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.