Union Specific

Kansas City doesn’t have enough celebrity restaurateurs — the kind of restaurant owners who are as well known for their personalities and opinions as for the dining rooms they operate. I can think of a handful who really know how to work the media: the Mirabile brothers at Jasper’s, Lidia Bastianich of Lidia’s and gravel-voiced Mike Garozzo of the Garozzo’s Ristorante mini-empire. Ditto for the Hereford House‘s Rod Anderson, the tenderloin tycoon who pops up on Mike Murphy‘s chatty show on KCMO 710 as frequently as Carl DiCapo and Marilyn Maye. On the air, he’s a star.

But Anderson’s dulcet voice sounds weary when he talks about the challenges that confront him in trying to turn around the three-year-old Union Café (see review), which he took over last June. “Yes, it still needs to find an identity, and, yes, we’re still working on the menu,” Anderson says. “But our first order of business was to get the place really functioning again. We did a lot of work in the kitchen, which had some serious problems, and we got the food back on track.”

Instead of separate menus for lunch and dinner, Anderson and his staff created a casual, all-day menu that included hamburgers and moderately priced sandwiches and salads targeted to the diners who were left without a family-friendly venue when Fitz’s Bottling Company ran out of fizz last year.

Anderson has toyed with the idea of turning Union Café into a more full-service restaurant, even opening early for breakfast, but the economy — and potential labor costs — have him wary. Even now, he wonders why the restaurant stays open for dinner on Tuesday nights, when Union Station is nearly always empty.

Anderson says lunch business has been solid, but nights are a different story. “It looks sunny and friendly in the Grand Hall during the day, with lots of people. At night, it’s really tough to get people in here.”

He’s still looking for a hook. “What we need to do, with so many new lofts and apartments going up, is to position the restaurant as an affordable place to eat several times a week,” Anderson says. “We need to find a concept that really draws people in here. Downtown already has its high-end restaurants and lots of bar and grills. We have to be different.”

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