Archive for Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Downtown transformation

Tonganoxie businessman turns small grocery store into steakhouse

March 21, 2001

Last year, when Matt Bichelmeyer and Vicki Shelby-Dean opened Bichelmeyer's Steakhouse at 427 E. Fourth St. in Tonganoxie, it was the first time in 105 years that a grocery store hadn't occupied that building.

In fact, even though the steakhouse opened in April, the name of the building's original business is still printed on its front.

Zoellner Mercantile Company opened in 1895, and mostly dealt in dried goods and farm equipment.

In the 1950s, store owner Harold Champion installed refrigeration units, making the business more like a modern grocery store.

But when Bichelmeyer took over the store in 1990, economic changes were afoot.

The next decade saw wholesale prices increase, while consumer prices stayed about the same.

In other words, to make the same amount of profit, Bichelmeyer would have to sell more groceries from his small store.

Catering takes off

But with competition from larger chain stores in neighboring cities drawing from his already small Tonganoxie customer base, selling in larger volume was not an option for Bichelmeyer.

So, during the '90s, more and more of Bichelmeyer's business came from catering. The grocery became a convenience for the locals and not much else.

"All day long, I had to hear eight compressors running underneath me," he said. "And those things cost a fortune to run."

The compressors, part of the refrigeration units that Champion installed in 1990, had become inefficient by modern standards and were sucking money right out of Bichelmeyer's pocket.

So, after 10 years as a grocery store owner, Bichelmeyer teamed up with Shelby-Dean to open the steakhouse.

"We just decided that since the catering business was taking off, we'd just do that," she said.

But running a restaurant is different from running a grocery store.

Need for a manager

Bichelmeyer said controlling things such as food costs and labor have made Shelby-Dean, who has been managing restaurants for as long as Bichelmeyer has been a grocer, an invaluable commodity for the restaurant.

"She does all the little things," Bichelmeyer said. "She makes sure the place is maintained and cleaned. She makes sure we have fine dining for years to come."

Bichelmeyer said that if a business is to survive it must break even in its first year.

He said that the steakhouse has done that so far despite a near-devastating roadblock that it had to face almost immediately after opening.

Less than a month after it opened, the restaurant sustained heavy damage from the May 11 Tornado that hit Tonganoxie.

Back in business

The result was a $95,000 loss, $42,000 of which was not covered by insurance, Bichelmeyer said.

But the partners ate the loss and had the steakhouse operational two weeks later.

"We recovered from the loss the best we could," Bichelmeyer said. "We repaired what we could, and replaced what we couldn't, to get the store back open."

The two said that the quality of the meat the steakhouse serves, combined with the business' still strong catering service, have helped recoup the loss and keep Bichelmeyer's afloat.

In fact, Bichelmeyer said that people like to eat at the steakhouse because of the quality of beef they will find there.

"We really do broadcast that as much as we can," he said.

The Bichelmeyer family has been in the meat business for 60 years in the area.

From butcher shops to meat markets to restaurants to grocery stores, the family has been active in nearly every aspect of the business.

Which means that people from DeSoto, Bonner Springs, Kansas City, Eudora and Spring Hill all know the Bichelmeyer connection to high-quality beef, he said.

Because of this connection, Bichelmeyer said he has been able to buy his beef directly from the same providers that butcher shops use. Much of that meat comes from Nebraska and Iowa.

A family connection

The meat, which Bichelmeyer said he hand-cuts daily himself, was a big reason the two started the business in the first place.

"He said he wanted to open a steakhouse because his family has been in the meat business so long," Shelby-Dean said.

Weekends are the busiest for the steakhouse. Bichelmeyer's serves about 300 parties each Friday and Saturday. The steakhouse only has 155 tables; so the restaurant's 25 to 30 employees have their hands full.

Though Bichelmeyer said he was glad he could offer a nice place for local families to eat, much of the weekend business doesn't come from the community.

"On weekends, probably 50 percent of our business comes from out of town," he said.

He said that was partly because his family was known in Kansas City for the quality of beef it handles and because of Glen's Opry down the street.

He said that many people who come into town hear music at Glen's on Saturday nights now visit his steakhouse to eat while they are in Tonganoxie. Friday night Karaoke also has been a draw for the business.

He said that dinner for a party of four could cost between $60 and $100.

The steakhouse takes reservations on the weekends and is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday.

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