Restaurants along the streetcar route are ready for the system to go live

“The best thing that’s happened so far is that all the cones are gone.”

This is what Michael Smith — chef and co-owner of the Michael Smith and Extra Virgin restaurants, in the Crossroads — tells me when I call him to follow up on our last conversation about KC’s streetcar system.

That doesn’t sound much more upbeat than what he and four other high-profile restaurateurs said a couple of winters ago (“Sauce on the Tracks,” January 6, 2015). At the height of streetcar construction, Smith and his wife and business partner, Nancy Smith; Anton Kotar, of Anton’s Tap Room; Martin Heuser, of Affäre; and Howard Hanna, of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, spoke to The Pitch about how the project was affecting their respective bottom lines. The port-a-potties, the jackhammering, those countless cones — the sights and sounds of a city’s costly transit project were repelling customers, said that roundtable.

A year and a season later, the first Kansas City streetcar line in more than half a century is finally about to begin taking passengers. With a splashy opening for the 2.2-mile route set to start Friday, May 6 (coinciding with the Crossroads’ monthly First Friday art openings), and carry on through the weekend, I was checking back in with the Smiths, Kotar, Heuser and Hanna. Their businesses had survived. What now, though? Are they confident that the free-to-ride streetcar will bring fresh bustle to the sidewalks outside their doors — and send hungry people inside?

“I’m not sure that the streetcar, once it’s in full service, will have any impact on our business,” Michael Smith says. “But there’s a lot of stuff happening in the Crossroads — new hotels, a lot of activity. They have these same streetcars in Prague. We’re in the big-time world now.”

Heuser, who operates Affäre at 1911 Main with his wife, Katrin, was particularly hard hit by the construction and was perhaps the most outspoken of the group in 2015. The chaotic labyrinth of pylons is gone now, but Heuser’s outlook remains guarded. For one thing, he says, you won’t see him climb aboard one of the city’s four sleek new streetcars.

“Why would I do that?” he says. “If I needed to run to the River Market to buy produce, it would be faster for me to jump in my car.”

He goes on: “As for my business, Affäre is still surrounded by construction. Only now, it’s new building construction.

“The irony is that I keep hearing about all this business coming down here on Friday, but part of my restaurant will be closed. I’ve booked two rehearsal dinners that night [May 6]. But we are starting a Saturday brunch business on Saturday, May 7. We’ve never done Saturday brunch before, and we think there will be enough interest in riding the streetcar on weekends to justify that expense.”

And, lest anyone think Heuser a grump, there’s his plan for the months following the streetcar’s opening day: “I’m going to set up a grilled-sausage stand on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant on First Friday. We’re trying to be very positive.”

Hanna, the chef-owner of the Rieger, has been comparatively cheery throughout streetcar construction, even when his regular customers complained about the lack of parking anywhere close to his restaurant.

“Other than that, the streetcar construction didn’t hurt us very much,” he says. “It was more of an inconvenience. We actually had a very good year last year, and I think this weekend will be huge.”

Is Hanna going to ride the streetcar? “I’ll ride it every day, once things calm down,” he says.

For Kotar, the memory of a grim 2015 is still fresh in mind. “We flatlined,” he says. “We had the same gross number from the previous year, so in retrospect, we did as well as we could with a big hole dug outside our front door.”

Anton’s, like Affäre, abuts ongoing vertical construction. So even if those streetcar patrons materialize in big numbers, headaches about sidewalk access, parking and Main Street traffic remain.

“It doesn’t matter how many patrons the streetcar brings to this neighborhood if you’re having trouble staffing the restaurant,” Kotar tells me. “Two weeks ago, I stopped serving on Sundays. I’m having trouble staffing this kitchen. I’m advertising for help but can’t get people to respond to anything. It’s getting ugly down here. I don’t blame the streetcars. I blame the administration of this city.”

Kotar’s complaints echo many of his concerns from a year ago, but, like his Crossroads contemporaries, he says he’s eager to see what happens after this weekend. For the restaurants along the route — these five and others north of the Crossroads — the route going live represents something of an anticlimax. Still, they can’t help but hope that their best business days are rolling out ahead, to the sounds of the streetcar’s bell and horn.

Streetcar Grand Opening Weekend

Friday 5.6
KC Streetcar Opening Celebration
10 a.m. Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd.

Streetcar service begins
11 a.m. Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd.

KCMO Smart City Village
11:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. KCP&L Energy Center, 1200 Main

Sporting KC’s Main Event / Live KC / Fan Three Sixty Parking Lot Party
4 p.m. Parking Lot at 1511 Baltimore

ThinkBig’s #TimeToRideKC Barbecue
5-9 p.m. Think Big Partners, 1712 Main

A Celebration of the Kansas City Streetcar and Its History
5-9 p.m. Farm To Market Bread Co.,
100 E. 20th St.

First Friday Celebration at Ruins Pub and Tom’s Town
6 p.m.-midnight, 17th and Main

KCAC “What in the World” Art Exhibition
6 p.m. Kansas City Artists Coalition,
201 Wyandotte

Fireworks presented by KC Streetcar
9 p.m. Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd.

Movie Night: A Streetcar Named Desire
9 p.m. City Market Park, 5 W. Third St.

Saturday 5.7
Streetcar service begins
7 a.m. Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd.

City Market Farmers Market
7 a.m. City Market, 20 E. Fifth St.

KCMO Smart City Village
9 a.m.–3 p.m. KCP&L Energy Center,
1200 Main

Pup-Up Pilates
9:30 p.m. Tail Waggin’ Petstop,
1818 Wyandotte

Carnival rides
10 a.m.–10 p.m. Union Station,
30 W. Pershing Rd.

Pop-up record shop with Vinyl Underground
10 a.m. Think Big, 1712 Main

Comic Books and Coffee from the library
10 a.m.–2 p.m. Kansas City Public Library, 14 W. 10th St.

The Liz Finnity Affair jazz ensemble
1 p.m. Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd.

Kansas City Royals watch party
3 p.m. Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd.

Kansas City Derby Fest
3 p.m. KC Live Block, 1100 Walnut

The Buhs
7 p.m. Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd.

9 p.m. Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd.

Categories: Food & Drink