Steve Cole never thought that sitting in on a Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association board meeting would lead to a new job, but the former restaurateur - he operated his legendary midtown restaurant, Cafe Allegro, from 1984 to 2002 - is a past president of the local organization as well as a past president of the Missouri Restaurant Association and likes to keep current with the work of the hospitality industry's trade organization.
Among the old friends he saw at that GKCRA meeting in September was Robert Bonney, the CEO of the Missouri Restaurant Association, who informed him that Brina Bruno, the western regional director for the GKCRA for a decade, was leaving the organization to take a new position with the Roasterie and that the Missouri Restaurant Association planned to create a different position within the organization. Bonney encouraged Cole to apply for the job.
Last month, Cole officially joined the Missouri Restaurant Association full time as chief operating officer and executive director; his duties include membership development, legislative issues, education, creating marketing resources, and providing operational support for the more than 600 restaurant and allied members of the Missouri Restaurant Association.
Cole will be based in the offices of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association and will pay particular attention to the seven counties in both Kansas and Missouri that encompass the Kansas City metro. A shrewd businessman and a diplomat, Cole should be a solid fit for the position: He has been working in the restaurant business since he was a teenager, hired as a 14-year-old line cook for the old King's Drive-In in Topeka. "The restaurant experience was always very appealing to me," says Cole, who would later join the Marine Corps, receive his professional chef training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and a degree in hotel and restaurant management from the Univerity of Denver.
A consummate professional (a disclaimer: I worked for Steve Cole in the late 1980s, part time, for Cafe Allegro's catering division, and his perfectionism nearly drove me mad - but I learned a hell of a lot), Cole has always been an important figure in Kansas City's restaurant history. In 1984, Cole ignored the naysayers who told him that he was foolish to open an upscale boutique restaurant on 39th Street - then just a stretch of blue-collar bars and the beloved Fric 'n Frac - and that he would fail miserably. His creation, Cafe Allegro, was an almost immediate success and started the transformation of 39th Street into "Restaurant Row."
Since selling Cafe Allegro in 2002 (Cole and his wife, Julie, became parents to their only child, Alexa, in 1998, and Cole wanted to stop working day and night), the Topeka native became a real-estate broker specializing in restaurant properties and, later, the food and beverage director for the downtown Marriott Hotel. All of those roles, Cole says, will help him in his new position. The issues that the Missouri Restaurant Association members are most interested in at the moment, he says, are the requirements of the new health-care legislation and the economy.
"Restaurant operators, particularly small independent restaurant owners, are very concerned. Those are challenges that we have to be in there fighting for them, through education, through new member services, through advocacy," he says.