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Three sold out weeks of curbside service are a sign of better days to come for the Plantain District and for North Kansas City businesses — but the impact of a nationwide meat shortage and grocery hoarding could serve as additional blows to local restaurants, said Rachel Kennedy.
“I had to go to four different grocery stores just to be able to purchase and find what I needed [to fulfill sold out curbside orders]. That is just an additional hurdle that we’re having to jump right now and I don’t think I anticipated that,” Kennedy, owner of Plantain District and co-founder of the Iron District, said of the latest side effects of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Going to the grocery store and finding out, ‘Oh, I can only buy two packages of chicken,’ [for] those of us that are feeding 80 to 100 people, it’s almost becoming impossible,” she added.
Consumer shopping at stores like Restaurant Depot has also created new challenges for restaurant owners, Kennedy said.
“It’s an additional grocery shopping experience for individuals, but for the business side, it ends up being a problem because they’re completely out of chicken or they’re completely out of some kind of protein that restaurants need,” she said. “That’s been surprising. I haven’t really heard many restaurants talking about it, but I’m sure I can’t be the only food vendor that has run up against this.”
From food truck to shipping container
Despite an era of obstacles, Kennedy said, she remains grateful she still gets to follow her passion for Cuban cuisine — which began with the bite of a sandwich in 2014.
“[My husband and I] enjoyed it and we thought, ‘We could do this better,’” she said with a laugh.
What the pair lacked in kitchen experience, they made up for in business savvy, Kennedy said.
“Literally after that sandwich, we ended up sitting down, writing a business plan. Five weeks later, we had purchased our food truck,” she said, referencing the predecessor to her fixed location in a refurbished shipping container at the Iron District outdoor dining and entertainment space in North Kansas City.
Success came quick for Plantain District — which offers everything from plantain chips and picadillo to pastelitos and sandwiches — but as any food truck purveyor might agree, the road kitchen brought its fair share of creative and operational limitations, she said.
“It does get scary, only because you can be fully loaded up for a big event, like a celebrity event or a wedding and something happens. A tire blows, what do you do?” Kennedy said. “I just remember panicking before every event hoping and wishing everything would go well.”
At the same time, another iteration formed in Kennedy’s mind, she said.
“I liked the idea of getting off the street and taking that mobility factor out. Just having a set place that we could actually make food in and customers knew where to find us all the time,” Kennedy recalled, noting a traditional space still felt far off for Plantain District.
“I started thinking about the shipping container because it’s not mobile; it’s kind of this food truck size. … I began sketching and then once I kind of had it down on paper, I thought, ‘I like this idea, but what if we opened this up to other vendors?’” she said of what ultimately became the Iron District — which formally opened in October 2019.
Courting a COVID reopening
Having only opened for a limited run, Kennedy and other purveyors were anxiously awaiting the launch of the Iron District’s first full season when COVID-19 hit.
“The brakes slammed on suddenly. I think most of us were just kind of shocked. We knew this thing was kind of happening and forming, we just didn’t know how or when it would affect us,” she said.
Click here to read about Iron District’s Container Club Membership Program — a COVID-19 pivot.
A much quicker impact than Kennedy expected, Plantain District remained on pause for much of the Stay at Home order.
“You don’t really know how to overshoot for something like this,” she said. “You always need to pay attention to cost — now even more so, just because everyone’s been down. We don’t have a lot of extra buffer anywhere to lose money.”
When curbside orders took off three weeks ago, it was a sign of reassurance for Kennedy that taking her time to plan a safe and intentional comeback for Plantain District — and its home at Iron District — was the right choice.
“I think we’re just kind of in a wait-and-see pattern. … It’s still within the psyche of the customer. Do people feel comfortable with venturing out just yet?” Kennedy questioned, noting she’s optimistic she and fellow restaurateurs at Iron District can meet new needs of customers when the container-lined courtyard opens its gates again.
Click here to place a curbside order with Plantain District or any Iron District kitchen.
“We’re kind of creating our own Phase Two, which would obviously continue curbside. We would probably offer some window pickup as well. We have sanitation processes in place with social distancing, with signage markers on the actual courtyard … we’re not quite ready for [a full reopen],” she said.
With its outdoor setup and individual kitchens naturally conducive to social distancing, Iron District is likely to reopen sometime in June, she added.
Click here to read about one of the artists whose work is featured prominently at the Iron District.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.