Carolyn Devine first earned the nickname “Mom”decades ago when working at a Great Bend packing plant.
Whenever one of her co-workers celebrated a birthday or other milestone, she would bake a cake or make something special, says her son, Lee Devine.
“You know, she was always cooking and baking,” Devine says. “Everybody just started calling her ‘Mom.’ So, when they started this deal (in Seward), it was just Mom’s Bar and Grill.”
That was in 1998.
There had been a café in Seward previously, called the J&J Restaurant. It was somewhat atypical of a small-town restaurant in Kansas – two mobile homes placed in an “L” formation. But when Mom’s opened, Mom wanted the place to be a little different – more substantial and certainly more of an anchor for Seward, population 62.
Built in the architectural style of a Morton building – those utilitarian metal buildings used for agricultural and commercial purposes – her restaurant emphasized cleanliness throughout, white and plenty of light on the family side, paneled wood on the bar side with deer heads and beer signs strategically placed. Both sides featured homemade food, slushy beers and plenty of banter.
Known mostly by word of mouth, she soon was drawing customers from a 50-mile radius.
People came for her hamburgers, pork tenderloin sandwiches, fried mushrooms and country fried steaks.
Farmers, lawyers, retirees and area families were loyal customers, often packing Mom’s at lunch and dinner, and especially on the weekends.
“The one thing I can tell you about Mom’s is that it is a constant,” says Mitch Minnis, president of Minnis Chapel Inc., with funeral homes in St. John, Macksville and Ellinwood. “You go there, and you know exactly what’s on the menu for that particular day. It has been that way forever. You knew what you were going to get.”
Think of it as a rural “Cheers” where everybody knows your name – and has for generations.
When the pandemic hit, forcing shutdowns, customers briefly stopped coming.
But Mom kept cooking, making meals to go.
“She had customers who came down from Great Bend in an RV,” Lee Devine says. “They backed it up in the parking lot here – placed their order over the phone and the girls (the waitresses) took their drinks and food out. When they were done, they called and the girls went out, picked the stuff up and brought it back in.
“But most people got their food to go and Mom, being Mom, kept it held together,” Devine said.
Until, she couldn’t.
On December 30, 2021, Carolyn Devine died from COVID complications.
For a time, Mom’s Bar and Grill was closed.
“That’s the thing with small-town restaurants,” says Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation based near Inman and a promoter of rural culture. Small-town restaurants are often the life force of a community. “Food is still something you have to have,” even during a global pandemic.
Rural Kansans, she says, can often live in food deserts. It is not uncommon to travel 20 to 40 miles for groceries. Local restaurants in tiny towns across Kansas are a mainstay. “And if people live far from a grocery store, maybe getting takeout from a café is what they could do – if the café stays open. These café owners must have really loved their community to go above and beyond in the ways that they did.”
If you have traveled across Kansas within the past decade, it is easy to see how the rural economy has taken a hit.
Almost weekly, there is news of restaurants, implement dealers and even grocery stores closing in small towns.
In 2016, there were 7,300 food licenses issued in Kansas – which included restaurants, convenience stores and concession stands, according to records from the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
Before the pandemic began, Kansas had nearly 5,000 restaurants – many located in small towns, says Adam Mills, president and CEO of the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
“It looks like there are (now) somewhere close to 4,300 restaurant licenses in Kansas,” Mills says.
Among some of those restaurants that closed included longtime favorites such as DeFazio’s Italian Restaurant in north Wichita, Pretty Boy Floyd’s in Ellsworth and The Linger Longer in Bennington.
Some closed and reopened, such as Courtney and Chris in Toronto, or have temporarily closed, such as Ad Astra Food and Drink in Strong City. The legendary Brookville Hotel in Abilene closed in 2021 amid financial problems. It was purchased this year in a bankruptcy sale by Charles and Deanna Munson of Junction City who reopened it in August as Legacy Kansas, merging menu items from Brookville and their own Munson’s Prime steakhouse. Munson’s was destroyed by fire in 2021.
To keep their restaurants open, restaurant owners have, of course, had to get creative. But in many places, the difference between success and shuttered doors has been the willingness of the community to rally around their eateries.
The collective purpose inspiring the community’s efforts is about food, but also far more than that. It’s about keeping part of the lifeblood of the community intact.
All the community news
In rural towns, rituals are created each day with the first cup of coffee sold.
Newspapers with the real news of the lives of people are fewer and farther between. But the regulars still meet to “cuss and discuss” all manner of topics. Marriages, divorces, births, deaths, ambulance runs and run-ins with the law are perennial favorites.
“People missed their rituals of meeting for coffee, or the ladies around the round tables talking through lunch,” Penner says.
In St. Francis, in far northwest Kansas, the Fresh Seven Coffee shop has been percolating for the past nine years. Proprietors Heidi Plumb and Kale Dankenbring met in Phoenix, where Plumb worked for a coffee roaster.
And then, love happened.
“We decided we wanted to open a coffee roastery in a small espresso bar,” Plumb says. “That was our original plan and we wanted to do it in a small, mobile espresso unit.”
They started with a food truck.
Kale, her husband and business partner, asked if she might be willing to try something like a coffee roastery in St. Francis, near the Arikaree Breaks – a ruggedly scenic strip of ravines and canyons.
The town had never had a roastery.
They bought a roofless, abandoned building in downtown St. Francis and pulled the truck inside the building’s shell. Then, they bought another downtown building in about the same condition.
They fixed up a trailer – to serve coffee – and pulled it into the other floorless, roofless building.
They roast coffee beans in small batches each day, then make a commitment to sell them within seven days – hence, the name of their business, which grew so fast it pulled in people from three states – Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.
“We started in the trailer, and the trailer was always going to be our original plan – with espresso and a traditional espresso bar. We decided that by staying in one place rather than traveling to different events, would be a better way to move forward with our business,” Plumb says.
Business was good.
“We raised money to put the roof on and built bathrooms in and closed it all in,” she says. “It’s definitely been through an evolution. It wasn’t our original plan, but this way people have a designated place where we will be. They can come in every morning and know exactly where we are.”
When COVID hit, nothing much changed at first. People came in for coffee and bought food off the menu – sandwiches, yogurt parfaits and salads.
But then business began to drop.
“The health department didn’t want to see us close down because we are already considered a food desert out here, and closing us down could have been a really bad thing for the people out here,” Plumb says. “But we made things work. The people in the community – no one wants to see a business go under – they were so supportive. I never realized like how many people really come together when stuff like this happens. I don’t think any of us have ever seen anything like this happen. It was very heartwarming to see so many people come in and support us.”
There were instances when the local bank bought coffee for all the local nurses.
Then the nurses bought coffee for schoolteachers.
Area businesses and local residents banded together. They had a raffle that encouraged participants to go from one local business to another and buy items. The winning ticket was a gift package that included items from each of the stores.
“This always was a place that felt like we could breathe a little bit. It’s a place that feels like home and people take care of each other. It’s a very different dynamic than in the cities. It’s refreshing to know you have a community of people that will take care of each other.”
Before the pandemic, Plumb and her husband drove to Denver each weekend to shop for supplies.
Now, they order online, which takes some ingenuity – because the quality of provisions can vary.
“We decided early on, as long as we are going to keep going, people are still going to be able to rely on us here. It might not be perfect, in terms of our supplies, but at least we will be here. I think showing up for people is huge.”
In Sawyer, about 10 miles south of Pratt, Greg and Ruby Wolf and family have worked diligently to keep the Sawyer Family Food Store open during the restrictions of COVID. The Wolfs are members of the Old German Baptist Brethren, a conservative church where plain dress is the norm. In addition to having a deli, they also sell canned specialty items.
“We felt less challenged than some – but there were a few challenges, and one was working during the whole masking, social distancing aspect from early on,” Greg Wolf says. “We closed our dining room, and we tried to do what we could to respond to the state of Kansas’ requirements. … But we never closed our store function. We had takeout. We delivered food curbside. We took credit card payments by phone. And we have not had any major outages that we could not overcome.”
But the experience visitors had at the store may have suffered, Wolf says. Their store is known for its fresh-baked cinnamon and cherry rolls, take-home frozen casseroles, pizzas and pies – all made with Hudson Cream Flour, milled in neighboring Stafford County. The Wolfs’ six children have all worked in the store – three of their oldest daughters have now married and moved away and local church members have stepped in to help at the store.
As the three youngest children have grown and gotten closer to striking out on their own, the Wolfs have considered selling their store to another family.
“Our store combines shopping and dining-in and it is a vital social hub,” Wolf says. “Ours is an experience that is destination shopping. It is where people meet and interact. People have been reminded of the vital nature of the independent and local food supply. We learned some of the dangers of being overly reliant on corporations and corporate food channels.
“The whole COVID era has affected the psyche of the population. People have said to us they appreciate our local business beyond food, even, … ‘We want to make sure you’re here in the future.’”
Surviving with a high-end restaurant in small town Kansas
The Elephant Bar and Bistro in Hoxie is an off-the-beaten-path gustatory experience. The Sheridan County town has 1,200 residents but chef and owner Emily Campbell has people driving from as far as 150 miles away to enjoy such delights as spicy Seattle spinach and artichoke dip; bistro tacos; apple, prosciutto and gruyere flatbread; Atlantic wild-caught scallops; and dry-aged ribeyes.
Reservations often must be made a week or more in advance.
“I’m guilty of a bistro and bar – an upscale casual restaurant that’s not typical of what you would find in rural Kansas,” Campbell says. “It’s an elegant dining atmosphere with an eclectic menu – a lot of it is farm to table and is locally sourced – as much as we can here. We want to create something out of the ordinary.”
Lettuce for the restaurant is grown at a nearby hydroponic farm. Bison are raised locally; wagyu beef comes from Seward, Nebraska, and shrimp from a farm in McCook, Nebraska.
Hoxie is where she and her husband, Doug, grew up. Both attended Kansas State University. She majored in accounting and finance and earned a CPA. She worked in that field for about five years. When her husband’s job took him to Seattle, she started a career change. She went to culinary school and worked under some renowned chefs.
They opened three years ago – to a roaring success.
“We were flourishing,” Campbell says. “We had a really good staff and we just kept redeveloping our menu more and more.”
When the pandemic hit, the couple shuttered the dining room and started serving takeout instead.
“We lost 75% of our staff, because when you don’t have guests, there is no use for house staff,” she says.
They produced take-home meal kits.
But then, supplies such as ketchup became hard to come by, and food that was supposed to be delivered the next day sometimes would take two or more extra days to be delivered.
Since then, the high cost of gasoline has been keeping customers and some staff at bay.
“I’ve had several employees leave me because they can’t afford to drive to work anymore,” she says. “Part of the reason I opened this restaurant is because I wanted something valuable for our community. I wanted us to have something out here that nobody else does. I truly believe in supporting local. I believe in building your own economy, your own ecosystem, in the area that you live in.
“It is a passion of mine to do it. Moving forward, it is going to take a lot of people who want to step outside the box and start being inventive on how we operate, especially in rural Kansas. What we are providing is experiences. People come to us to have a three-course meal starting with cocktails and appetizers with jazz playing in the background.”
Pies, pies and maybe not so many pies
Carolyn Bontrager opened Carolyn’s Essenhaus (German for eating house) in Arlington 33 years ago. Her restaurant is known for its Amish Mennonite cooking – pies, cakes, cheesecakes, a Friday night fish fry, chicken fried steak, verenika (cheese-filled dumplings served with ham and cream gravy) and more.
At 65, she has listed the restaurant for sale “to the right person.”
After all the years in business, Bontrager says she’s never encountered anything like the pandemic or the supply issues she’s experienced in the past two years.
“I don’t even know how to put it into words,” she says. “First, there was the shutdown and my brain is scrambling – how do we keep going and making money and not leaving our employees without a job? And so we did walk-up windows and reopened and then the next year and a half is busier than anything I’ve ever known. Now, the gas prices go up and food prices go up and we are like, where are the customers?
“It’s not that they aren’t loyal; they can’t afford to come and eat out.”
Blackberry pie – a customer favorite is temporarily off the menu – blackberries are hard to find.
“We’ve had recessions before, but this looks kind of scarier than other things we’ve been through.”
Katie Reinecker is owner of the Inman Harvest Café, where she has worked the majority of her life – first as a waitress, and since 2008 as the owner.
She now offers a $25 gift certificate raffle – for gas, an incentive for customers to come in.
But one of her lowest points in the past few years came on March 27, 2020, when McPherson County law enforcement officers came to her restaurant and ordered her to close the dining room because of a statewide prohibition on mass gatherings of 10 or more people aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
“This is our whole life,” Reinecker says. “My whole family works here. We do it together – it’s really less about the food and more about the people. When you take the people out of the equation, what’s the point? We offered takeout. And then takeout boxes for the food were hard to come by. We couldn’t get enough boxes.“
So, some customers brought their own food containers.
To help provide some of the socialization that customers in small towns crave, the restaurant did Facebook videos.
The fried chicken buffet was turned into family style dinners to go.
“I’m just doing what I know to be the right thing to do,” Reinecker says. “I want to be in a community where people can gather and that it is multigenerational. This is a place that cares about you. Single people who don’t have family can come here, join our family and be a part of us. It is important for me that this place stays that way.
“It’s really sad when little places like ours close because the community is lost. This place holds a lot of history. You can get into all kinds of great conversations with people. The food comes in second to that.”
Mom’s Bar and Grill, Part Two
When Mom’s closed in Seward after Carolyn Devine died, the odds were long that it would ever reopen.
And then, Mom’s son, Lee Devine, and longtime waitresses at Mom’s formed a partnership to resume operations.
In March, they were dealt a cruel blow when Devine’s wife, Hether, died from cancer. They had been married 13 years and had two small children.
But the need for the restaurant remained apparent, Devine says.
His mom had built a legacy.
“Like I told my dad, ‘These people have been coming in and Mom always said if she isn’t open, where are these people going to go?’ That was my driving force. I told my dad that we can’t stay closed.”
Anymore, it’s about leaving the light on and having a slushy, cold, red beer – a concoction that typically blends beer and tomato juice – waiting for customers at the end of blistering hot summer days.
“Those good old red beers,” says Diane Getty, who often frequents Mom’s with a bevy of longtime friends. “It’s quiet and it’s not far to go. It’s a good place to hang out.”
She says it’s all about getting together with
friends, having something to eat and a combination of everything – beer, friends and food.
Devine, the longtime staff – and everybody else – knew the longtime favorite recipes. Everybody knew the daily specials. The beer stayed slushy cold. The banter came back.
So did the crowds on weekend nights.
“People are thankful we didn’t quit,” Devine says.
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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