RESTAURANTS

The 2010s brought new restaurants, breweries, cultural growth to Cedar Rapids

Growth intertwined with flood recovery

Czech Village is seen March 31, 2018, from inside Lion Bridge Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids. When Ana Escalante and Qu
Czech Village is seen March 31, 2018, from inside Lion Bridge Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids. When Ana Escalante and Quinton McClain opened the business in 2014, the concept of drinking locally-brewed beer was still pretty unusual to many of their customers. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When Carrie and Andy Schumacher were considering opening Cobble Hill restaurant in downtown Cedar Rapids in the early part of the decade, people told them not to do it.

There was no way a restaurant like the one they were planning would survive, they were told. Cedar Rapidians wanted familiar food, chain restaurants and bar-and-grill standards, people insisted.

“People said, ‘How could you think you could open a restaurant in Cedar Rapids?’” Carrie Schumacher recalled. “People said it was crazy to go downtown.”

They did it anyway. And they haven’t regretted it.

“We knew what we were trying to do was risky and kind of breaking the mold,” Andy Schumacher said. “We were not doing any mass-produced or recognizable thing that people in the market were used to seeing.”

But the Cedar Rapids market was opening up to a lot of new things. The Paramount Theatre just reopened after a major post-2008 flood renovation when the Schumachers opened Cobble Hill’s doors in early 2013, and they said that was a big help to their business. The whole area was coming back, slowly, from the disaster that had inundated downtown and other core neighborhoods.

The growth over this last decade of culinary and cultural options in Cedar Rapids is necessarily tied up in the decade in flood recovery and growth. People needed places to eat before or after shows at newly reopened places like the Paramount, Theatre Cedar Rapids and CSPS. New housing in the core districts that has gone up in more recent years has provided still more potential customers — more than double the number of units that there were before the flood, said Doug Neumann, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and previous president of the Cedar Rapids Downtown District.

“The hope was public sector investments would eventually lead to private sector confidence and momentum and private sector reinvestment,” he said, recalling the days after the 2008 flood. “Certainly there are other disaster recovery areas around the country where it never happened.”

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He pointed out a slew of public projects that helped bring the downtown area back to life, from the federal courthouse and City Hall to the public library and DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel and convention center. Private investment — in both big projects and small ones from restaurateurs and other entrepreneurs — followed in those footsteps, he said. A decade later, parts of the community are almost unrecognizable from their past.

“While we were past all the debris cleanup and major damage cleanup (at the start of the decade,) there were only a couple of big projects underway, but you already had a real sense of optimism,” he said. “I think we knew in 2010 that the Kingston area and the NewBo area were going to be dramatic transformations and wouldn’t look anything like they did pre-flood … You wouldn’t recognize them if you left for 10 years and came back. And you would recognize downtown, but you’d be amazed by the new elements.”

Trying something new

Carrie Schumacher said Cobble Hill, 219 Second St. SE, has been called fine dining, but she shies away from that label.

“I don’t want people to feel they have to be or dress a certain way to come here,” she said. She does want people to feel they’re having a special experience, with a lot of attention paid to every element of the food, drink and ambience.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Restaurant industry margins are tight no matter what is on the menu, and after an initial period of business when they first opened, things slowed down and they worried if they could make it.

“Initially it felt awesome, and then it didn’t. That’s when the challenge of it started to set in more. You start to question if you need to shift things,” Carrie Schumacher said. ”But we decided to stay true to our artistic — it is artistic for us — vision.”

Not every restaurant to open in the core districts after the flood has made it. The first downtown restaurant to reopen, Zins, closed in 2016. Other inventive new eateries, like Pig and Porter in the New Bohemia District and Sauce in the Czech Village, didn’t make it. Yet others, like Local Pour in Kingston Village, the Map Room downtown and more recently Rodina in Czech Village, have thrived.

There are a range of reasons restaurants close, and the Schumachers hope people don’t let those that do discourage investing in the area and trying new things.

“We hope people who are inspired can still feel like they can do this. I hope people realize they can come here and do this,” Carrie Schumacher said.

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A more robust eating and dining scene helps everyone, she said, because it brings more people to the district and makes downtown more of a destination.

“To be successful long-term, you have to have other people in your peer group doing things, too,” she said.

Cobble Hill did well enough that in 2017 the Schumachers opened a second business, Mexican restaurant Caucho, in the NewBo district.

If any neighborhood is an example of groups of different people doing things to lift a whole neighborhood up and make more restaurants like Caucho possible, it is New Bohemia.

Jennifer Welton was a founding board member of NewBo City Market, which before the flood was a warehouse.

“It was really a desolate, barren neighborhood,” she said. “The idea of using and revitalizing that building was really the catalyst for redeveloping that whole neighborhood. People started investing money into that neighborhood.”

The idea of the neighborhood as an arts and culture district predated the flood, with artistic centers in CSPS, the former Czech social hall which the Legion Arts nonprofit took over in 1991, and the Cherry Building. And before NewBo City Market arrived, restaurants opened or reopened in the district post-flood, such as Parlor City Pub & Eatery in 2009 and longtime bar Little Bohemia, which first opened after Prohibition ended in 1935, and reopened post-flood in 2010.

But Welton said NewBo City Market, which opened in 2012, helped make the neighborhood a family-friendly destination with space for community programming, like the popular Meet Me at the Market weekly summer fitness events or Rock the Block concerts on the lawn.

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“People come to the market and they stay here to dine, to shop,” said market Executive Director Scott Kruger.

The market also helped launch over a dozen businesses, most notably restaurants, that went on to open other locations around the community — places like Saucy Focaccia burger and sandwich shop, Greyhound Deli and Rustic Hearth bakery.

“The other side is, we’ve been able to experience new things in Cedar Rapids,” Kruger said, running through the current slate of vendors in the market. “You can have Mexican food, Indian food, Filipino street food, a traditional sweets bakery, a Mexican bakery, wood-fired pizza. We’re more diversified now.”

Welton, who is vice president of Commercial Banking at Great Western Bank in Cedar Rapids, said the town has changed a lot since when she was growing up.

“Cedar Rapids has evolved a lot. I know people talk about the flood all the time, but I think we have striven in Cedar Rapids to make a lot more destinations and make it a place people are excited to live. … I just think we have so much going on and so many things to do that weren’t there before, and people continue to support them, too. I’m just so amazed how much growth we’ve had in 10 years, and not just in New Bo.”

Trends have influence

This also has been the decade when Cedar Rapids followed national food trends with an explosion of food trucks, a growing number of restaurants emphasizing local and farm-to-table food and a slew of coffee shops where dedication to espresso is king — places like Brewhemia, Dash Coffee Roasters, Lightworks Cafe and Cafe Saint Pio.

Another big trend is the growth of local breweries.

When Ana Escalante and Quinton McClain moved to Cedar Rapids, his hometown, from Colorado in 2012, they didn’t see a lot of craft beer.

There were a few places scattered around the area, like Third Base Brewing in Cedar Rapids, Minnesota-based chain Granite City and longtime stalwart Millstream Brewing in nearby Amana. But the concept of drinking locally brewed beer was still pretty unusual for most of the customers who came in to check out Lion Bridge Brewing Company when the couple opened it in Czech Village in 2014.

“There was a lot more explaining about beer styles,” said Ana, now Ana McClain.

In the early days, people would come in and ask for a beer that was as close to Bud Light as possible. She sees a lot less of that these days, with even Bud Light devotees happy to try other beers.

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“Now, people are willing to try more than they were before. People will sample different things or try something new,” she said.

“I would say this is the decade of craft beer for us. In 2010, there was nothing. The booming of the craft beer industry has really been in the last decade.”

She remembers when the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library reopened in 2012. She and Quinton participated in the parade, dressed as kolaches.

“Seeing the excitement and pride, all that energy, was very invigorating and reassuring that this was the place we could start a business. People have a lot of passion in wanting to make Cedar Rapids a great place to live,” she said.

Choosing to locate in Czech Village, which was still recovering from the flood, was deliberate, even though they knew another flood could happen — and almost did.

“We feel like this area is the heartbeat of Cedar Rapids,” she said. “It’s a place that has a personality and isn’t just Anywhere, U.S.A.”

“It definitely came with a huge risk and sleepless nights, but it’s been great. It’s the historic district, it’s the place that has the history and unique character we were looking for.”

A new decade dawns

Monica Vernon, who was on the City Council a decade ago and now is director of the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District, looks back to the past as thinks about the future.

For restaurants and coffee shops and breweries to continue to thrive, she said, the community needs to continue investing in the infrastructure and vision around them, in things like sustainability and walkability. She’s hopeful that will happen.

She recalls her grandfather’s stories of watching the town grow.

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“Cedar Rapids grew hugely in the 1920s, the Roaring ‘20s,” she said. “My grandfather saw Cedar Rapids as the most exciting and progressive and growing town … You start looking around at everything that was built in the 1920s, and if I could make it happen, I’d say, ‘Let’s do it again, in a different way.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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