Longtime gourmet burger restaurant gets makeover after dispute with city plays part in ownership change

photo by: Chad Lawhorn

Dempsey's Burger Pub at 623 Vermont St. is under new ownership, and recently reopened after being closed for remodeling. It is pictured Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.

Pergolas have always confused me. I build a patio with a leaky roof, and people call me an awful carpenter. You build a pergola, and people praise you as an artistic landscaper. Whatever the case may be, a disputed pergola oddly has opened up a new set of opportunities for a pair of Lawrence restaurant owners.

Some of you had asked recently whether Dempsey’s Burger Pub at 623 Vermont St. had closed. Well, it had, but only for a remodeling project led by a new pair of owners for the restaurant. Longtime Lawrence bar and restaurant owner Steve Gaudreau told me he sold the restaurant after he got in a dispute with the city over a pergola — others have called it more of a canopy — that he built over an outdoor patio at the restaurant. After court proceedings involving code violations, Gaudreau tore down the structure last summer.

photo by: Contributed photo

A canopy structure over the patio at Dempsey’s Burger Pub, 623 Vermont St., is shown in this photo from 2017.

“That was it,” Gaudreau told me recently. “After that, I just wanted to be out of Lawrence. I will not open another business in Lawrence.”

The new owners of the restaurant, though, aren’t focused on any beef with the city. They are focused on the beef of gourmet hamburgers.

“We are working to prove that we have the best burger in town,” said Tom Sorrentino, who owns the restaurant and pub with his brother Pete Sorrentino.

For the last five years, the Sorrentino brothers have been running the college bar Bullwinkles at 1344 Tennessee St. When they heard Gaudreau was ready for a change, they saw it as an opportunity to get into the restaurant business.

One of the best parts about the deal was that the restaurant came with an already really good menu, Tom said. The business just needed a major overhaul in terms of its interior space and its kitchen. The menu, though, has remained the same.

The remodeling has involved new flooring, new tables, new wall coverings and a “ton of money” in the kitchen, Tom said.

“Everything just needed a little bit of love,” he said. “We want people to understand that everything is clean and fresh.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

A major remodel of the interior was part of the project undertaken by the new owners of Dempsey’s Burger Pub at 623 Vermont Street.

As for the menu, the egg burger — which features a fried egg, bacon and Swiss cheese on top of a beef patty — remains one of the most popular offerings, and the Thai P.B.B., which includes a Thai peanut sauce, pineapple chutney, cilantro, bacon and a Sriracha aioli, continues to be one of the most unique burger offerings, Tom said.

The menu is scheduled to get one notable addition next month. Sorrentino said he and his brother do think the menu is a lacking a chicken offering, so a hot, Nashville-style chicken sandwich is in the offing.

But other than that, the brother duo is going to focus on the little things involved in building a successful restaurant and bar business in Lawrence. The pair continues to operate Bullwinkles.

“We feel like Dempsey’s really has been part of the fabric of downtown for a long time,” Sorrentino said, noting the restaurant has been open about 10 years. “We want to be a part of it.”

Some of you may remember that Gaudreau was in the process of creating a bit of a regional chain with the Dempsey’s brand and an offshoot of the Quinton’s brand, including locations in Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. He told me this week he’s also decided to scale that back. He’s either closed or sold all of his restaurants, except for two Dempsey’s Burger Pubs in Wichita and one Dempsey’s Biscuit Company in Wichita. The sale of the Lawrence Dempsey’s marks the end of Gaudreau’s involvement in the Lawrence bar and restaurant industry, which he had been in since 1991.

Gaudreau previously owned Quinton’s Bar and Deli in downtown Lawrence but sold it in 2016. This week, Gaudreau told me he sold that business after he got in a dispute with the city over occupancy levels for the bar and grill’s back patio area.

As for this whole pergola dispute, there has been a lot of legal back and forth on that issue, which probably isn’t worth getting into here. What we have previously reported, though, is the city found code violations, including not getting a building permit prior to construction. City officials also expressed concern that the canopy-like structure, which was built out of wood, created a hazard that could allow fire to spread between two downtown buildings.

Gaudreau has different ideas about that, but this week said he thought maybe everything had worked out for the best.

“I think we are all better off,” Gaudreau said. “They (the city) didn’t want me here, and I didn’t want to be here anymore. The new owners are young and hardworking and they’ve done a great job.”

I gave city officials a chance to comment on some of the critical comments by Gaudreau, but it also didn’t want to get into a back-and-forth on the issue.

“The city is pleased that the property owner brought the property into compliance,” city spokesman Porter Arneill said via e-mail. “The city is dedicated to public safety and the consistent and equitable application of the city’s rules and regulations.”

photo by: Courtesy: Dempsey’s

A mushroom and Swiss burger at Dempsey’s Burger Pub in Downtown Lawrence.

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