The grill hasn’t gone cold for Overland Park-stuffed Wiener Kitchen, said Dave Derr, recalling his unexpectedly packed experience as a restauranteur amid a pandemic season squeezing many small businesses.
“We’ve had more revenue at our store than pre-COVID, which is absolutely nuts,” he chuckled in near disbelief.
Consumer habits rapidly changed during the onset of COVID-19-induced Stay At Home orders, Derr noted, as local grocery stores were overrun and shortages of everything from Dr. Pepper to toilet paper made headlines across the globe.
“You have the outbreak and we see much more emphasis on our grocery side of things,” he continued, citing the sausage shop’s transformation into a local marketplace, initially selling such staples as eggs, milk and hand sanitizer, and now even face masks — stitched with love by Derr’s mom.
“It wasn’t what we planned on, but people needed it. So we tried.”
Click here to view Wiener Kitchen’s full menu, which includes such creations as a chicken apple sausage topped with basil mayo and strawberry jam.
Making mincemeat of the unplanned has been a running theme for Derr, he added, looking back on Wiener Kitchen’s beginnings and a journey that’s brought him as much unforeseen joy as the store’s quirky combinations of sausage bring customers.
“It was never a lifetime dream, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to have this sausage store,’” Derr said, noting however his long history on the KC food scene, beginning with courses at Johnson County Community College.
Wiener Kitchen itself ultimately was born out of Derr’s hobby sausage making, which first manifested in Wiener Wagon — a mobile celebration of sausage and the debut venture for him and his wife and business partner, Jesscia, Derr said.
“You want to talk about the startup that was built in the garage — that was a $3,000 project that was painted, stickered up, licensed, and ready for business,” he recalled, explaining the store’s sausage-making process — which is void of fillers, includes an inventory that’s 95-percent gluten free, is minimally processed with natural casings, and made in small batches.
“[Wiener Wagon] was pretty much extra income,” Derr said of the after-hours endeavor. “It was baby steps, it was, ‘Oh, we’ll do two events then we’ll do 10 events,’ then it turned into a half season at the [Overland Park] Farmers Market, then a full season. Now we’re full season vendors for five years.”
Wiener Kitchen followed three years ago, when the couple was working at the Art Institutes International and found themselves with schedules that made owning a brick-and-mortar space more realistic.
While Wiener Kitchen’s showed no signs of slowing down in 2020, business has been less savory aboard the Wiener Wagon, Derr said.
“I don’t want to say it’s been a joke this year, but you know, all of a sudden March comes and you have these special events, you have a couple of weddings, you have some corporate stuff and then you check in with everybody and they’re like, ‘Nope, nope, no, no,’ the farmers market delayed. You just don’t have the same traffic out there anymore.”
Click here to read more about this summer’s farmers market struggle from Derr and other local vendors working to navigate their businesses in the days of COVID-19.
In between its regular Saturday showings at the local farmers market, Wiener Wagon has begun partnering with Kansas City area breweries in an attempt to make up lost income, Derr said.
“Everybody who is a vendor at the market is so grateful — and we are as well. I mean, the fact that they are still holding it, that’s a good thing. Customers who are coming to the market this year are diehard. They understand why they should be supporting these local businesses,” he said, noting both Wiener Wagon and Wiener Kitchen operations work to source as many ingredients as possible from local growers, bakers, and makers from Parkville, Missouri. to Manhattan, Kansas — and dozens of metro cities in between.
But buying local still comes with a price, he explained.
“On one of the online review platforms, we got a perfect rating — five out of five — and it says, ‘Expensive, but the food was great. I will return occasionally only because it is expensive,’’’ he said, reading directly from the review.
“I’ve had people many times be like, ‘Well, that was good, but it probably wasn’t $8 good,’ and I’ve said, ‘Wait, let me back this up,’ because our ketchup is made with tomatoes from that guy, and our onions that we chopped up are from that guy, and that relish was made with green tomatoes from that guy,” Derr said, referencing the local connections that pull together his flavors.
Once customers hear such stories, they’re more inclined to support the Wiener Kitchen mission and seemingly better understand the critical role local growers and small businesses play in their communities, Derr said.
“Our competition right now is convenience, fast food. You might spend a whole 10 minutes in here [rather than five minutes somewhere else], but then you get to realize our story and what it is,” he continued, adding Wiener Kitchen is also staffed by experienced chefs with decades of combined experience in the restaurant space.
“We’re all chefs, my two part-time gals right now are both culinary school grads and they’ve done time in the local restaurant industry — which is super cool. It’s really awesome that the people out here talking the talk are also rocking out in the kitchen,” Derr said.
Such expertise leads to creativity behind the counter, which leads to an unforgettable customer experience overall, he added.
“We have people that dine with us every week. We always have features [and seasonal items] whether it’s out here or at the wagon, so there’s always something new for you to either take home or have a quick snack,” Derr said, noting Wiener Kitchen’s setup of a half-dozen socially distant patio tables and regular Wednesday night dinners, featuring home cooked favorites such as reuben sandwiches or enchiladas.
“That’s what’s cool to me. … It’s a craft, but it’s something that we feel that we’re totally awesome at.”