Why Kansas City Restaurateurs Have Avoided The Northland — And Why That’s Changing

Aug 4, 2015

If your stomach is grumbling in the Kansas City area, the Missouri River plays a big role on how to satisfy those hunger pangs.

“It’s very much a psychological thing, you think you’re crossing into another country (when you cross the Missouri River),” said Jerry Nevins, co-owner of Snow & Co., an upscale frozen cocktail bar that started in the Crossroads Arts District. “Most everybody goes south.”

Just south of the river, you’ll find a plethora of dining options at independent restaurants in Kansas City on both sides of the state line.

Further south into Kansas, many of Kansas City’s popular barbecue joints and trendy eateries have opened additional locations to take advantage of the sought-after Johnson County crowd.

To name a few — Garozzo’s Ristorante, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, La Bodega Tapas & Lounge, Blue Koi, d’Bronx Authentic Deli and Pizzeria, Blanc Burgers + Bottles, Gates Bar-B-Q, Room 39 and Bristol.

The Northland paints a different culinary picture. There is a limited menu of Northland eateries that started north of the river before expanding south, such as The Corner Café, Stroud’s and Cascone’s Italian Restaurants.

Examples of Kansas City-area restaurants that started south and expanded north are less bountiful —Hereford House, Minsky’s Pizza, Jose Peppers, Nick and Jake’s and Bo Lings.

That’s not to say the Northland doesn’t have its own culinary scene of independently operated favorites that are staying put.

RELATED: The Best Places To Eat North Of The Missouri River

But when it comes to expansion, the Northland seems to get less attention from Kansas City restaurateurs. “Your first inclination is, ‘Eh, north of the river — probably not a good fit,'” Snow & Co.’s Nevins said. “Perceptions of Northland vs. Johnson County are that Johnson County’s got more opportunity.”

But when he and his team of co-owners did the research, they found the Northland’s demographics were similar to Johnson County’s. When they dug deeper, they found growing employment, less competition and lower rent in the Northland, which led Snow & Co. to open its second location in Gladstone.

Snow & Co. still has informal plans to expand south into Johnson County, but Gladstone’s current project to develop a downtown hooked Nevins.

“At least in Gladstone, you have a lot of bar-and-grill-type stuff,” Nevins said. “It wasn’t our competition in the Crossroads, where you have a lot of craft beer and craft cocktail competition.”

A lot of people wanting dinner

New residential building permits cluster in the northern parts of Kansas City.
Credit Courtesy photo / City of Kansas City, Missouri

Snow & Co. is a recent example of a dining tide that’s beginning to turn in the Northland, said Sheila Tracy, president of the Northland Chamber of Commerce.

“I attribute the change to the growth areas in the Northland,” Tracy said.

Population is up.

According to U.S. Census estimates, Platte County saw a 6 percent bump to nearly 95,000 people, from April 2010 to July 2014. Clay County’s population went up 4 percent to nearly 234,000 people during the same period.

(Johnson County’s population increased nearly 6 percent during that time to roughly 574,000 people.)

Tracy emphasized an increase in rooftops in the Northland, citing city data that shows most new residential construction in Kansas City, Missouri, occurred north of the Missouri River between Jan. 1 and June 30.

In Kansas City, Clay and Platte counties showed 1,339 and 329 new residential building permits, respectively — compared with 190 in Jackson County.

She pointed to housing and luxury apartments at Gladstone’s downtown development and at the Village at Burlington Creek near Parkville.  

“You look at the growth, just in that, that creates a lot of people wanting dinner,” she said.

Go where you’re a little bit different

Burlington Creek’s mixed residential-commercial development is what finally convinced Spin! Neapolitan Pizza to venture north of the river. The local pizza chain has eight locations across the metro, including four in Johnson County.

Spin Pizza plans to open its first Northland location in the fall at the Village at Burlington Creek near Parkville, Missouri.
Credit Courtesy photo / BRR Architects

Its first Northland location is set to open in the fall.

“There’s a lot of energy — a lot of residential on all sides,” said Gail Lozoff, a Spin partner. “It’s become kind of a hub. People are going to be willing to drive longer distances to get there because of the other restaurants and businesses.”

Lozoff said Spin has been eyeing the Northland for a long time.

“These areas are now at a point where there’s enough density to make it justifiable for us,” she said.

She said Northland interstates 29 and 35 chop up the area, making it difficult for customers to reach destinations.

“The highways divide,” she said. “They tend to create borders. Even in Johnson County you see that happening. A business that may seem close — maybe only two or three miles away — might be too far.”

In Johnson County, she said the restaurant field is getting crowded, which may be helping the Northland to emerge as a more attractive option.

“Sometimes it’s easier to go where you’re a little bit different,” she said.

This look at the Missouri River is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them.