It’s a Friday night, and at the 18-seat community farm table that runs the length of the Boot, seating is elbow-to-elbow.
Music pulsates through the speakers, competing with the lively chatter. A young couple sitting in lipstick-red chairs are sharing a bottle of wine at one end, two girlfriends sip highballs at the other, and a group of 30-somethings clearly delighted the workweek is over has commandeered the middle.
Platters of food cover the table: short rib ravioli; pizza with prosciutto; meatballs; beet and mozzarella salad, and seductive bowls of sheep’s milk ricotta drizzled with chili olive oil.
Owner Aaron Confessori circles the table surveying the scene, checking to be sure water glasses are filled, wine is poured, everyone is relishing the food, and there are no dirty dishes waiting to be bused. Recognizing one of the diners at the table, he shakes his hand and chats him up for a few minutes in an effort to make him a regular.
Despite a still sluggish economy, Confessori and 22-year-old partner Richard Wiles are wasting no time creating restaurant concepts. The Boot, a hip yet rustic Italian restaurant, opened early this year, next door to their initial venture, the French bistro-themed Westport Cafe Bar, which opened in 2010.
So why open a second restaurant next to the first, and then add a food truck on the same street?
When Confessori, 34, opened the Westport Cafe, it seemed out of place in an area known primarily for a raucous late-night bar scene. But like Blanc Burgers + Bottles before it, the cafe on Westport Road was chugging along. Anxious to find a tenant for the vacant space next door to Westport Cafe, the landlord asked Confessori to make an offer.
“It’s like buying low in the stock market,” Confessori says, adding that the Boot’s lease, which is based on a percentage of sales, allowed the restaurateurs to recoup their initial investment after just six weeks of operation.
Before the ink was even dry on that deal, the partners added a late-night, stationary, Mexican-style food truck known as Westport Street Fare just down the street behind Harry’s Bar Tables at the corner of Westport Road and Pennsylvania Avenue. The three-nights-a-week menu includes tortas, quesadillas, tacos and burritos.
They figured the new food truck would help drive traffic during nice weather, when the other two restaurants tend to lose business because they don’t have a patio. But the 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. venture extends an already lengthy workday to a ridiculous 4 a.m.
“When it’s slow in the truck, you want to doze,” Confessori says, “But once those orders come in, you don’t have time to be tired, you just go.”Big dreams meet fate
Most days of the week the 6-foot-3-inch Confessori can be spotted pounding the pavement between his restaurants, nodding to strangers on the sidewalk or stopping to talk to someone he knows. With his dark hair combed back and dressed in his personal uniform of a starched shirt, jeans and sport coat, the man with movie-star looks is constantly in motion.
Although recently on an all juice regime, when he stops by Westport Fare to check on supplies, he can’t resist gulping down a pork torta or two.
Confessori insists he wouldn’t want to be in any other line of business.
“I’m slightly masochistic, but it’s all I’ve ever done. I branched out at one point, making investments here and there. I was terrible when I tried other things,” he says. “It may be a little insane, but I think it’s important to do what you know. And I Iove it.”
He also has never questioned putting down roots in Westport, rather than expanding his footprint into other neighborhoods.
“If we had gone out south to open a new restaurant, we’d have been hammered for not staying in midtown,” Confessori says. “Bluestem and its lounge, Michael Smith and Extra Virgin, the Rieger Grill Exchange and Manifesto, they all enhanced their initial concept or added a restaurant and were embraced by the community.”
Their neighbor, Bluestem’s chef-owner Colby Garrelts, who plans to get his toes wet in Johnson County later this year, agrees: “It’s important to pay attention to where you are for a long while to build that loyalty.”
While the Boot, Westport Cafe and Westport Street Fare reflect a variety of cuisines, Confessori and Wiles are both of Italian descent. Wiles’ great-great-grandfather is the source of the menu’s risotto Raggio. Confessori’s grandmother often made the pappardelle with calamari and red sauce for her grandson, and a painting hanging on one of the walls of the restaurant came from the Confessori homestead.
“I enjoyed watching my grandmother in her kitchen clean the squid,” Confessori recalls. “And I am blessed that both my grandmother and my mother were incredible cooks.”
Confessori’s first restaurant gig was busing tables at age 16 in his hometown of Wichita. After two years of college, he opted for a change of scenery and moved to Arizona, where he continued his climb up the restaurant chain hierarchy, learning skills each step of the way that would serve him later in his career.
In 2004 he landed in Kansas City, opening Kona Grill on the Country Club Plaza. After two years as general manager, Confessori wanted to be his own boss. At 26, he and partner Chris Ridler opened Sol Cantina in Martini Corner. Ridler remains a friend and has since opened Zocalo, an upscale Mexican concept on the Plaza.
“He’s incredibly driven,” Ridler says of Confessori. “He holds himself to a high standard and holds others to that same high standard, and that is a recipe for success.”
Two years into Sol Cantina, Confessori decided he needed to round out his education, so he sold his interest to Ridler and packed his bags for the French Culinary Institute in New York City. “I could write a menu like Sol Cantina’s,” he says, “but not like what we have at the Boot or Westport Cafe, so I needed help.”
While enrolled in the six-month immersion course, Confessori met Wiles. Wiles, then 18, had been working in Kansas City restaurant kitchens since he was 14.
After parting ways after culinary school, their paths crossed again one sunny June day in 2010. As Confessori sat at the bar of what would soon become Westport Cafe Bar, a venture he originally opened with a childhood friend, Wiles happened to walk by. Confessori went outside to greet Wiles and learned he was working in the kitchen at Blanc Burgers + Bottles on the Plaza but was looking for a new opportunity.
“Why don’t you come work for me?” Confessori asked.
The relationship eventually morphed into an equal partnership. “Sometimes I think I’m dreaming,” Wiles says. “Even though we’re actually business partners, I look up to Aaron as a mentor.”Never-ending concepts
In a perfect world, Wiles would run the kitchen and Confessori would run the dining room. But there are days too numerous to count when nothing seems to go according to plan.
“Running a restaurant is tricky,” Confessori admits. “You simply can’t anticipate everything, like the credit card machine going down, or discovering that the water pipes to the dishwasher have been damaged by the tenant next door.”
Then there are your harshest critics. Recently a woman stopped Confessori in the grocery store to tell him that the restaurant’s fusilli carbonara was too salty. “Why didn’t she mention it while still in the restaurant so we could fix it right away?” he laments. “And it’s so frustrating to read a complaint on Yelp when the diner never said a word to us.”
But those are the times when Confessori confronts the problem head on.
So when diners complained about the quality of the bread the restaurant served, Wiles considered making the bread himself, thinking it would be simple to do in the pizza oven. After some thought about work flow and a price comparison, they instead went with ciabatta from Farm-to-Market Bread.
Customer reaction has been favorable, and one more task is crossed off his never-shrinking to-do list.
Ordering food is one of the most difficult tasks for restaurant owners. Confessori says even when taking into account known variables — day of the week, weather, events happening around town — it’s hard to gauge the quantity of fish, meat, vegetables and cheese that customers will order. The goal is to keep food costs at 30 to 33 percent, otherwise the restaurant has to eat that expense.
And the partners admit restaurant life can be all-consuming.
“It’s hard to take a day off,” Wiles says. “One time I was eating in the restaurant and ended up going into the kitchen and putting on my apron.”
But it’s just that combination of plucky DIY get-up-and-go and street-savvy sense of food trends that Bluestem’s Garrelts says has corporate-style restaurants paying attention to the smaller independent restaurateurs. “Chains get all of their best ideas from us,” he says.
Meanwhile, Confessori and Wiles are happy to tinker with their concepts. “Rich and I just need to turn the screws and continue making adjustments,” Confessori says. “It never ends.”