As two Kansas City restaurants turn 50, their owners reflect on what it takes to stay afloat
If you ask someone who’s been in the restaurant industry for more than 50 years how things have changed, you’ll likely get a long pause. Then a sigh and a thoughtful, “Where to begin…” We caught up with two restaurateurs who have been in the industry for a half a century, running Kansas City restaurants that have become icons in the local food scene.
William Walker’s father opened a pizza shop in 1969. Now, Walker is the owner and operator of Old Shawnee Pizza.
“There’s not very many restaurants out there that are 50-years-plus and still going,” Walker said. “Fortunately, we’ve been lucky enough to able to keep quality and consistency.”
Four miles east of the pizza shop sits another Kansas City pillar, Don Chilito’s Mexican Restaurant. Barry Cowden is also a second-generation restaurant owner. “I started working here when I was 12,” he says. At one time, his father owned and operated five restaurants in the Kansas City area, but Cowden has kept his focus on operating one location.
Both Cowden and Walker say it’s part luck, part hard work that’s kept their restaurants afloat through recessions, shifts in food trends, and the social media era — and heavy doses of both are carrying them through the current COVID pandemic.
Stay the same, but not too much
Both Old Shawnee Pizza and Don Chilito’s Mexican Restaurant have second- and third-generation customers who repeat the same line when they stop in for lunch or dinner: “Don’t change a thing.”
Walker and Cowden say there’s some wisdom in those four words. But, to draw new customers and keep the lights on, it takes more than five decades of unwavering consistency.
“I try to do some of that but you have to be innovative too or you’ll go away,” Cowden said. “I’ve added things to the menu that are trendy — things to keep ourselves viable. That’s what I do. The food scene is changing so rapidly, you need to keep up with it.”
That doesn’t mean that Don Chilito’s is dropping the things that have made it a favorite among Kansas City restaurants. It’s known for its fresh ingredients and burritos smothered in sauce. Don Chilito’s also perfected the fast-casual dining long before Chipotle came on the scene.
Likewise, Old Shawnee Pizza is still making recipes that they’ve made for decades. But they’ve also added a few wild cards to see what hits. And some have certainly hit.
“Yes, people come back because of quality and consistency but you have to keep up with what’s going on. You sometimes have to reinvent yourself.”
A couple of years ago, Walker came up with a crab ragoon pizza — made of cream cheese, imitation crab meat, sweet chili sauce, and fried wontons. A customer shot a video of the pizza being made and posted it online. The video now has 14 million views.
“It ended up going viral,” Walker said. “It still has people’s attention.”
Riding the wave
The two Kansas City restaurants are weathering the seismic changes that the COVID pandemic has pushed on the food scene. But both Walker and Cowden say it hasn’t easy.
These days, the most important role at Don Chilito’s is taking to-go orders. Cowden says the restaurant takes orders from five different avenues, including from walk-in customers, phone calls, and multiple delivery services like Uber Eats.
“That’s a really big change I’m seeing in the business,” Cowden said.
Any orders that are delivered through those delivery services don’t turn a profit, he adds, but these days it’s a must. “I look at it as advertising. I’m an old business so this is how I can reach these young people. If they like it, then they’ll become a regular customer.”
At Old Shawnee Pizza, Walker is thankful that the changes have favored take-out and delivery-friendly foods like pizza. He said he really feels for fine dining restaurants that haven’t been so fortunate. Even in the last 20 years, he’s noticed more people opt for fast-casual options over sit-down restaurants. “It’s just a different time. Families have so much going on now, so they do more of those quick meals.”
Walker is hopeful Old Shawnee Pizza can carry on to his family’s third generation. His son is interested in taking over the business.
Cowden is also hopeful that Don Chilito’s can also ride the changing tides for years to come. But, he adds, the recent changes are probably just the beginning of a very different food industry. One his father might barely recognize when he opened the Mexican restaurant in 1971.
“We’re just trying to stay focused on what’s working,” he said. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know there’s some serious changes coming.”
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Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.