Longtime Lawrence restaurant owner weighs options as convenience store plan looms over shopping center
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World Photo
The future of Lawrence’s longtime Italian restaurant Paisano’s is a bit like my last spaghetti dinner. It is going to take a little time to untangle.
Questions about what will happen to Paisano’s Ristorante, 2112 W. 25th Street, have emerged ever since we reported last week that the parent company of Kwik Shop had filed a plan to demolish the shopping center that houses the restaurant and about a dozen other businesses along south Iowa Street. Plans call for a large convenience store and car wash to take its place.
When I reported on that last week, the owner of Paisano’s wasn’t immediately available to discuss what the plans mean for the future of the restaurant, which has been in operation since the late 1990s.
But I did sit down with owner-operator Steve Butland on Tuesday. He said he wants to continue to operate Paisano’s in Lawrence, but said he’s not yet in a position to guarantee that will happen if the convenience store deal proceeds.
“We have been around for more than 20 years,” Butland said. “Our presence in Lawrence is important to both my wife and I. We want to have a presence in Lawrence, but it has to be the right presence.
“Certain locations in town won’t work for us, but some would. It really is a matter of economics at this point.”
It also is a matter of having more certainty about what will happen with the property. The plans for the 8,300-square-foot convenience store, which might make it the largest one in town, already have been filed at City Hall. The project doesn’t appear to need any approval from the Lawrence City Commission itself, but the site plan still must win technical approvals from the city’s planning department. It checks multiple items about whether a development is meeting regulations related to parking, landscaping, driveway placement, lighting and much more. Until the project wins those approvals, the property won’t transfer over to EG America, the parent company of Kwik Shop.
Butland had heard the same timeline I’d heard informally for the project. The convenience store company needs to have city approvals in hand in the November timeframe, which then would allow the sale of the property to happen in early 2021. Businesses presumably would have to be out of the shopping center shortly thereafter, assuming that their leases have ended or been bought out.
That leaves Butland uncertain during a time that already has a lot of uncertainty attached to it. He said trying to figure out how to relocate a restaurant during this pandemic period is tricky. He said he thinks some of the dining trends that have emerged during the pandemic will continue on even after COVID-19 is quelled.
For instance, a greater reliance on take-out orders and the use of home delivery services is likely to continue well into the future. That could have a dramatic impact on what type of building he needs for a future Paisano’s. Right now, he has 8,800 square feet of space. He’s guessing a new restaurant won’t be that big.
“We don’t need that much, but we do need more than 5,000 square feet,” he said. “We are a destination restaurant and do a lot of special occasions, so we will need space to do that.”
He said a couple of commercial real estate agents already have reached out to him about possible locations, but he’s waiting a bit longer before he gets serious about a search. I asked him if he thought he might end up in the downtown area, given the preponderance of restaurants in that district. He didn’t rule it out, but he sounded wary of the idea.
“I have some concerns about what we are and going downtown,” Butland said. “Parking is obviously a concern. Plus, businesses come and go all the time in downtown. It is such high turnover, and that is a concern. I’m not ruling it out, though.”
As for his reaction to last week’s news of the pending deal to tear down the shopping center, he said it was a jolt but that he had suspected something was up. He said the fact that the shopping center’s owners — a group based out of Wichita — hadn’t undertaken any major maintenance or renovation plans led him to believe they might have other ideas about the future of the aged center.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done out here,” he said. “They haven’t put a lot of money into it. I figured something was up, and now we know what is up.”
Now, it comes down to waiting to see whether that plan will be finalized. In the interim, Butland said Paisano’s will remain open and will continue operating like it has for the last several months. He noted that sales started to pick up in July, driven by carry-out orders as in-person dining totals are still lagging.
He and his wife also continue to operate a Paisano’s in Topeka. The Lawrence restaurant, though, was the couple’s first purchase after he left a career with McDonald’s. He said if he ultimately had to leave the Lawrence restaurant scene, it would be a tough decision.
“We fell in love with Lawrence,” he said. “If we have to leave, it would be difficult emotionally for both of us because this town has been good to us. But we are prepared for anything. We have embraced the community and it has embraced us. But if it happens, we are prepared for it, and we still will have a restaurant in Topeka that we love too.”
I know some of you also are interested in the future of La Estrella, the Mexican tienda and taco stand that is on the other side of the shopping center. Its building also would be torn down as part of the plan.
I did stop in there Tuesday to try to get an update from the owner. The bad news is I didn’t get to talk to the owner, but the good news is that the store was absolutely busy. That’s why I didn’t get to talk to the owner. There were lines at both the store counter and taco counter. I’ll continue to listen to updates on that business.