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Banking on KC – Chris Lewellen

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Chris Lewellen, the president of The Well Bar, Grill and Rooftop, Lew's Grill & Bar, Charlie Hooper's Bar & Grille. And he's also an active real estate investor. But most important, Chris and his brother, Andy work every day, like their father, the late Bob Lewellen to create community in Kansas City. Welcome Chris.

Chris Lewellen:

Thanks for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

Your dad, former Kansas City, Councilman Bob Lewellen is well-known throughout the community for his civic service and engagement yet he was also a very successful entrepreneur. And some of his entrepreneurial activities were first in Kansas City. Tell us about some of his endeavors and how they ultimately impacted your entrepreneurial journey?

Chris Lewellen:

Most people in Kansas City kind of knew my dad under one hat. He had two hats, really. He had a civic hat that he did, that was probably the back end of his life, that he dedicated his life to Kansas City and its citizens. In order for him to do that, he had to make a lot of money when he was younger and that's his entrepreneurial spirit. And that's where he did a lot of first. His biggest claim to fame is that with his business partner, Jimmy Block from Block & Company, they brought the first Pizza Hut and the first Taco Bell franchise to Kansas City in the early 70s. And you think about that and think, well, those were just slammed dunks. But a lot of your listeners probably don't know that pizza in the early 70s, was only available in the Midwest at Italian restaurants.

Chris Lewellen:

So you would walk into an Italian restaurant and they'd have pizza as an appetizer, and that's pretty much your exposure to pizza here. So there was a long educational curve in Kansas City on trying to get people to eat pizza as a main meal. I mean, it's just unheard of. If you think about it right now, pizza is such a big part of our lives right now, but that's why he was first. He was on the cutting edge of that. He had a handshake deal from the franchisor out of Wichita. They were still selling pizzas out of their basement. It was a quarter per pizza and that's what he paid. The first Pizza Hut in Kansas City was at 39 in State Line. It's right next to the old Jimmy's Jigger. Also interesting too is once the Pizza Huts were expanded, he signed an agreement with Taco Bell, which was mainly based in the southwest United States.

Chris Lewellen:

We brought it here and it did very, very successful during the summertime because it had great outdoor seating. Well, it got cold in Kansas City,

Kelly Scanlon:

Sure did.

Chris Lewellen:

And no one wanted tacos when it was snowing. So he actually enclosed the first Taco Bell ever in the world, right at Linwood and Maine. And Taco Bell liked it so much that they use that prototype on the way that they sat their customers in the colder areas and mimicked his ideas. And so it really went from a franchise that was only popular in the Southwest to now it was attainable all over the United States.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. I'm dating myself here. I remember when Taco Bell came to Kansas City and the first one that I went to with my mom and dad and my sisters was over off of 71 highway in Grandview. And I remember my dad just thinking it was the oddest thing to go to a restaurant and get tacos. So yeah, like you said, they seem like every day food now, but back then it was something new. It was very different to be introducing these food concepts to the Kansas City area.

Chris Lewellen:

My dad was an ultimate marketer and we would go to Royals games, of course he take us to the games, but he was always working at the same time. It's kind of like a theme I have done in my life too. But he takes us all to the Royals game and he would dress up at Pizza Pete, which was the costume for the Pizza Hut guy. And he would walk around and hand free pizzas, coupons to anyone and everyone at Royals stadium. They'd give away thousands of them during the game. And very few people would ever come in and actually utilize them because they still didn't quite understand what pizza was at the time.

Chris Lewellen:

So he was always promoting himself. And as I said, I loved hanging out with my dad. He wasn't a traditional father in a sense that he wasn't out due to some of his handiapable stuff that he had that limited him and athletically. He wasn't that dad that came out and threw the ball with us and played basketball and stuff. But we for sure spent a lot of quality time together. And a lot of it was going to work with him.

Kelly Scanlon:

And probably the car rides between restaurants. And you got to spend a lot of windshield time with him.

Chris Lewellen:

Oh yeah. Just, now that I'm in the restaurant business, I feel my dad's pain now, but guests where me and my brothers wanted to eat every time we went out with him? We never wanted to eat at Taco Bell or Pizza Hut. I mean, we were sick of those things. We'd always want to eat at his competitors. [inaudible 00:04:55] go to McDonald's. And so he would bounce around. He owned and operated over 60 restaurants in the greater Kansas City area at one time. And we would go for pizza, taco, pizza, Taco Bell, and then he'd have to go through the drive-through at McDonald's, his competitor because we were sick of his food and my kids do the same thing.

Kelly Scanlon:

What inspired you? Was it your dad's influence that led you into the restaurant business yourself?

Chris Lewellen:

I always say to my friends, to not leave out my mom. My dad gave me my entrepreneurial spirit, the risk taking, but I really learned a lot of my business sense from my mother. She owned and operated a retail store here around Kansas City and Springfield, Missouri. It was called Merle Harmon's Fan Fair. And once again, going on the list of first, we were the first retail store to offer Chiefs and Royals in Missouri and Kansas athletic gear outside the bookstores or the stadiums. I mean, once again, think about it. Do you imagine a world when in 1985, when the Royals won the world series, you had three places in town to buy a world series gear. You could go to the stadium, you could go to, I think it was Sears or you went to one of our stores. That was it. And so once again, we were kind of, our family was kind of on the cutting edge of the license work and ultimately we did sell or close most of them, but that's where I learned a lot of my business sense was from my mom.

Chris Lewellen:

The restaurant side of it, I never worked in a restaurant in my life. I was always been a customer even to the first day that we opened up our business. But I just think that I wanted to find something that I was good at and something that I could make my own decisions and be my own boss. And ultimately through trial and error, my brother and I figured out that maybe we'd want to open up a little sports bar called Lew's in Waldo and just kind of try our hat at that one.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, you just mentioned, you'd never worked in a restaurant before, that you have other entrepreneurial endeavors that you pursue.

Chris Lewellen:

Yeah. So let me clarify a little bit. I worked in the restaurant for the first three or four years. Ironically, we hired a consultant to help us hire a kitchen and a general manager and stuff. But Andy and I worked as the managers while we hired a general manager. So technically him and I were learning the business and we were working for the general manager, technically, even though we were the owners and we learned the business. The business isn't rocket science, its hard work making common, good business decisions. And after about three or four years, I had figured out the systems and stuff and Andy and I wanted to grow in multiple locations.

Chris Lewellen:

And so at that point, I stepped away from the restaurants on a day-to-day basis when it comes to actually managing. And so I kind of took more of the CEO role whereas Andy took the COO role where he is in the restaurants each day, making sure that the general managers and the staff are all working together, but I'm more behind the scenes now financially and doing the marketing, et cetera. But the restaurants aren't everything for Andy and I. The restaurants are a cashflow to then invest into commercial real estate. What we do is we take the excess profits each year and reinvest it back in commercial real estate. And we do it a lot of different ways. We own several pieces of real estate in Waldo over the last 10 or 15 years that have appreciated very, very well. As well as across greater Kansas City area. So that's the big play for us, is commercial real estate.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talking bout the restaurants though, obviously they're making you money. They're very successful from a financial standpoint, but I think a lot of people here in the community would say that they're successful in another very important way. They have become icons in the Waldo, Brookside neighborhoods where they're located. And they're known as more than just a place to go and have a meal. They've also become neighborhood gathering places. And you fostered that to a certain extent. And I know that's the same way your dad was too. He was all about community. Why is fostering that community atmosphere so important to you and your brother?

Chris Lewellen:

It's a life lesson that we apply to business is that, you can't just take all the time in life. I don't think there's really good synergy in that and that you have to give in order to receive. I mean, I think in my philosophy, and I think that the neighborhoods appreciate it. One of the dynamics that really separates Andy and I in the restaurant business in the Waldo, Brookside area is that we actually live in the Brookside, Waldo area. Our kids go to school in the area. We go to the grocery store just like our customers in the same places. We go to the same drug stores.

Chris Lewellen:

I truly take pride in our neighborhood. And so I want our restaurants to be ultimately a reflection of our family, but also a reflection of the place where my kids are growing up. I want my kids to go to school and have their friends say, God, I went to your restaurant. We really liked it. That's important to me. So that's one of the things I think is a key to us. But we also too, we give and we donate to practically, if you're a 501C3 and you're within a three or four mile radius of our place, you're on the list that we're pretty much rubber stamping, anything that you're asking for us within reason and as well as some national charities. But once again, it's kind of like a circular motion. You're just giving and you're receiving and that's what a good community does.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. And it sounds like with you talking about how you actually live in the area where you're in the neighborhood, where your restaurants are located, like you shop in the grocery stores in the neighborhood and conduct other business there in the neighborhood. That the restaurants are almost an extension of your living room, or your backyard porch. Everybody just comes and there's a lot of problem solving that goes on there probably among neighbors and sharing of information about kids and families. And it's just a, it's a gathering place.

Chris Lewellen:

It truly is. And one of the things, especially in Waldo, if you look back 17 or 18 years ago, when we first opened up our first concept, we truly believe that Lew's and I think if you ask around in the Waldo neighborhood on neutral parties would admit, that we kind of spurred a growth in Waldo about 18 years ago. And we invested in Waldo because I knew that neighborhood was on the upswing.

Chris Lewellen:

And upon the success of Lew's, our competition in Waldo started remodeling their restaurants. They started putting brand new televisions in. We started getting new competitors coming in town or from around town that had more money and were investing more in Waldo. And then at one point we decided, you know, we've got enough sports bars in Waldo, let's open up a little bit a nicer place with some outdoor seating. And that's when we invested in The Well, and it proved that Waldo was more affluent than I think what the businesses around here were being recognized. And once we open up The Well, it opened up a flood gate of other businesses that have told me over the years that if it wasn't for The Well, they wouldn't have looked at Waldo. So those are the things that I take pride in, in transforming it. Because we were true neighborhood leaders in the extent that we're ambassadors to our neighborhood.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, you were the catalyst for a lot of small business growth there in that area. Given the ringside seat that you had growing up with your dad, because he's a councilmen, he ran for mayor, he was on several boards, very prominent boards, he was an entrepreneur. And you had a ringside seat to all of this. He was such an activist and such an enthusiastic promoter of all that is Kansas City. Given that, where do you think sitting where you are right now, the next opportunities lie for our city?

Chris Lewellen:

It's a good question. I kind of take that question on a couple of different levels. As a citizen of Kansas City, Missouri my whole life, I am kind of torn. I just love the fact that we're kind of a hidden gem across the country, that if we don't bang a drum too loud, we kind of got something going here that's kind of secret. It's just Kansas City's just got that it factor, especially to raise a family. But then my other side of it says that we need to grow. And I'd sure like to see larger projects, for instance, when is the hockey or the NBA team supposed to be coming? I'd love to see that. Another asset we have in Kansas City is our riverfront. And I know we're doing a lot of progress there over the last 10 years, the port authorities doing a fantastic job.

Chris Lewellen:

Another hidden thing I think we have is we've got a lot of potential north of the river in the Kansas City, Missouri side. There's a lot of land. There's a lot of opportunity for people to move up there and businesses to grow. But for selfish reasons, I'm looking at in my neighborhood, what could happen in the next 10 to 20 years? And I'd sure like to see the continuation of growth on Troost, it's really coming back. And I'd like to see that move south, especially around the landing, which we have an investment in, in beyond. And also too selfishly for the Waldo area, Waldo 75th Street to Brookside has been developing incredible. But it's been stagnant south for 77th Street. Those are the kinds of things that I think of every day, big picture and small.

Kelly Scanlon:

You had such a role model in your parents as you were growing up, and I'm sure that you learned so much from them. In fact, you've said that you have. So I'm going to twist that around a little bit and ask you what is the most surprising thing that you've learned about yourself as a business person?

Chris Lewellen:

I take my business as a reflection of me personally, in my name, in my family's name. So everything that I do, I want to make sure that I'm proud of the business first and then making money second. So for instance, if there's a decision to be made in one of our businesses on, should we cut a corner or not? I always think about it. This is just a reflection of me. And so of course we don't cut that corner. So that's one of the things I never thought of, of taking ownership of the business.

Chris Lewellen:

And then also too, people thank us, if you can believe it, for our businesses. Appreciate this and it's like, for instance, the most shocking thing to date about eight years ago when we purchased Charlie Hooper's from the original owner, it was losing money and they were cutting a lot of corners there. And Andy and I came in and within a few months, had turned that place around and the customers came in and just said, thank you. Thank you for turning our neighborhood restaurant around. We were worried about it. It was like a sick child that they had and we came in and fixed it. And so they appreciated that. That made me feel good. That's more, besides making a profit, that comes a close second.

Kelly Scanlon:

Chris, thank you so much for taking the time to be a guest on Banking on KC today. We appreciate everything that your dad, and you, and your brother, your entire family have done to make Kansas City a better place and to create community among everybody here. Thanks so much.

Chris Lewellen:

Thank you.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Chris Lewellen for being our guests on this episode of Banking on KC. Besides leaving their entrepreneurial influence on Kansas City, the Lewellen family has a decades long legacy of building community. Chris's father, the late Kansas City, Councilman Bob Lewellen, worked to raise Kansas City's profile locally and nationally. Chris and his brother, Andy continued that legacy. Their restaurants are well-known gathering spots in the Waldo and Brookside neighborhoods. They're are places where people come to enjoy fellowship and conversation along with their food and drink. Neighborhoods are the bedrock of any community. Each neighborhood is a reflection of the larger city. As our Kansas City neighborhoods grow stronger from east to west, north to south, Waldo to Brookside, so does the larger Metro that we all call home. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.