A FAMILY AFFAIR SINCE 1988
By Michael Humphrey
If you wanted to, you could believe that Californos was a small bistro tucked away from the hubbub of the party-happy Westport district in Kansas City. Light pours in through the wall of French doors in the narrow dining room, copies of the New York Times sit on a podium waiting for diners who plan to stay awhile, and a well stocked-bar waits with a cocktail or after-dinner cordial.
And that might have some meeting planners thinking only in terms of a table for two. But what lies behind the intimate bistro is a yawning space with nothing but meetings and events in mind.
“We started out with the bistro,” says Terry Burns, who in 1988 opened Californos with his wife Brenda, the chef. “Then we had all these foreclosures around us and it killed our business. We learned we have to have ongoing businesses beyond the retail market.”
So Californos is a bistro, but it’s also a banquet space and a catering company and a venue for concerts.
How does all of that grow out of one small room? It was those foreclosures that opened the door to Burnses’ future.
The grand space directly behind the original Californos – built in 1903 as a barn for trolleys – was turned into a mall in the late 1980s. It was a good fit for the small bistro, with plenty of foot traffic in the tucked-away cul-de-sac off Pennsylvania Ave. But then a competitor mall opened just a block away and lured some of the businesses. The savings and loan scandal quickly followed and developers started shutting every door that wasn’t bringing in money.
“Everybody evacuated,” Terry says. “But we were here to stay.”
When the dust settled, a bankruptcy judge was the new landlord of the barn. Burns took that opportunity to create a business plan that envisioned banquet rooms throughout the grand space.
“He liked the plan,” Terry says, “and found an investor for me to change it from a mall into what I wanted it to be.”
Safe to say, that was good decision.
Since then, Californos also added a three-tiered deck on what used to be a dead-end street that ran along the north side of the building.
A family affair
The Burnses pulled this off all while rearing two children in Liberty, Mo., 20 miles away.
“That wasn’t always easy,” Burns says. “But I guess it turned out alright.”
Better than that. Their son Aaron is the head of event planning for Californos. And daughter Kelly has taken over her mother’s meticulous, hand-written recipes and begun to manage the kitchen.
“I told my dad when I was 15 that I wanted to work here,” says Kelly Burns, “as long as he wanted me, anyway.”
Although Brenda has moved away from the kitchen, “she’s always a phone call away,” Kelly says. “Whenever I have a question, she can answer anything I need.”
This is a family business. Several of the Burnses’ extended family members are servers and cooks. Even one of the restaurant’s primary suppliers is a cousin.
Years of experience
It’s been an unmitigated success – Californos has outlasted almost everything on Pennsylvania, a street known for its food on every price scale. Currently the street features a burrito wraps place, a pizza joint, Vietnamese and Indian restaurants, a sports bar, a tapas restaurant, a tea house and a wine bar.
“It’s funny, because a lot of people have come and gone,” Kelly says. “But we offer more than most of our neighbors. Some of those services aren’t all that profitable, but we’ve outlasted a lot of businesses around here.”
In the Californos office, there’s an aerial photo of Westport from …
“1978,” Terry says as he points to the top of a yellow Volkswagen Beetle in the photo. “Here’s my car. The only reason I know the date is I know when I had that car. I was running the Prospector back then, which is Harpo’s (the sports bar) now.”
Terry says Westport was just in the infancy of its resurrection back then.
“Most of these buildings weren’t even being rented,” Terry says. “There were a lot of people just crashing in them. It was a dump. It’s been a long resurrection.”
Terry should know. He has worked in the Westport area since the 1970s. A native of Liberty, he began his restaurant career at the Levee, a popular restaurant and music venue about a half mile away.
“I worked around here until we opened this place,” he says, “and that’s been 18 years ago now.”
But if Terry has spent years in Westport, so has Kelly.
“I basically grew up in this building,” Kelly says. “Most of my friends were kids whose parents ran other businesses around Westport.”
If you’re looking for their secret to success, start with the food. When Californos opened in 1988, the idea of French and northern California-influenced cuisine in Kansas City was still so novel that the restaurant earned a cover story in The Kansas City Star Magazine.
“The theme of the restaurant is still fresh cooked to order, which is California cuisine,” Terry says. “We’re definitely an eclectic restaurant.”
Perhaps that idea has become ubiquitous in the Midwest now, but great food remains a draw.
Here’s a sampling:
First course – watercress blue cheese torta, baked feta, or artichoke chili spread.
Sandwiches – Croque Monsieur with gruyere cheese, grilled steak sandwich with herb cream cheese, caramelized onions and au jus, or bluefin lump crab with tarragon, prosciutto and Swiss cheese.
Entrees – herb-roasted beef tenderloin, hoisin-chili mixed grill with shrimp, chicken and beef, pesto lasagna.
“We buy as much fresh and local as we can,” Kelly says. “And we look for the best for each item, rather than relying on one supplier.”
Dad jumps in …
“That’s why we have five different bread vendors,” Terry says.
Daughter finishes the thought …
“Because one company has the best baguette, but another has the best sourdough and so on.”
Space to stretch out
The other key to success is the space.
“We’re basically in the wedding business and we do a lot of corporate work too,” Terry says.
All together, the restaurant can hold up to 500 people over four dining spaces.
While each room has an ambience and space unto itself, they are also meant to intermingle for larger groups. The main restaurant can hold around 35.
Then you move to the trolley barn, which was designed to keep the rustic feel but with touches of class throughout. The library room is a two-tiered, glassed-in space that holds 20-40 people. The Ballroom, a grand space with hardwood floors and a 24-foot-high ceiling, holds up to 100. The Westport Room, a more businesslike space, holds between 35 and 80.
“We have Wi-Fi in the building,” Terry says. “And we have companies who can come in and set up any kind of media. We have a room that can fit just about any need for businesses.”
The bottom line
That kind of flexibility heads into pricing as well.
“There are so many different kinds of businesses and business needs,” Terry says, “that I don’t try to create a fixed price for corporate customers when that’s not what they need. The pharmaceutical company’s needs aren’t going to be the same as H&R Block’s needs. So we don’t act like they are the same. And even less alike is the nonprofit that’s coming in. So we adjust with each case.”
Wedding and special occasion groups can think in terms of fixed prices. For them, Californos offers five entrée menus, which include appetizers, salad, wine service, coffee and dessert, taxes and gratuity. On the low end, pesto lasagna would begin at $46.50 per customer. On the high end, herb-roasted beef tenderloin and Atlantic salmon would begin at $62.
“At 20 people or below 20, it’s not that hard to do a full menu,” Kelly says. “Beyond that, we are going to move to some kind of previously arranged menu.”
Room charges include $3 per person for lunch and $5 for dinner, if the group wants to use an a la carte option.
“We have a lot of experience with this,” Terry says. “The more experienced planners know that and we work easily with them. People who are new to this sometimes have a hard time just letting us do what’s right for them, based on their budget. But if they do, they never regret it.”
(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)
Kansas City, MO 64111