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Kansas restaurant lifts the region by using local products

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You know how sometimes a really good meal can lift your mood or make you see a place in a different light? Well, that's happening over and over in a remote, tiny town out on the plains of Kansas. As Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, a restaurant there is using good local meat and veggies and high-end cooking to breathe new life into a hard-pressed farm town.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: At rush hour in Sylvan Grove, Kan., a truck or a car or a tractor drives by every so often. The town's been shrinking for most of the last century.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)

MORRIS: But inside one of the old limestone buildings, Fly Boy Brewery & Eats is filling up. Sandy Labertew and her husband are regulars.

SANDY LABERTEW: Well, it's open Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, and we eat here as often as we can. So we feel pretty good about this place.

MORRIS: The food's good. Grant Wagner, the co-owner and chef here, worked his way up through top-notch restaurants. He's from a small town out here originally, says he grew up surrounded by people who had to work with their hands, fix stuff, make do - found himself in Kansas City, the executive chef at a place where he says customers would drop two or three grand on dinner. Then three years ago, he and a friend bought Fly Boy.

GRANT WAGNER: I just got tired of making food for rich people. I wanted to go back to making food that I cared about for people I cared about.

MORRIS: Now, Wagner is catering to local farmers and ranchers, families headed for nearby Wilson Lake and others willing to drive an hour or two for some fine dining or just a top-flight cheeseburger. It's working. On a busy night, Wagner says, he'll serve 300 people, so more than Sylvan Grove's entire population, from a menu largely built around beef from cattle grazing on pastures not far from town.

WAGNER: I've got 100% local beef, and, man, it is fantastic. It's - it'll put anything in Kansas City - it'll give them a run for their money.

MORRIS: He uses honey from right down the street, local cucumbers to make pickles and mushrooms from somebody's basement. Lucas Hass, the co-owner and brewer at Fly Boy, says it's more than a nod to environmental sustainability. It's basic economics in a place that's seen its financial vitality ebb away for decades.

LUCAS HASS: You got to do what you got to do to survive out here. But where we can, we try to support local because it keeps it here. I just really hate seeing so much of our wealth being just vacuumed to a different coast.

MORRIS: It's an approach that people here appreciate up and down Main Street.

RAMIE SCHULTEIS: It is a fun place for local people to go and enjoy themselves.

MORRIS: Ramie Schulteis sits behind a desk stacked with books at the Sylvan Grove Public Library.

SCHULTEIS: The food is good. The service is amazing. The drinks are good, and it's also important for our economy.

MORRIS: Fly Boy customers sometimes stay at one of the town's new Airbnbs, for instance. The restaurant also generates jobs for people like Hannah Pahls, a junior at Sylvan Grove High School, who says she's proud to be part of a small town's success story.

HANNAH PAHLS: This restaurant has just - it's been through everything. It's been through COVID. I just feel like it's a big inspiration to the town, being so well known here in Lincoln County.

MORRIS: In a region where most little towns are withering and restaurants are closing, Fly Boy is giving Sylvan Grove a renewed sense of hope and pride and showing that people like Grant Wagner can come back to the countryside and thrive. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAREN MORRIS SONG, "THE FEELS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.