Archive for Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Little Italy: Basil Leaf Café serves big food from out of a tiny kitchen in a gas station

Chef Bradley Walters preps up a stove full of pasta dishes at The Basil Leaf Café, 3300 W. Sixth St.

Chef Bradley Walters preps up a stove full of pasta dishes at The Basil Leaf Café, 3300 W. Sixth St.

January 20, 2010


The Basil Leaf Café is the most recent restaurant to occupy the Phillips 66 Gas Station.

The Basil Leaf Café is the most recent restaurant to occupy the Phillips 66 Gas Station.

Joann Falkenstein enjoys a pasta dish at The Basil Leaf Café.

Joann Falkenstein enjoys a pasta dish at The Basil Leaf Café.

From left, Jason Carter, looks over the tickets as Chef Bradley Walters puts the finishing touches on a to-go meal at The Basil Leaf Café, 3300 W. Sixth St. It’s run by Carter and Chef Walters, and serves up an Italian-style cuisine with a twist.

From left, Jason Carter, looks over the tickets as Chef Bradley Walters puts the finishing touches on a to-go meal at The Basil Leaf Café, 3300 W. Sixth St. It’s run by Carter and Chef Walters, and serves up an Italian-style cuisine with a twist.

There are many places in Lawrence perfect for pumping gas. And most of them serve up something edible. But if your stomach craves a fill-up on the fancy side of the typical gas-n-go type fare, there's only one place in Lawrence to leave with both your tummy and tank topped off: Phillips 66 Gas Station at 3300 W. Sixth St.

Or, more specifically, the restaurant inside: Basil Leaf Café. Just a handful of tables and a closet-sized kitchen, the cozy Basil Leaf is serving up high-quality Italian food in the strangest of boxes.

Of course, chef Bradley Walters says his dream wasn't to open up a restaurant in a gas station. But getting started in this economy meant thinking small, in this case, really small: five tables.

"My dream's to be in Mass. Street but it's hard to find a place you don't have to dump a quarter of a million dollars into (it to) get going," says Walters, who co-owns the Basil Leaf with Jason Carter. "So, this came along and we were just like, it's a good opportunity, the overhead's low, it seems like it's launched a few establishments around town already, so maybe it'll be what we need to jump in, get our feet wet, start small, learn the ropes of opening a small business and then grow and go on from there."

Restaurant incubator

Indeed, the pocket-sized space has been the springboard for some popular locally owned restaurants in Lawrence. In the past five years, both Tortas Jalisco and Biemer's BBQ have moved from the gas station space into larger, free-standing restaurants at 534 Frontier Road and 2120 W. Ninth St., respectively.

Biemer's owner Jim Biemick, says he decided to use the gas station as a jumping-off point between his former mobile catering business and a big restaurant. He says building up a client base at the gas station was integral to the success he's had in his new restaurant, which opened in September 2008.

"Mine was just a stair-step, instead of just jumping into a big building and saying, 'God, I hope this works,'" he says, adding that starting small did, indeed, end up working for him. "The customers I had there at the gas station, I'd say 95 percent of them followed me, and the 5 percent that didn't, they lived at Boardwalk (Apartments nearby) and they walked to and from every place and this is a little further to walk."

After Biemick moved, he left open a space that the gas station's newly minted landlords, Shawnee eye doctors Marc Whitacre and Erica Farmer, leased to previous renter Angel Alvarez for an off-shoot of his restaurant Tortas Jalisco, which is located just behind the station. Alvarez eventually decided to fold the short-lived satellite operation, and the landlords chose to take their time to fill the space - avoiding suitors who didn't seem totally committed or who were interested in serving concession stand-style fast food.

"It's not that we weren't ... totally opposed to that, it's just that we were hoping to kind of team up with someone who was a little bit more professional and had a lot of experience behind him and that kind of thing and Brad, definitely has," Farmer says. "It's kind of amazing to me to walk in there at 7 or 8 o'clock at night and see him in a chef's outfit in a convenience store."

Basil Leaf Cafe co-owner and cook Bradley Walters demonstrates cooking one of their dishes

Enlarge video


And unless you use the drive-thru, if you patronize Basil Leaf, you'll probably get more than a glimpse of Walters in his chef's coat. He often goes out to tables, talking with the customers and getting a point of view - the customers' - that Carter says they never were able to get while working back in the kitchen of big restaurants. (The pair met while working at the former J.B. Stout's in west Lawrence.)

"Here, it's real personal and they really speak their mind about it, a lot of them do," Carter says. "Some people might come in every day (at J.B. Stout's), but we never know that in a big place. But here, we've had people three times in one day. And you know they definitely love it. And new people, we'll get one day and the next day they'll be back."

And those repeat customers aren't eating just the same old, same old pasta with red sauce, because for what the Basil Leaf lacks in physical size or fanciness, it makes up for in a menu that includes everything from breakfast lasagna to warm red cabbage salad to more than a dozen complex pasta dishes, including handmade specials such as gnocchi.

Repeat customer Danny Williams likes to describe the Basil Leaf to friends this way: "I like to tell them that it is incredibly delicious and creative Italian and breakfast cuisine that will lead you to believe you have just left an exquisite restaurant not just a little location inside of a gas station."

Walters and Carter, both career restaurant folks with 35 years combined experience, manage to also make made-to-order food for customers with special dietary needs, as well as cater large events out of the little space that seems more like Mary Poppins' bag than a commercial kitchen.

One event the team has done was an end-of-season banquet for the Lawrence High girls' volleyball team.

"The food was amazing, the portions were generous, and Brad himself came to the school and set everything up for us," says volleyball coach Stephanie Magnuson. "We chose macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken alfredo, salad and breadsticks. All of it was a hit."

The Basil Leaf has been so popular with customers Megan Boyd and Kandy Jones, that both have put up the menu in the break rooms at work and urged coworkers and family to drive there, which for Jones means from Lee's Summit, Mo. Customer Christopher Watts goes a step further, making a point of picking it up for business meetings and surprising the uninitiated.

"The Basil Leaf is really interesting and I'm a foodie," Watts says. "I'll spend a lot of money on the meal, but to have this, kind of like Italian fusion comfort food ... we're really pleased that he's there."


flux 8 years, 1 month ago

Been there twice, food was good and portions were large. That little place seems to breed good lawrence restaurants

cowboy 8 years, 1 month ago

A private sector business incubator ! Good Luck !

If this is not a testament to what a business incubator district can actually achieve , then I just don't know.

suzy 8 years, 1 month ago

Awesome food and great service! Keep up the good work Brad!

lilyanne 8 years, 1 month ago

To die for Basil Chicken Cavatelli and Tortellini Cordon Bleu.... Might have to try the Warm cabbage Salad today!!!! Makes me hungry thinking about it.

cntrygrl 8 years, 1 month ago

I went to school with Brad. It's nice to see that he's doing so well!

rkjmdew 8 years, 1 month ago

Try the soups too, they are so good.

oliveoyl 8 years, 1 month ago

Bambinos is a bland mess!!! I agree with Informed! Pizza Hut pasta is better than Bambinos.
I'm excited to try Basil Leaf out and see what it has to offer!

tolawdjk 8 years, 1 month ago

Bambinos and "good" should never be used in the same sentence. I'm not sure that place owns a pasta strainer. The last time I was there (-years- ago) the pasta was the consistency of babyfood.

lilyanne 8 years, 1 month ago

That would be so exciting for that show to come to Lawrence!!!! Awesome for Basil Leaf and the Community!!!

shotgun 8 years, 1 month ago

Kufungurl, You don't know what fun is if you like Bambino's! You need to have your date take you to a real italian restaurant. Hint: You won't find one in Lawrence.

LA_Ex 8 years, 1 month ago

I've eaten there several times. By far the best Italian food in the whole area. The breakfast served there is wonderful too. I agree, it is the perfect type of restaurant for Dinners, Drive-ins and Dives. I think I will forward this article to him at Food Network. Hopefully others here will do the same. Chef Walters is filling a niche that is missing in Lawrence.

beawolf 8 years, 1 month ago

I must try the Basil Leaf. Speaking of Italian, I've never been to Bambino's but I have noticed the parking lot is always empty. I've been to Paisano's and it wasn't bad, not great, but the marinara sauce was tasty and the pasta was cooked firm the way I like it (Olive Garden comes to mind). That said, my wife is an excellent Italian cook and we would like to sample some other establishments to compare and get ideas). Any recommendations from the KC area? We are fairly new to the area,

Rae Hudspeth 8 years, 1 month ago

Breakfast Lasagna has me intrigued, I don't care if it's not authentic Italian. Opinions on that differ depending on what region you like. I'd love to find a good Bolognese sauce myself, but no one will hold a candle to my Uncle Vinnie.

shotgun 8 years, 1 month ago


Garozzo's Go to the KC City Market location.

Thinking_Out_Loud 8 years, 1 month ago

True that, shotgun. Garozzo's Spiedini with diavolo is one of my favorites.

3ofClubs 8 years, 1 month ago

Not sure if anyone else noticed in the video, but where I work, if we handled food (cooked OR uncooked) with our bare hands, we'd be closed down by the State!

We always wear gloves - we're required to. Plus hats or hairnets, I might add.

Jüstin Mössman 8 years, 1 month ago

the food at their place is FANTASTIC! have the tiramisu and the bananas foster bread pudding it is great!

OldEnuf2BYurDad 8 years, 1 month ago

I love this kind of entrepreneurship!! Gotta try this!

LA_Ex 8 years, 1 month ago

3ofClubs, most restaurants do that because they have numerous employees and it's the easy way for the management to keep a handle on cleanliness. Since he is chef/owner/operator, he's probably able to keep a handle on that. He looked rather professional with his white coat and hair tied back in the demonstration video. BTW, we ate there again Wednesday night and the line was almost out the door! Hopefully business keeps up like that for him.

livetocook 8 years ago

Congrats Chef and Jason! I am very excited to see your business grow. All of the blood, sweat, and burns have paid-off.

livetocook 8 years ago

3ofClubs- The Dept. of Health and Environment would not shut a restaurant down for contact with RTE food. (Ready To Eat). They would ask them to comply and correct the violation on site.

It would take numerous critical violations to shut down a restaurant or one major violation such as no running water for hand washing, sanitizer, etc..

lilyanne 8 years ago

LJWorld just twittered they are looking for suggestions for Diners, Drive-ins & Dives and I voted for the The Basil Leaf Cafe!!!! Hope everyone else does too!!!!

sustainabilitysister 8 years ago

I can't wait to come back to Lawrence and check out the Basil Leaf Cafe!

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