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Culinary collective opens new restaurant in Milford area with multiple restaurants under one roof

Kalecia Simmons and several other local restaurant owners have decided to form a culinary collective and open a business under their own roof that will allow each of them to operate their business one night a week out of a shared restaurant.

One of them cooks one night and other members of the collective cook on other nights, though everyone is on hand to help everyone else out.

Saturday was the collective’s first night at the new restaurant which opened near Flagstop.

The restaurant, at 302 Whiting St., is open to the public and can be accessed via Houston Street.

There are about seven different businesses involved in the collective. They include Ia’s Kitchen, Chrissy Caters, Wren on the Rauxe, Showtime BBQ, Aunt Meka’s, Chita’s and PoGo Shaved Ice.

As far as Simmons knows, this is the first time something quite like this has been done. It’s definitely the first time it has been done here, she said.

“This is definitely the first time it’s ever been done the way that I’m doing it as far as operating a full-blown restaurant as a shared kitchen,” she said. “The only other place I’ve seen it done is culinary school.”

In culinary school, Simmons said, each class runs a restaurant for a set amount of time during the semester before turning it over to another class.

The idea is to offer aspiring restaurant owners a hand-up toward starting their own restaurant in time.

Simmons owned a seafood restaurant, the Chef and I, for about a year before closing her doors and so she knows the struggles local businesses — and especially local eateries — sometimes go through in the Junction City area.

“One of the struggles that I realized in Geary County especially is access to local food,” Simmons said. “And then also small businesses having an issue financially — being able to start up their businesses as far as restaurants are concerned — it’s huge overhead expense to get started in a restaurant. So I originally wanted to do something similar — like a ghost kitchen — out of the 4-H building. And when I pitched that to the county, they came back with all the different things — the reasons you can’t run a business out of the 4-H building. So I thought, ok — I’ll create a business and then just find the space and then schedule different nights for each business. There’s always a way around it.”

Simmons met with the owners of Flagstop and were met with immediate interest, in part because of the variety of foods the culinary collective would provide campers, she said.

“Some of these campers are here all summer,” Simmons said. “If they’re here all summer, they don’t want to eat the same things every single day. It gives it a variety and it also brings a little bit of the diversity that’s here in Kansas to the table.”

She said she believed the biggest challenge for the collective and its new restaurant will be convincing people to accept the change that comes with a new concept.

“We’re always going to have challenges because we’re minority businesses — that’s statically proven,” Simmons said. “We are overcoming those naturally just because it is what we have to do.

All of the businesses involved are either minority owned, women owned or both.

But so far, Simmons said, business is going well.

“All of our businesses have been selling out every night,” she said. “And it’s mainly because people want good food. So I don’t foresee any major challenges. I’ve had people reach out to me already. They want to be a part.”

Simmons predicts the collective will grow, not shrink.

She is a military spouse — and former military herself — so there’s a possibility the Army could pull her away from Geary County in time. But Simmons said she has a plan for that. She said she’s working with chefs in two other states even now to duplicate this program in restaurants there.

“The collective is going to grow — it is what it is,” she said. “I am not bound to Kansas for the rest of my life. My businesses are supposed to be global and I have been called to do that … We are actually creating this program to make it duplicable across the country. That is what we want to do. We want to be able to take this opportunity and share it with the culinary industry. And my goal is actually to impact the restaurant industry so much so that restaurants are popping up all over instead of decreasing because of the COVID situation and because the restaurant industry is a difficult one to break into.”

Simmons hopes people will support the business.

“Eat local,” she said. “Share what we’re doing out here. Come out and support. Keep your money local.”

Ia’s Kitchen, a Puerto Rican restaurant owned by Simmons’ mentees Luis Cubero and his wife, Yahaira Lorenzo, served on opening night.

“We’re very excited,” Lorenzo said.

“It’s been a lot of work,” Cubero said. “We’ve been getting the place ready.”

He said a lot of work needed to be done on the building and the entire collective pitched in for the past two or three weeks.

She said she just hoped people would enjoy the food.

“I want people to enjoy the night with their family and love the food,” Lorenzo said of opening night.

Both of them have a long history with food stemming from their childhoods. The business is called Ia’s Kitchen because Ia was Lorenzo’s grandmother’s nickname.

“My best memories are from my childhood,” she said. “Because my family used to have a cooking party or something like that.”

The whole family would come over for dinner and play games such as dominoes, Lorenzo remembers.

Cubero’s memories are similar to his wife’s. He remembers his grandmother cooking rice with peas and putting a banana leaf over the pot while it cooked.

“The flavors — everything, the experience of smashing spices with the mortar and pestle,” he said. “Going to the backyard with your grandparents and getting the plantains from right there — from the tree — or green bananas — and (cooking) with it. Even the coffee.”

Cubero recalls his family taking coffee beans they had grown themselves and toasting them in the sun on their own property.

On their nights, they hope to recreate “that feeling, that experience of bringing the family for (a) cookout and enjoy,” he said.

Cubero said Ia’s Kitchen is the only Puerto Rican restaurant in the area, as far as he knows, which he and Lorenzo believe will make their nights well-attended. He said they had roughly 500 requests over Facebook for reservations for opening night.

The meals Ia’s Kitchen serves are authentic Puerto Rican food with the occasional “modern twist,” according to Cubero.

“The beauty of the Puerto Rican food is that we try to maintain the tradition in the food,” Lorenzo said.

Using a traditional flavor base, she said they work from there to transform ingredients.

“We are very creative,” she said. “So that’s why I love cooking — because I feel free and create.”

Lorenzo said she hadn’t planned on ending up a restaurant owner. She studied biology and medicine in college, but the United States military brought the couple to Junction City and now they’re here, they’re cooking and they’re planning to stay.

“We would like people to give us a try,” Cubero said. “I know for sure they’ll like it and keep coming back.”

Owner of Chrissy Caters Christana Shackleford came to the culinary collective after being invited by Simmons. Shackleford said she cooked a lot and posted images of her food on Facebook, which is how Simmons found her.

“I thought ‘hmm, that’d be fun,’” she said of Simmons’ idea. “Then I got involved and now I can’t quit.

Her menu will include “southern Sunday dinner” items such as baked macaroni and cheese, collard greens and smothered chicken or turkey wings with rice.

“I was raised by my grandma,” Shackleford said. “So we had big dinners. That’s what I plan to bring out here — family dinners. Not just celebrating on Thanksgiving but eating like that anytime you come out here.”

She hopes to learn from the other chefs working at the restaurant because every one of them brings something else to the table. So far Shackleford said she has learned multiple different ways to make mofungo — a Puerto Rican dish made with plantains.

“I would like to get more kitchen experience … It will be great to learn from each and every one of these amazing chefs that we have out here,” she said.

Shackleford likes the setup.

“I’m actually excited — I think it’ll be more options for the campers,” she said. “Now, every day, they’ll have the option of coming in here and trying something new.”

Shackleford does not believe there will be any major challenges.

Her hope, as with many of the others, is to eventually branch out from the collective and open her own restaurant.

Tyler White, who owns Wren on the Rauxe, serves a wide variety of food — he bakes, cooks and does a little bit of everything. On his nights, he plans to focus on the menu Flagstop campers have grown used to — burgers, fries and similar items.

“Me and Kalecia met years ago. I cooked for her when she first started opening the Chef and I,” White said. “We’ve discussed doing something like this for a while — just didn’t have the plan fully worked out. So now that it is, it drove me back out here.”

He has faith the setup will work.

“It is an unusual setup, but I’m loving it,” White said. “So far, it’s working.”

A classically trained chef, his goal is to eventually open his own brick and mortar restaurant.

“That’s the goal for everybody,” he said.

White hopes to pass on his skills to the other chefs in the collective and help them kickstart their own businesses. Several of the businesses offer items no other restaurant in the community has.

“It offers something different every day,” he said. “Everybody has the family where the mom and dad want this, the kids want this. This is kind of geared toward ending the four restaurant trips. You don’t have to go to McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Burger King to feed everybody. You can come to one place, do one pickup and have a variety of everything.”

White feels there will be roadblocks on the way, but nothing that can’t be overcome.

“There will be challenges, yes,” he said. “But I think with the group that is in here, it will be easy to overcome any challenge that is here. I think the good will definitely outweigh the bad here.”

As of now, meals are expected to be served from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and from 5 until 8 p.m. Monday through Friday with brunch on Sundays, according to Simmons.

More information can be found on social media.


Firefighters tackle a grass fire on I-70 in the median near Exit 293 Friday afternoon.

Fire Season


Schools
Parents question alternative calendar for Sheridan Elementary School

Some parents of Sheridan Elementary School students are unhappy after Unified School District 475 decided the school might take part in a pilot schedule next semester.

The discussion left some parents, including Kristen Goodyear, concerned that the district was moving too fast.

“From my perspective, and the parents’ perspective and other people’s perspective that I have talked to, it felt rushed and we don’t feel like there has been transparency in why it needs to be done,” she said. “What are we trying to fix?”

Goodyear said she believed the district had failed to communicate sufficiently with Sheridan families.

“Generic terms such as academic achievement have been thrown out,” she said. “But when you go to the state website to look at where our district falls in academic achievement — and even Sheridan specifically — it’s within one or two percentage points. I don’t feel like it’s been outlined as to what this alternative schedule — how we’re going to measure whether it’s successful or not. So what are we measuring, how are we measuring it and how are we going to know that it’s going to make a statistically significant difference in the education that our kids are receiving versus what they’re receiving now.”

Goodyear said she is not totally against the prospect of the pilot program.

“I think parents could be — potentially — on board with this if we had more information to go off of rather than basically being told that this is what we’re going to do,” she said. “Really, parents and teachers — we’re already actively involved in the education of our kids and we want to remain that way. I think we’re asking important questions and we’re just not happy with how this has gone and feel like the board of ed needs to listen to our concerns and work with us.”

Goodyear said the district’s transfer policy will remain in place and be the same for Sheridan students as for other students in USD 475 schools.

However, she said she was not ready to consider transferring her students from the school.

“We haven’t got there yet,” Goodyear said. “I’m still hopeful. For example, we don’t even know what the pilot calendar is — or the alternative calendar is. I cannot find it on a public forum. The board voted for it, but yet it hasn’t been shared with us.”

The pilot program was put to a vote at a March 25 USD 475 Board of Education meeting when the district approved its calendar for the upcoming school year.

Goodyear said she also hoped USD 475 would hear other community perspectives on the alternative calendar.

“I think this needs to be a community effort and can be, but right now it’s not, from our perspective,” she said.

Goodyear added that a survey was sent out to parents before the vote was taken, but the survey results were not offered to parents prior to the district casting its vote. Board members asked about the results of the survey during the meeting where the vote was taken, according to Goodyear but the results were not presented.

“Parents need to be involved,” she said. “We just need to know more. And I’d be curious to see the research that they have found that going to an alternative schedule is helpful.”

USD 475 Superintendent Reginald Eggelston could not be reached for comment.

More about this matter was expected to come up at the Unified School District 475 Monday night, after the April 6 edition of the Union went to press.


Government
County hears about possible financial manager position

The Geary County Commission room was packed Monday as department heads and members of the public came to hear a presentation on the prospect of the county having a financial manager by Don Osenbaugh of Osenbaugh Consulting.

The county does not know yet what the position would cost, if it came into being. Osenbaugh said he would be unable to provide a cost estimate at this time because he and his firm would need to gather more information first.

Currently, the office of Register of Deeds Diane Briestensky-Leonard is one of the few county departments that submits a line item budget and every department does their budget differently, according to Commissioner Trish Giordano.

“Everybody in the county should be doing the same thing with line item budgets,” Giordano said. “There’s no transparency. I cannot go into and ask ‘how much are you paying on memberships this year?’ I can’t, can I? For each department? Yeah, you have to look it up and go through each thing. Where if we have a budget that has all these line items on there, we can find that out.”

She said she believes the county needs someone to monitor its budget and to make the budget information more accessible digitally.

“Department heads have no electronic access to their budgets,” Giordano said.

She said she believed a new software program — as mentioned by Briestensky-Leonard — could help, but felt a financial manager was necessary as well and make the system more efficient.

“We need somebody to be monitoring our budget,” Giordano said. “Monitoring it and checking the health.”

Former commissioner Brad Scholz said he felt everything Osenbaugh said a financial coordinator would do was already being done by county department heads.

“The finance manager would prepare an annual budget, would need the help of the department heads, he would project costs and expenses, they’d give a final draft of proposals, they’d do budget monitoring,” he said. “The county along with the department heads are already doing that. Ms. Giordano said that there is no transparency. Every item that every department orders or pays for, the county commissioners — each individual one — look at that and that way if they’ve got questions with regards to that they go to that department heads and ask those. So there’s transparency there also. Where she’s saying there’s no transparency, that’s — I don’t know how you can get more transparent than seeing every single expenditure.”

Scholz said County Counselor Steve Opat, who departs in September, is also there to catch mistakes.

“That’s another reason it’s so important to have a county counselor — which we’re losing in September,” he said. “So we’re already doing these things. If they wanted to update the software and how things roll out that would make it easier for people to understand, I would have no problem with that.”

Scholz and Commissioner Keith Ascher have both expressed concern that Commissioners Giordano and Alex Tyson are newly elected.

“Two thirds of those commissioners have never gone through a budgetary cycle,” Scholz said. “They don’t know what we need.”

However, Giordano said she has experience drafting the budget of the Junction City Police Department.

“I’ve worked with budgets before,” she said.

Giordano said she does not believe what the county is currently doing is sufficient to keep track of its expenses.

“It’s 2021,” she said. “We should not have to be looking through a book of vouchers … That is very inefficient and I have nothing to compare it to. I can go through a book and then I hand the book to (Tyson) and the (Tyson) hands it to (Ascher) and then (Ascher) hands it to (Opat). That is not the way we should be doing business in 2021.”

According to Giordano, the next step in the process will be to hear from another consulting firm, one chosen by Ascher.


Business
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Binga’s opens Junction City restaurant

Binga’s is coming to Junction City.

Bud Wheeler hopes to open a branch of a Maine-based wing restaurant in the very near future at the corner of 18th and Jackson Streets.

“I have a friend who has three restaurants in Maine,” Wheeler said. “I asked him to come out here and see if we couldn’t do something with that building.”

His friend came for a visit last February and said he believed the empty building could be used as a restaurant. However, everything was put on hold by COVID-19.

But the worse the pandemic — and concerns surrounding it — grew, the more Wheeler realized the building was designed for a situation such as COVID-19. The building is “absolutely ideal for our current food delivery system,” he said.

It would be easy to have people pull up to the former gas station and pick up their orders from their cars, he said.

“We have eight slots (where) you can drive in and pick up your food instead of waiting in line at McDonald’s,” Wheeler said. “You just call ahead, you place your order, you drive in, you drive out. We can handle eight cars at a time.”

In addition to pickup, the restaurant will have indoor and outdoor dining and catering.

Wheeler said he believes, “if any of the city licensure people cooperate,” that the restaurant should be open some time soon.

He said he and his staff had struggled with getting its licensure all together.

Wheeler said he had struggled to get the health inspector — who is based out of Manhattan — to sign off on the restaurant. The inspector had conducted a walkthrough of the restaurant, but had been unable to produce the necessary paperwork for the business. Wheeler also said he submitted a business application in March and had not yet heard back from the City of Junction City about it.

He hopes to be able to open the restaurant’s doors sooner than later, but because of these bumps in the road, he has not yet been able to nail down a solid opening date.

Wheeler said he believed things would work out in the end.

“It will be clean — it will always be clean,” he said. “It will be as nice a place as you can find in Junction City or Manhattan.”

Despite all this, Wheeler said he and his staff are intent upon integrating themselves into the community. He said when the restaurant accidentally received an order of 500 pounds of chicken wings and chicken tenders in late March, he and his staff decided to donate the chicken to the Geary County Food Pantry rather than attempt to hold onto it until Binga’s opening day.

Wheeler said the local restaurant will start with a smaller menu and hopefully expand with time. He will bring a cook who has been working with Binga’s for about 15 years with him from Maine.

Because of the experience of the staff, Wheeler said he expects no major problems when the local restaurant opens its doors.

“It’s just a matter of doing something that they’re used to doing every day,” he said. “To give you an idea of the way the business goes in Maine, on Super Bowl Sunday in his three restaurants, which are mostly takeout, they sold five tons of wings.”

A menu for the Junction City location can be found at www.bingasjct.com online.


News
Geary County records 26th COVID-19 death

The Geary County Health Department has added one more person to the unofficial local COVID-19 death count.

Last Tuesday, the health department upped the unofficial count to 26.

The health department lists 1,529 community members as recovered from their bouts with COVID-19 and a total of 1,560 since the pandemic began.

There are three known active cases of the virus in the community at this time, according to the health department.

At this time, there are no community members hospitalized with the virus in Geary County.

The Kansas Department of Health and the Environment keeps track of every COVID-19 case that has been located across the state since the pandemic began last spring. According to the KDHE, there have been 3,178 cases of the virus in Geary County since that time, a difference of 1,618 from the health department’s count. This difference has grown by 20 since last week’s update which listed the difference between the two counts as 1,598 between the two agencies’ totals.

This discretion in the local numbers from the KDHE has been explained by health department Director Tammy Von Busch as being caused by Fort Riley numbers and a handful of occasions when the state opened multiple case files for one case of COVID-19 and then did not close the extra cases.

The KDHE receives Fort Riley COVID-19 numbers while the health department only receives Geary County numbers.


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