Mr. Olson’s Neighborhood: Young go-getter makes rounds across state lines

Not much can slow Tony Olson.

Well, maybe besides a slight cold that kept him off of the grid for a couple of days in late October.

The Generation X-er from Lee’s Summit is only 32, but he has his hands in at least three metrowide business establishments that are nearly as old as the Ames, Iowa, native.

Olson is the face of Snax Management, a business entity consisting of business partners, family members, in-laws and silent investors that own and operate the longstanding Neighborhood Cafe in Lee’s Summit, the legendary Chubby’s on Broadway in midtown Kansas City and the venerable Longbranch Steakhouse in Lenexa.

Each of the businesses is different in its own right, but collectively Olson, his partners and the company’s nearly 140 total employees and their customers make them work.

Welcome to the neighborhood

Olson greets customers at Neighborhood Cafe as if he’s known them for quite awhile. Same with newcomers. Ditto for employees.

His smile is genuine, his conversation short and to the point. He wants his customers, employees and guests to feel comfortable conversing with him. More importantly, he wants all involved to feel the love that he has for “serving people.”

Neighborhood Cafe is quiet on this particular afternoon, having spent the morning serving up its renowned cinnamon rolls that come free with every order courtesy of the restaurant. It’s a longstanding tradition started by the previous owners of Neighbors Cafe, which preceded the current version.

Located in downtown Lee’s Summit, the vintage regalia-adorned cafe is a melting pot of who’s who in the eastern Jackson County town. Anyone from local elected officials to entrepreneurs to educators to plain townsfolk can be found at the restaurant during its peak morning hours. Although a full menu is available throughout the day, breakfast hours are the busiest at Neighborhood Cafe.

For Olson and company — Olson, Ben Wine and Bob Baker took over the restaurant in February 2011 — they wouldn’t want it any other way.

“We’re doing it because we love the atmosphere, we love the service side and we love the customers,” Olson says a few days after returning to work.

He admits he hates to miss work, but a sick bug knocked him out of commission for a couple of days toward the end of the previous week. He is now in what he believes is catch-up mode.

“Most of what goes into that is the staff and the people that are in the restaurant that have built it up to that point. They are the ones that know that history and kind of keep it going. There was such a family atmosphere in here that when we started building and taking over these restaurants that already had a great thing going for them, our goal was to find areas to improve and really just keep tradition going.

“We’ve been very slow (with changes). When we get into a place, we want to learn from them and learn how they’ve done it. Obviously there are things that were working very well, and we just wanted to engulf ourselves and learn as much as we could from them.”

Strategically, Olson, whose initial foray into the business realm involved a landscaping business in college and a Quiznos sub shop after graduation, has worked at every level of the food-service industry.

The 2003 graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City relocated to the area from Iowa to play golf at UMKC. After his playing days, Olson figured he would do something with the business administration degree he earned from the university’s Bloch School of Management.

He decided to stay in the Kansas City area, taking up roots in Lee’s Summit and strategically making his climb from server, bartender and cook at several area establishments to management to ownership.

Age has never been a factor for Olson. Desire to serve has.

“I love being able to see a satisfied customer,” Olson says in between the persistent cough that has dogged him for days, “and see the look of satisfaction on their faces.”

Olson’s people skills are not lost on business partner Wine, also a Lee’s Summit resident and partner in Snax Management.

“Tony does most of the operations and dealing with people,” Wine, also 32, said of Olson. “Tony’s good with people.”

Olson and Wine met while working on a project a few years ago, and a bond was forged. That experience led Wine and Olson and others to form Snax, which eventually acquired Neighborhood Cafe, Chubby’s and Longbranch. Another entity, Bullfrog’s Bar and Grill in Lee’s Summit, is undergoing a makeover and may be on the selling block, but Olson didn’t want to go on record about those proceedings.

“We just kind of had a good dynamic between the both of us,” Wine said.

Clinking and clanking at Chubby’s

The sound at Chubby’s is not much different from the hustle and bustle sound of a fast-paced diner.

Pots and pans clank, plates scrape, servers scurry about from table to table and customers are steadfast in devouring their dishes.

In the midst of it all is Olson.

He is at it again with customers, glad-handing and conversing all the while. He swoops through the diner at 3756 Broadway in midtown Kansas City and spots the familiar face of longtime patron Clay Shaft.

“Hey, Clay,” Olson says to Shaft, a Kansas City resident whose head is buried deep into that day’s printed edition of The Kansas City Star. “How are you today?”

“Hey, Tony, I’m doing good,” Shaft replies in between sips of coffee. He barely lifts his head from the broadsheet. “How are you?”

“Everything is good,” Olson replies before he is off for a meeting in a back corner dining room at the restaurant.

“Good,” Shaft replies as Olson walks off.

Shaft, a retired food-service operation employee, said he has been a regular at Chubby’s for years. At least since the early 2000s, he says. He likes the way Olson interacts with customers and has nothing but good things to say about the restaurant’s employees.

“I’m in here just about every day,” Shaft says as he temporarily puts the newspaper away. “Good people, good food and reasonable prices is what keeps me coming back. Tony has always been fair to me. He’s made some improvements and made some changes on the menu, but it’s always been a great restaurant. I haven’t got any complaints at all.”

The decor at Chubby’s, which Snax took over in December 2012, is very 1950s-like with tableside jukeboxes at each table. If the Neighborhood Cafe has the vintage look, Chubby’s could be considered retro. A 24-hour outfit — except on Mondays, when it closes at 2 p.m. and reopens the following morning at 6 — Chubby’s has the reputation of a go-to eating spot among the late-night partygoers in Kansas City’s urban core.

Olson depends on a dedicated management team to keep things in order at the diner. Spending the first part of his week in Lee’s Summit, Olson ventures out to Chubby’s for a Thursday afternoon meeting with management. Later, he’ll jet out to Lenexa for a meeting of the minds with management at Longbranch Steakhouse, located just off Interstate 35 and 87th Street Parkway.

The weekly meetings keep Olson in touch with what’s going in each of the businesses. It also gives him face-to-face time with customers, which Olson covets.

The meeting at Chubby’s consists of Olson, general manager Megan Lyman and another manager, Janet Winters. They discuss personnel, scheduling, disciplinary measures and how to improve the overall experience for customers and employees at the restaurant.

As extra incentive, management occasionally hands out gift cards to employees who exhibited exemplary service and dedication.

“I think we have a really good cook staff,” Lyman says during the meeting of the ever-revolving door of diner cooks. “I really do.”

“That’s good,” Olson says. “Let’s make sure we let those guys know they’re doing a great job.”

The conversation eventually turns to the daily specials that Chubby’s churns out throughout the week.

“The specials we have been coming up with have been booming,” Lyman says.

“Sounds awesome,” Olson says as the three sit and take notes. “Cool. Sounds good.”

“We also have been getting compliments on the booths and how the restaurant has been looking lately,” Lyman continues.

“Cool,” Olson says before Winters chimes in: “The servers are loving (the new dishwasher). He’s been great.”

“Well, let’s keep that going,” Olson says prior to the meeting’s conclusion. Lyman and Winters are expecting the usual weekend rush. “I’ll be up here tomorrow and Saturday. I’ll just sort of come up and hang out and help if necessary.” 

Long live Longbranch

The midweek, afternoon crowd at Longbranch Steakhouse in Lenexa is much quieter than the breakfast bunch at Neighborhood Cafe and a lot less hectic than the lunch rush at Chubby’s.

Not to be fooled by the slow-moving pace of the restaurant, Longbranch hops at night and on the weekends. Live music is the drawing card for Longbranch, as is the hand-cut choices of steak.

The pace is OK with Dave Staab, the restaurant’s manager and regional marketing manager for Snax. He meets with Olson to go over a wide range of topics including introducing new staff, new training procedures, upgrades to the restaurant and every other conceivable topic one could cover in regard to a long-tenured establishment such as Longbranch.

Founded more than 30 years ago by Walt Coffey and former major league player and manager Lou Piniella, Longbranch has a cultlike following in Johnson County. Add to the mix Staab’s efforts to turn Longbranch into the top destination for live music in the area, and what you have is a burgeoning crown jewel for Snax Management, owners since May of 2011.

Longbranch offers live music when the outside deck is open from Wednesday through Sunday. In the cooler months, Olson says, they’ll close the deck, move the music inside and offer it on Friday and Saturday nights.

“Our Friday nights, we have live music and we get a lot of people in here,” Staab says after he wraps up a nearly hourlong chat with Olson. “It’s a great time, especially in the deck season. You have people in here eating dinner, people outside listening to the band and it’s all ages. You have young people, and you have people who have been coming here for 27 years to eat dinner and they are getting the same entrees they have been getting every time.”

Made possible by Coffey and Piniella, Longbranch has a rich history. The Lenexa location also had some recent notoriety that could have played out much differently, Olson says, if not for the dedicated staff at the restaurant.

Earlier this year, a man accidentally shot his wife in the leg at the restaurant as the couple sat down to eat. The shooting made local news headlines and prompted Snax to reconsider its concealed weapons policy. In the end, Longbranch survived the initial media onslaught and negative publicity.

The man, William H. Mize Jr., 66, of Lenexa, was charged in March with aggravated battery and carrying a concealed weapon while under the influence in connection with the incident.

Although Mize had a valid permit to carry a concealed weapon, Kansas law does not allow people to carry concealed weapons if they are under the influence of alcohol. Longbranch, of course, serves alcohol.

Olson credits his staff and how they responded to the shooting.

“We had a good response from our customers,” Olson says as he excuses Stabb from the meeting. “We had people that understood that it was such a freak accident. We’ve been very careful. Obviously the laws are there to protect everybody, and we were following the law. Whether he was or not, we dealt with that the proper way.

“We really didn’t want to fly off the handle and make a change and do something that was offensive, so we really just looked at protecting our business and our customers. Everything that we did policy-wise and how we deal with those situations, we revisited that and we looked at how our staff reacted. Our staff stepped up so big in that situation. They handled it very well, and they got compliments from the Police Department and everybody that dealt with that. We handled it perfectly.”

A family affair

Brad Heydon’s sister, Kelly, is Olson’s wife, so he may have some bias. Kelly Olson is not only a partner in Snax, but she is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the company’s restaurants.

Olson’s parents, who still reside in Iowa, are also investors. There are others who remain silent, but Heydon says that through marriage, he has come to trust Olson and had few worries investing in Chubby’s on Broadway.

He figures others involved with Snax hold the same feelings.

He’s been in meetings all afternoon for his occupation as a sales representative for A.B. May on this early autumn day, and he offers no hesitancy in discussing Olson’s strengths.

“Obviously Tony and I kind of talk business a lot within passing or when we get a chance to here and there. I expressed some interest — first of all, the reason I expressed any interest in doing anything with Tony is because I honestly think that Tony is probably one of the only people I have ever met that I would really trust to be involved with something like that on.

“In thinking about exploring other things, I kind of approached him about a possible opportunity together in the future businesses-wise and in general, and he mentioned Chubby’s. It was kind of a right-timing sort of deal, and we talked a little bit more about it. I approach him because I really like what he is doing, and I really like where his head is at. I really like the way Tony approaches everything. He is really on top of everything and he really knows how to treat people. He really has a great thing going.”

Olson says having Kelly involved with the business on a day-to-day basis has helped the couple grow.

“She’s my partner,” he says. “Somebody asked me one day if I could clone myself, that would be the only way I could keep going, but when I got married she jumped in. Even before we got married earlier this year, she jumped into the business and she’s been my partner and my equal in this business. She’s been doing an amazing job.”

Family affair or not, Wine believes the company’s management team and employees are the glue that keeps Snax Management’s endeavors on point with customers.

“We’ve got a good network of managers and people that kind of have their own role in each store,” Wine said. “It’s usually just trusting the people that you have to carry out what they are supposed to do that makes a business successful.”