“I was definitely a regular when they first opened,” says Ryan Bowersox, general manager of Bon Bon, the restaurant located at 804 Pennsylvania Street in Lawrence's Warehouse Arts District. She's been with Bon Bon since February of 2017, about four months after owners Simon and Codi Bates opened the restaurant in October 2016. The restaurant – the first to open in the district – has always been rather unique. When Bon Bon first opened, the kitchen was run out of a food truck parked next to the building's west side – a thing which, Bowersox says, was definitely a point of interest in the restaurant's early days.
“I think the food truck and the garden were the two things – and obviously, the beautiful building – that brought people over here, and were definitely curious about right off the bat,” the general manager continues, saying that with Instagram, things like those really appeal to people. The food truck kitchen, however, was born out of necessity, rather than a sense of whimsy.
“This is a historical building,” explains Bowersox of Bon Bon's home, originally built in the 1880s as a storage facility for the nearby Poehler Mercantile building, which is itself now renovated into loft apartments. “So, no kitchen could be built in this building, since it is protected. The food truck was kind of a creative solution to the lack of a kitchen.”
With it, of course, arose some issues. Most food trucks don't operate year-round in Kansas, and there's a reason for that, Bowersox says: “It was pretty hot back there. It got a little crowded. And, it also just limited what we could do, culinary-wise. We really wanted to start pushing the envelope more, and bring Lawrence unique dishes they'd never seen before.”
So, while the folks at Bon Bon were able to work with the food truck for a while, it became more and more of a hindrance as time wore on, and it became clear that an expansion would be necessary. To that end, the restaurant owners filed plans at the end of last summer to enclose the current outdoor seating area and build an actual kitchen.
“It became necessary for us, if we were going to fulfill [our] vision,” says Bowersox of the renovations, which are currently in process. “Maybe not the vision we started out with, but the one which we've morphed into.”
Bowersox is guarded when it comes to when the renovations will be complete – “I get asked this question 13 times a day,” she says with a wry smile – but explains that she's been telling people that they're targeting late spring or early summer, with the full confidence that it will be worth the wait.
One of those things which will be worth the wait is Bon Bon's new chef, Devin Campbell, whom they hired when it became clear that the new construction would be approved.
“We really wanted to bring in somebody with a lot of experience,” Bowersox says of Campbell. “We really needed someone to be in here, every single day, really doing it, so I reached out to a friend of mine who had been working at The American and Corvino Supper Club.”
Lured by the restaurant's garden, located just across Pennsylvania to the west, along with the creative freedom the Bates and Bowersox would grant him, made the possibility of having to work in a food truck for a couple of months worth the sacrifice.
“We wanted someone who was excited about these things for the revamp,” says Bowersox, and that's just what they found in Campbell. He even helped create the “snack bar” menu that's allowed Bon Bon to stay open and serve food, in the midst of construction. Based off a restaurant Bowersox encounted in Toronto where, she explains, “You drink whiskey drinks and eat snacks,” it's allowed Bon Bon to bridge the gap between its past incarnation and future plans, while also letting Campbell to begin to put his imprint on the restaurant.
“I wasn't about to lay off my whole kitchen staff,” states the manager. “So, we came up with small bites and stuff like that.”
It helps that Bon Bon has been an ever-changing concept since it first opened, so that allowed the restaurant's guests to latch onto the idea, even though it means that some of their more iconic menu items – such as the French onion tater tots – aren't available at the moment, as there's no fryer in which to cook them.
“Things are going to change, and things are changing,” Bowersox says. “But this means we get to experiment and change the menu a lot more, and it's really been a lot of fun for us.”
She points to the fact that new chef Campbell and Bon Bon's garden manager will be working closely to ensure as much of their produce and garnishes as possible will be grown across the street or sourced locally. It's really a point of pride that Bon Bon changes with what's available fresh, Bowersox explains.
“Food tastes better, if it's in season,” she says. “You know the difference if you pay attention to the food that you want to eat, so we want to play to that with our guests. When they're outside, and they feel the hot sun on themselves, and you have vegetables and garnishes that are only grown in hot sun: there's really a connection there, whether you know that it's happening or not, and it's invaluable to show people that and allow people to have that experience.”
Because Bon Bon is operating a little low-key at the moment, their merchandise needs are small, but the restaurant has ordered quite a bit of their printed merch from Blue Collar Press over their first two years: “Everything that our employees wear everyday,” Bowersox offers as one example.
Also, because of the aforementioned Instagram appeal and the experiential nature of Bon Bon, people do want to get t-shirts to celebrate their visit. They sell quite a few during Christmas. Bowersox also mentions a unique viral marketing strategy she uses.
“When I find out one of our regulars is going on a trip, I just give them a t-shirt,” explains the manager. It's another social media thing, and it's the same with the staff who might go off to do study abroad, she says. The choice to use Blue Collar for the shirts at Bon Bon came out of the Bates' other Lawrence restaurant, the Burger Stand, which had sourced all of their shirts from BCP over the course of their decade downtown.
“It's extremely easy,” Bowersox concludes, summing up the relationship between BCP and Bon Bon. “I used to to work for a screen-printing place, and I know the inner workings of [the business] pretty well,but I don't think I've ever really had an issue. I know I'm being interviewed about it, but I haven't really thought about it – which means it was pretty, pretty easy. It's like I say to my employees: 'If I don't have to think about you, you're doing just fine.'”