Will new laws open Johnson County to its first-ever nightlife district?
Drastic measures’ opening was a gamble, and not because it opened in the middle of the pandemic last June. The downtown Shawnee speakeasy serves elegant hand-crafted cocktails but no food. Until November, Johnson County technically required establishments to make thirty percent of their earnings in food sales.
“We didn’t build a kitchen,” says co-owner Jay Sanders. “I’m not a chef, so trying to sell food would be a disservice to our customers.”
Thankfully for Sanders, a repeal of the food sales requirement passed with seventy-eight percent of the vote. In May, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly signed a measure allowing customers to grab alcohol to go after the pandemic. Together, these changes finally opened well-off and population-dense Johnson County to bars—real bars—for the first time. Now, the question: Will the bars come?
Kansas has a long history of constraining alcohol, dating back to Prohibition. It was the first state to ban alcohol in its constitution. Kansas is still by default a dry state, and counties must elect to allow alcohol sales if they choose. In Johnson County, alcohol wasn’t sold by the drink in public establishments until 1987. Then, the food sale rule remained as a restriction.
Which is why craft beer grew huge across the state line before catching on in Kansas. Before the repeal, spots like Red Crow Brewing Company in Olathe would hire food trucks and take orders inside their building, which would count as food sales for the brewery. Limitless Brewing co-owner Emily Mobley, along with the help of other local breweries, started the campaign to place the repeal on the November ballot. She opened Lenexa’s Limitless to stay in Johnson County. “This is our home,” she says. “We didn’t want to be far from home.”
Mobley also believes customers in Johnson County would rather stay close than cross the state line for drinks. With the repeal, it might now be easier to open and operate a bar in Kansas than Missouri. “In Missouri, every server has to get training and a permit from the city,” says Mike McVey, lawyer and co-owner of Transport Brewery in Shawnee.
So could Johnson County build a bar culture to rival the Crossroads and Westport? Not in a rowdy, reliving-your-college-years kind of way, says Chris Roberts, head brewer at Red Crow. “If it’s gonna be anything, it would be more laid back, either with a little food still or a wine-type bar,” Roberts says. But in Shawnee, where Drastic Measures now sits surrounded by three craft breweries, president of the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce Ann Smith-Tate hopes to transform the city’s historic downtown into a nightlife district that serves a slightly older and more casual crowd. She says the downtown district has seen fifty-seven million dollars in private investment in the last two years.
Sanders believes downtown Shawnee’s cheaper property values and authentic feel could help it become a bar hub for Johnson County. “I don’t want to see a craft cocktail bar in every neighborhood, but I want to see a good bar that pays livable wages and offers good ingredients in every neighborhood,” he says.
Although McVey sees potential in more bars popping up, he hasn’t seen any new ones yet. “These cities in Johnson County don’t want a problematic club-type atmosphere,” he says. “Instead of not having them, I think they’ll try to control them.”
Limitless, Transport and Red Crow still host food trucks at their breweries despite the repeal. Roberts says they keep customers from going elsewhere for food and prevent unwanted heavy drinking. “It slows down their consumption, which in the end is good for everyone,” he says.