That's a taste of the restaurant scene in dusty downtown Kansas City, Missouri, land of the endless detour. Two blocks east of a recently supersized convention center, crews are building an entertainment district where sports fans and concertgoers disgorged by a new arena can buy more overpriced beers.
The $4.5 billion construction frenzy excites politicians, brochure makers and union officials. But it has almost taken down a couple of independent restaurants.
On June 30, Thelma Oliver, the owner of the Mango Room, e-mailed city officials and the media with a mad-as-hell complaint about the pace of work on a sidewalk outside her Caribbean-flavored restaurant at 12th Street and Main. Oliver says she has lost $50,000 in sales since orange netting and construction workers' butt cracks began obscuring the Mango Room's entrance.
At least Oliver still has a place to sell jerk chicken and hang her Bob Marley and Sarah Vaughan prints. Another downtown restaurateur, barbecue man Danny Edwards, has put the concrete pig outside his lunch stop on the auction block.
The 18-seat, pink-trimmed Danny Edwards Famous Kansas City Barbecue will serve its last brisket at 1227 Grand on August 10 before moving out of downtown. A chain of eminent-domain abuses ended the restaurant's run. Edwards was forced to sell his land to a private entity that lost its property to a different private entity.
Oliver and Edwards share this column space because their stories both involve Copaken White & Blitt, a Kansas City real-estate firm. Oliver leases space in Town Pavilion, a skyscraper that Copaken developed in the 1980s. Edwards sold his land to Copaken under the gun of the city's Tax Increment Financing Commission, which awarded Copaken the development rights to Edwards' block after taking Copaken's land to build the entertainment district.
It would be easy to paint Copaken as the villain in all of this. The company was initially unresponsive to Oliver's pleas for rent relief. And forcing out the only barbecue joint inside the downtown loop is a dreadful act, especially for a firm that emphasizes community roots that go three generations deep.
But there's a bigger story here about the stupid and clumsy way that a lot of business gets done in Kansas City, where the establishment can't tell the difference between motion and progress.
Oliver and Edwards stand on the edge of a construction zone where the dirt has flown fast and furious. Oliver can count three major projects outside her restaurant, including the demolition of the Jones Store, since she opened in May 2005. Edwards' pig can see the Sprint Center out of its peripheral vision.
The work in the south loop has been done almost all at once, as if the Olympics were coming. The invasion of concrete mixers and Port-a-Potties has made it difficult for downtown merchants to conduct business. Worse, it's been an out-of-town developer, the Cordish Company, cracking the whip. Once the entertainment district is completed, Chipotle and other chain establishments will dominate it.
The Cordish development is getting $269 million in public assistance. None of that money will compensate existing businesses for their hardship.
Meanwhile, the Bryan Cave lawyers representing the city in the Cordish deal negotiated a $1.1 million fee for themselves and then pooped out, apparently.
When Oliver complained to her landlord, she was ignored by Copaken White & Blitt for three weeks, she told Pitch food critic Charles Ferruzza (who first wrote about her situation on Plog, our blog at Pitch.com).
News of Copaken's deaf ear was difficult to read in light of what the city has done for the firm. Town Pavilion, for instance, got a $7 million no-interest loan from the city during its construction. The building has paid taxes at a reduced rate for 21 years.
Finally, Copaken did the right thing. Oliver met with company officials July 5 and got the help she wanted. "They came through," she told me last week.
Oliver is still furious at the city, however, and streetscaping work continues in front of her restaurant. Oliver and I stood outside and watched five workmen lay bricks with varying degrees of urgency. She pointed to a large man wearing an orange vest. "This big guy, I don't think I've seen him pick up anything," she said.
A few blocks away from the Mango Room, Danny Edwards is preparing for a move to Southwest Boulevard. Edwards bought a building across the street from Schutte Lumber, where he will be closer to Kansas City, Kansas, than to the new-and-improved convention center.
Edwards is taking his forced relocation in stride. He's optimistic that his customers will make an effort to find the new Danny Edwards Boulevard Barbecue. "They'll just have to put me on a driving rotation instead of a walking rotation," he told me last week as workers painted the building's interior. The restaurant opens August 15.
The eviction of Danny Edwards, aka Lil' Jake's Eat It an' Beat It, has gotten a fair amount of attention — but if anything, the media have underplayed the story. After all, it's an entertainment district — not a school or a road — that's forcing Edwards to pack up his smoker.
He's on his way out while Famous Dave's, a national barbecue chain, is going in the Cordish development — an announcement that should have prompted mass suicides among Kansas City's economic-development officials.
Edwards tells me that he doesn't like to look back. He's pleased with the new location's visibility from Interstate 35 and its proximity to Ponak's and other restaurants.
Still, Edwards was happy where he was. "I would never leave downtown if I didn't have to," he says.
The sad part is how the city let things get all the way to "have to."
Copaken White & Blitt plans to put an office building on Edwards' block once he's gone. In its infinite wisdom, the TIF Commission agreed to pay $48 million of Copaken's construction costs in spite of a downtown office vacancy rate of 22 percent.
Jon Copaken, who strikes me as being pretty stand-up, for a rich guy, tells me that a new building is meant to appeal to a tenant looking to make a statement with a stand-alone building. "You kind of have to deal with marketing existing space but also provide opportunities for people who want to create something new," he says.
It seems insane to me to subsidize the construction of new office space when the city has trouble filling what's already available. But then, I wouldn't have sent away Danny Edwards, either.