but it's definitely intriguing.
Any last words?
MG: We have a Rye cookbook, should be out in the Spring of 2015. We've had a lot of requests for our pie recipe. When Colby was mastering fried chicken, at the same time, I was mastering lard and butter pie crusts. The whole [nostalgia surrounding] pie, self-serve sundaes... we're going to work with phosphates and do more house made sundaes and sodas, that's something I'd like to grow into more with the pastry program at Rye: nostalgia, home, comfort, but doing it from a chef's point of view. I think a lot of the older fried chicken restaurants here in KC have been doing really good food for so many years, and it's just a different perspective from a chef/owner's point of view. It's fine to see how this city's evolved. Kansas City's a great food town.