Startland News’ Startup Road Trip series explores innovative and uncommon ideas finding success in rural America and Midwestern startup hubs outside the Kansas City metro. This series is possible thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which leads a collaborative, nationwide effort to identify and remove large and small barriers to new business creation.
This story was produced as part of the State of Kansas’ media event in Abilene showcasing the state’s six travel regions.
ABILENE, Kansas — Creating a legacy doesn’t happen overnight, Deanna Munson said. And rarely is it a solo venture.
The former Brookville Hotel, a striking white vestige of Kansas’ past, is more than its dinner platters heaped with fried chicken, creamed corn and a variety of pickles. Within the walls of the restaurant — newly reopened as Legacy Kansas — is the story of two Sunflower State families: entrepreneurs whose 150-year journeys cross trails in a small town two and a half hours west of Kansas City on I-70.
They’ve won regional and international accolades. They’ve pivoted. They’ve survived fickle consumer trends, a devastating fire, and uncertain staffing.
And the Munson family is just getting started, said Munson, teasing a meaty menu that soon will bring diners even more flavors from the award-winning herd.
Taste of first place
The root of the Munsons’ famed cattle farm dates back to 1869 when Carl Munson moved from Sweden to Junction City, Kansas.
“He was an entrepreneur himself. He bought some land and cattle and then started what is now a sixth generation family business that has built a reputation for producing the most flavorful, best-tasting beef possible,” said Deanna Munson, sitting next to her son, David, and husband, Chuck — whose family established Munson Angus Farms in Central Kansas.
The farm is known for its purebred Angus cattle — beef from which has made its way across the country to be served in a range of restaurants and steakhouses, she noted. In 2013, Munson Angus Farms won first place in the American Royal “Grapes and Steak” competition — spiking even greater demand for its steaks.
“We were judged on flavor, juiciness and tenderness; they described our steak as the most buttery-tasting steak that anyone had ever tasted,” Munson shared. “After that, we started to consider opening up a restaurant; because everyone wanted our steaks, but they didn’t want the other 66 percent of the steer that is not gourmet steaks.”
Munson’s Prime Restaurant
Serving meat themselves had never been part of the Munson tradition, but Munson was determined to find a way to use the other two-thirds of the cattle meat, she said.
Coming out of retirement, Munson embarked down a new path in 2014: opening Munson’s Prime Restaurant in Junction City. At the restaurant, she prepared the Angus beef in a number of dishes — spaghetti, tacos, hamburgers and country-fried steak.
Munson found, however, that no matter the cost of gourmet steak, people would still order the popular menu item, she recalled.
Less than a decade later, Munson’s Prime Restaurant was lost to fire.
“The whole restaurant burned in an hour’s time,” Munson said, noting that she believes the 2021 blaze was arson, but said private investigators and the state fire marshal have identified it as undetermined. “It was an intense fire at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Buying the Brookville Hotel
Around the same time as the fire, a restaurant just a few towns over from Junction City landed on the market. The Martin family had owned The Brookville Hotel since 1870 — just one year after Munson’s legacy began — and closed the restaurant in 2020 because of a tourism drought and hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Twenty-plus years before its shuttering, the Martin family moved The Brookville Hotel from Brookfield, Kansas, to Abilene, Kansas, in 1999. The restaurant was known for its family-style, fried chicken dinners and won a distinguished James Beard Award in the American Classics category in 2007.
The Munsons purchased The Brookville Hotel earlier this year and are preparing to officially launch Legacy Kansas — a restaurant that honors stories of both the Munson and Martin families, Munson said. (Legacy Kansas is currently only open by reservation.)
“It feels truly wonderful to serve people again,” Munson said. “People are coming to eat the fried chicken and country fried steak and really enjoying it. Soon, we will be able to serve our gourmet steaks and burgers as well.”
To make a reservation to Legacy Kansas, call (785) 200-3973.
Searching for staff
Although Munson has previous experience as a restauranteur, Legacy Kansas brings a completely different set of challenges, she admitted.
“When we opened Munson’s Prime in Junction [City], we had to establish our customer base; because people knew the meat was great, but we had never opened a restaurant before,” she explained. “We worked for years to have a full menu that would attract a variety of people. With this endeavor, people already know The Brookside Hotel as a restaurant. It has a reputation.”
Her biggest challenge now: staffing.
“We have to hire enough staff to meet the demand,” Munson said. “That’s why we are reservation only. We’ve had to turn so many people away because I don’t want the employees to be understaffed and the service to be poor.”
Legacy Kansas is unable to serve its planned gourmet Munson steak until it finds a knowledgeable and talented steak chef, she added.
“We use a very unique grill — it comes out of Mesquite, Texas, and is a custom-made, wood-burning grill. It’s humongous,” Munson said, noting the apparatus adds to the quality of the steak. “That grill is difficult to cook on because you can’t turn the temperature up and down. We need a chef who understands how to get the steak medium rare or medium or however the customer wants it on our grill.”
Once Legacy Kansas is fully-staffed — Munson is hoping by the end of 2022 — customers will be able to walk in to eat and watch their steak being cooked on the grill through a glass wall.
Entrepreneurship is about taking risks and pivoting when circumstances get difficult, Munson added, with her husband and son nodding alongside her, but she enjoys the journey, she said.
“It’s so fun,” Munson shared, smiling. “It’s challenging, I will say that. But the feeling of success is very, very rewarding. It sure beats retiring and sitting on a recliner!”
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.