The noon rush has started at Blanc Burgers + Bottles. On this Friday, servers in gray T-shirts carry burgers on square white plates as they swing through a dining room filled with Plaza holiday shoppers.
In the restaurant's entryway, a young man with close-cropped hair nervously fingers the driver's license in his right hand and asks the hostess for a job application.
"I think we have an opening," she replies. She directs him to a highboy table by the bar and gives him some paperwork to complete, then seats the three parties that arrived after he did.
This is the Blanc that Kansas City knows, a bustling burger business where Justin Bieber stopped to eat before his October concert at the Sprint Center. It's the home of a record-breaking Groupon promotion and the older brother to a restaurant in Leawood's Mission Farms. "It is a Growing KC Crowd Pleaser," according to a silver plaque from Leawood Lifestyle magazine, one of nearly a dozen canonized write-ups on the walls in this gleaming white space.
Not every crowd has been pleased, though.
In just less than five years, the Circle Restaurant Group (Blanc's parent company) has opened four locations, closed two of them and abandoned plans for a fifth outpost. (It also operates a concession stand, the Burger Box, at Arrowhead Stadium, and serves burgers in the Field Club at Livestrong Sporting Park.) The upheavals involved in these deals have badly fractured Circle's original partnership. Of that group, only Ernesto and Jenifer Peralta are still involved in Circle's daily operations. Over the past year, two lawsuits over nonpayment of services have been settled, and Blanc's vendors have been shuffled like a one-deck shoe at Harrah's.
All of which has left former employees and partners wondering if Blanc is, well, done.
The thing that breaks my heart is how good Blanc could have been," says Eddie Crane, one of Blanc's founders. He's fiddling with a sandwich at the Filling Station, recalling the day four years ago, in this same coffee shop, when Peralta told him that Blanc was moving forward without him.
Crane is out of the restaurant business — he sold his Martini Corner place, the Drop, in October. As he recounts his side of the Blanc saga, he's just back from a trip to Lawrence to pick up a guitar. He's focusing now on his band and on being a dad. His 3-year-old daughter is playing with his iPhone in the chair at his left. But disappointment colors his voice as he talks about his former partner and mentor. For Crane, Blanc still stings.
There was a time when Crane and Peralta were family to each other, when Peralta was a charismatic, divorced young bartender who loved his regulars on the weekdays and his three kids on the weekend. Drawn to the Plaza from the moment he moved to Kansas City, in 1999, he was a wizard with a Stoli bottle behind the bar at Morton's. And when the Capital Grille hired him away, he took Crane along. These were the days of $500 tips for opening a bottle of wine, of three-deep crowds of thirsty drinkers. On his Tuesday night off, Peralta would drop by Morton's for a steak and for conversation with David McMullin, who would become Blanc's front-of-the-house manager and beverage director.
"Ernesto was like a father figure to me," says Crane, 35. "He taught me how to set up a bar and about life. He moved me from adolescence into young manhood. When we worked together, the thing we always talked about was opening a place together."