Lawrence Restaurant Week to showcase unique dishes from more than 40 restaurants; event runs from Jan. 19 through Jan. 29
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World
Lawrence Restaurant Week kicks off Thursday, and that means limited-time menus and unique dishes will be popping up at restaurants all over the city.
The annual showcase lasts 10 days and includes more than 40 restaurants that will be serving new, special dishes alongside their usual offerings. It’s intended to appeal to adventurous people who want to try something different, as well as people who just want a good deal on some of their favorite local fare, said Kim Anspach, executive director of Explore Lawrence, the city’s visitors bureau.
“You have people like Merchants offering this four-course, lovely, curated menu, but then you also have JB’s Cali-fusion, the new pop-up taco stand over on Vermont Street, that’s just open a few hours, and they’re doing something very simple, takeaway,” Anspach said. “It’s fun and it’s different. There’s something for every price point and every taste.”
The original idea for Restaurant Week came from the Lawrence Restaurant Association, and the event was confined to the downtown area in its first few years. Since then, the association has partnered with Explore Lawrence to broaden the scope of the event to the entire city and expand its advertising to attract people from outside of Lawrence, too, Anspach said. In addition to traditional media outlets, she said Instagram and TikTok have been used to promote this year’s event.
Restaurant Week isn’t just about trying new dishes and new establishments — it’s also about bolstering the local economy by giving restaurants more business during a slow time of the year, Anspach said.
“January is usually kind of a slow month for everyone in town,” Anspach said. “People are hunkered down in the cold, so we really want to make a reason for people to come and eat out and make sure that the restaurants are staying busy all year.”
Food and drinking establishments generated $3.1 million, or 12%, of Lawrence’s sales tax revenues in 2021, according to the city’s sales and use tax report, and the food preparation and service industry employed 5,390 workers, or 11.8% of Lawrence’s total workforce, in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Anspach cited a 2020 report from Tourism Economics that said a third of the money spent by tourists in Lawrence is spent on food.
But restaurants aren’t just vital to Lawrence’s economy, Anspach said — they’re also integral to its culture.
“Lawrence’s food culture is really unique in our region, and we are so lucky with our food scene,” Anspach said. “You might call us ‘foodies,’ but we just like good food.”
Restaurant Week also shows a side of Lawrence’s food culture that’s not as obvious, Anspach said — the spirit of cooperation among many of the city’s restaurant owners and workers. She said that teamwork helped local restaurants get through the COVID-19 pandemic, and that this attitude continues to make Lawrence’s restaurant scene feel unique and vibrant.
“I think it’s something that a customer might not even know, but it permeates the restaurant culture so much that they can feel it,” Anspach said. “The sense of collaboration and partnership that all of the restaurants have for each other … They really want all the restaurants to survive.
“They don’t care if someone new is coming to town,” she said. “… They really have this spirit of ‘let’s make a foodie culture in Lawrence,’ as opposed to ‘my restaurant is the only one I care about.'”
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World
It’s this spirit of collaboration that Laura Klein loves about the restaurant industry. Klein is co-owner of Mass St. Fish House and Raw Bar and secretary of the Lawrence Restaurant Association’s board.
“One of the really beautiful things about the restaurant industry is that it’s not as homogeneous of a work environment as a lot of work environments,” Klein said. “There are a lot of different types of people that work in restaurants, and everyone’s working together every night for a common cause, which is a good service. It’s a really cooperative working environment, and I just really love all of those things.
“I also think, specifically, working in the hospitality industry in Lawrence is really lovely because it’s just a really big, beautiful community,” she said. “And people in the community really value their local restaurants and their hospitality workers.”
Klein said many local restaurants are highly conscious of their role in the community, and that extends to their relationships with local and regional farmers. Because her restaurant focuses on seafood, Klein has to rely on some ingredients from far away — the oysters come from the West Coast, for instance — but she makes a point to include Kansas farmers’ products where she can.
“When opening this restaurant, one thing that was really at the center of our mind was we want to be able to bring the best that we can from either coast, but we also wanted to have relationships with local farmers and complement the best of what the coast has to offer with the best of what we feel like Kansas has to offer,” Klein said.
It’s this unique, local flair that gets out-of-towners to stick around Lawrence for a while, rather than visiting just for an event like a football or basketball game, Klein said.
“Time and time again, Lawrence, Mass. Street specifically, has been listed as one of Kansas’ largest tourist destinations, and I think that’s something that we really need to build on, not something we can take for granted,” she said. “The local businesses that make it an attraction really are like the backbone.”
For Restaurant Week, Klein said she is excited to try as many unique dishes from her fellow restaurateurs as she can.
“I am looking forward to hopefully meeting some new people, seeing some new faces that I haven’t seen before,” Klein said. “I’m really looking forward to trying out some menus from some of my favorite restaurants. I just love the celebration of it. You know, I love doing something a little bit different and getting excited and putting on our best.”
Restaurant Week runs from Jan. 19 through Jan. 29. Participating restaurants and their menus can be found at explorelawrence.com/lawrence-restaurant-week.
A benefit for local hospitality workers
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World
When you try the special offerings for Restaurant Week this year, you’ll also be helping a fund that assists hospitality workers with health care, transportation, child care and more.
K Meisel, co-owner of Leeway Franks Restaurant and Butcher Shop and the treasurer of the Lawrence Restaurant Association, said this year’s Restaurant Week participants are being asked to donate 5% of the proceeds from their special menu items to the Hospitality Workers Relief Fund.
Meisel said the fund, which is overseen by the Lawrence Restaurant Association, was established in 2020 as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic using $240,000 in federal relief funds and private donations. After that, the fund distributed money to more than 700 local hospitality workers, Meisel said.
“It was $500 grant payments to individuals that just had to provide a pay stub and a little bit of information,” Meisel said. “The turnaround was pretty quick there. We were able to get over $240,000 into workers’ hands in a very quick amount of time.”
After the federal dollars were gone and restaurants began to reopen, the association wanted a way to continue helping hospitality workers, Meisel said. It also wanted to provide more than just cash payments, focusing instead on deeper issues like transportation, health care and child care needs that can cause financial hardship or even force people to leave the workforce entirely.
“What’s keeping people from being able to work or stay in the workforce?” Meisel said. “How do we address that so that people can maintain their employment and their financial stability?”
To do that, the Hospitality Workers Relief Fund has partnered with a number of local social service agencies, including the Douglas County Community Foundation, The Ballard Center, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Centro Hispano, and Heartland Community Health Center. Meisel said the Douglas County Community Foundation directs the money to the other agencies, who use it to help meet hospitality workers’ needs.
Meisel said the fund has already helped people in need of insulin and dental services, and that it recently assisted a worker in getting a visa to remain in the United States. Any food service worker in Lawrence can access the funds and services from the Lawrence Restaurant Association’s partners, even if they work for a restaurant that isn’t a member of the association, Meisel said. If you have worked in the hospitality industry for a few months, earn less than about $35,000 a year and can show that you have a need for the services that the partner agencies provide, you can apply for assistance; see lawrencerestaurantassociation.com/industry for more information.
“It’s really open to anyone in the hospitality industry,” Meisel said. “They do not have to work for a local independent business. They could work for a chain or whomever, just that they’re hospitality workers. The intention is to provide support during times of economic hardship. We all face economic hardship at various times. And we know that having a support network can help those people stay on their feet or get back on their feet and remain in the workforce.”
Restaurant Week proceeds aren’t the only fundraiser for the Hospitality Workers’ Relief Fund, Meisel said. Last October, the Lawrence Restaurant Association held a “Cocktail Trail” fundraiser, in which restaurants and bars sold special cocktails to raise money for the fund. The association is also holding an additional benefit event alongside the Restaurant Week deals: a raffle for a four-course dinner for six at Mass St. Fish House and Raw Bar. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased on the restaurant association’s website during Restaurant Week.