By Michael Humphrey
Cheryl Hartell has travelled a lot, thanks to a healthy wanderlust and a father who worked for TWA. Yet it surprises her where she ended up planting her roots – all of three miles away from where she grew up, where the nearest town of Camden Point, Missouri, has fewer than 600 residents.
“I would have never imagined it,” says Hartell, 36. “My parents don’t even live there anymore. They moved to south Texas, near the Mexican border, to get away from the cold weather.”
But would you believe that her minuscule move away from home actually best represents her adventurous spirit? If not, ask yourself how many 26-year-olds with a business degree buy a fine-dining restaurant, a place where she started as a server at age 19, and become the chef?
That’s right – not many. And even fewer have had the unmitigated success that Hartell has achieved. A decade later her restaurant, The Vineyards in Weston, Missouri, is considered among the upper echelon of restaurants around the Kansas City area.
ADVENTURE RIGHT AT HOME
The “flavor” of the restaurant reflects Hartell’s life – it’s a bistro with adventurous cuisine combined with a real touch of home. First off, the restaurant is situated in an 1845 antebellum house. The décor votes for comfort over haughtiness – you can tell from the partially exposed wood floor and the light green walls decorated with prints of fruits and historic scenes. When you notice that a butter knife is leveling one table, then it’s clear this could be your grandma’s house.
CREATIVITY ON YOUR PLATE
Patrons will likely find New Zealand green-lipped mussels served in a preparation of sautéed mushrooms, red onions and red bell peppers with a white wine, garlic cream. A daily risotto tests Hartell’s creativity and inclinations on any given day. The grilled breast of duckling changes its colors with the season and you might find a local beer and a maple glaze dressing up the herb and peppercorn crusted rack of lamb.
“I like to be creative and have some fun with the combinations,” Hartell says. “But ultimately, you want to please your guests and we know there are certain dishes that will stay on the menu no matter what time of year it is.”
Case in point – the cream of red potato and rosemary soup. It’s a year round selection.
“I know that sounds strange, but I have people order it in the heat of summer,” she says. “It is always a main stay.”
Perhaps that’s because each bowl of soup is made to order, with pre-boiled potatoes and finished with Romano and crème fraiche.
Cheryl’s menu finds its inspiration from her trips to California, France and beyond.
A DREAM COME TRUE
“Isn’t it interesting how you tell yourself you’re going to do something in your life,” Hartell says, “and it ends up happening, even though it never turns out exactly the way you expected it to be. I used to always say I wanted to own my own restaurant someday.”
And here she is. But it didn’t just pop out of the sky into her skillful hands and it certainly didn’t turn out exactly as she expected.
“My plans were to go to MU,” Hartell says. “A lot of my friends were heading there and I thought I would too.”
But a scholarship to Missouri Western changed those plans and thus her journey began.
“I got a job (at The Vineyards) and my parents loaned me money to buy a car, so I was working and going to school at the same time,” she says. “I couldn’t pass up the work, because it paid for all my stuff in school.”
Her first restaurant experience came at Branchstreet Café, a family-style restaurant in Platte City, while she attended high school. But even her work during college didn’t convince her to dive into the restaurant business.
After graduating with a degree in business, Hartell sold insurance after college.
“But you never really get out of the (restaurant) business,” she says. “I kept working at The Vineyards to make a little extra money.”
In her tenure as one of The Vineyards’ employees Hartell did everything from serving, hosting, cooking, prepping and even accounting.
“You name it, I did it,” she says. “That prepared me well.”
Two years out of school, she realized she could no longer resist her first love. (The insurance days were not a total loss of time, though. She met her husband while trying unsuccessfully to sell him a policy.)
Hartell decided to head for the city to get more diverse experience and worked at the highly respected Café Allegro, studying under Stu Stein and Mano Rafael, who later opened Le Fou Frog in the City Market area.
At this time, The Vineyards was owned by David Scott, whom Hartell credits for giving her a chance to learn the entire business. It was Scott who sold her the restaurant.
WHERE THE VINES ARE
The Vineyards originally opened in 1985. Charles Pirtle, part of the family that started Pirtle’s Winery, that is located just across the street in an 1867 Lutheran Church, envisioned a restaurant that was a complement to the winery’s tasting room and it remains so today.
“This was a dilapidated house before the Pirtles renovated it,” says Hartell. “They were true visionaries, because in 1978 Weston was pretty run down when they started the winery.” Now Kansas City considers it one of the area’s crown jewels. Weston thinks of itself as an interesting city situated near the Missouri River 30 minutes northwest of downtown Kansas City. The town center is a haven of antique stores, charming festivals, numerous bed and breakfasts and several fine restaurants.
JUST DON’T BRING BUSLOADS
Today Weston offers a host of six bed and breakfasts with a total of roughly 24 guest rooms. The Weston Select, one of these four-room B&Bs, also features meeting and event space for up to 25 guests. Connie Jurgen, the proprietor of the Westin Select, works with The Vineyards to offer planners an opportunity to treat a smaller group to a very special meal.
The elegant and cozy B&B would work perfectly for a small reception, corporate retreat or strategic planning session. It is located approximately 15 minutes from Kansas City International Airport.
A SPECIAL SMALL EVENT
Because The Vineyards is an old house, finding private nooks and crannies is no problem at all. “It naturally splits into private rooms,” Hartell says. “It’s pretty easy to put a small group in a place where they can feel like they have their own space.”
A curtained-off back room can seat six to eight. If opened to the adjoining parlor room, a group of 24 can be seated comfortably. A glassed-in porch will seat up to 16, but the room is not as private since it also includes the entrance to the restaurant. If a group were to occupy the entire restaurant, planners could create an event for up to 50 people. For more fair weather times, a deck at the back of the restaurant can also seat up to 50 as well.
Lead time for reserving a room ranges from a few weeks to several months, depending upon the size of the group and what kind of event is being planned as well as the time of the year.
QUALITY COMES FIRST
It’s also important to remember that a restaurant of this caliber prides itself on its menu and doesn’t compromise on quality.
Hartell explains that the restaurant doesn’t buy in bulk and her menu requires the best ingredients. “This dictates our prices,” Hartell says.
There are definitely economical ways to enjoy the atmosphere, be it a cocktail reception from $10 to $15 per person or a lunch from $12 to $20. A fine dinner would start at $45 per person and move up according to wine selections.
When it comes to the question of set menus or an open menu, Hartell says she’s willing to work with the client.
“We can talk about what they need and work it out from there,” she says. “The main point is to get out, take your time and relax with a good meal.” MM&E
(Michael Humphrey is the contributing editor from Kansas City, MO)
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