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2 new KC restaurants hope to give workers bigger voice

Manaia Collective.jpeg
Posted at 9:03 AM, Jan 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-17 10:04:20-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The pandemic hit the restaurant history hard, and moving forward, a few faces familiar with Kansas City’s restaurant scene hope two new concepts can offer employees a chance to be a part of something different.

The Manaia Collective will include two new restaurants at 20th and Main streets in Kansas City, Missouri. One will be a city diner called Small Axe. The other will be a natural wine bar with open fire cooking called Afi.

While Chef Howard Hanna and Director of Operations Kyle Gardner are excited to see the construction progress, it’s the progress in how the locations will operate for the people doing the work that they can’t wait to see.

“We’re trying to run them as worker-owned cooperatives, and so we really want to empower the people that make the industry go,” Hanna said.

“Everyone has a voice. Everyone is heard. Everyone has a path to ownership. Everyone has a vote in what we do, your operations day to day and stuff,” Gardner added.

Though this will be a new way of business for Gardner and Hanna, the restaurant business is not a new experience.

Just across the street, Chef Hanna was one of the founders of The Rieger. Gardner led the bar program there and at the beloved Manifesto below the restaurant.

“I think the pandemic proved that restaurant workers were really undervalued and really underappreciated,” Hanna said.

When the pandemic forced The Rieger to close its doors, they opened Crossroads Community Kitchen. They fed people in need with tens of thousands of meals in a critical time. The restaurant later closed for good.

“The idea in my mind was, you know, our restaurant, The Rieger, was gonna live forever and this is a way to grow and expand,” Hanna said. “When the pandemic hit, everything in the world changed.”

“That’s something that we definitely learned during the shutdown is how much we enjoy seeing the sunset,” Gardner said.

Moving forward, they’re also hoping the new restaurants can offer even more to the people who work there.

“We will have an opportunity to work a 40-hour week and be off by 5 p.m. every day,” Gardner said. “We’re going to structure it so we have full benefits, paid time off, maternity and paternity leave. We’re really going to try to approach this as a career.”

“Make sure that we’re doing something we’re all going to be proud of and that sets us up to live like, you know, sane and healthy lives and to make sure that everyone is treated with respect and value,” Hanna added.

There are other worker cooperatives in the U.S. already up and running.

As far as how The Manaia Collective would work, Hanna and Gardner say they will likely use a no-tip model to facilitate what they’re hoping to do.

A lot of details, including employee benefits and wages, still need to be worked out. Some of those decisions will be made by the collective.

The pair have already raised more than $89,000 through their fundraising investment site.

Afi

KSHB 41 News asked Hanna about the name Afi and he explained that his family’s history is a part of the name.

“In Samoan, it’s the word for fire, but it’s also the word for like flowing hot lava and for my family, my mother was from Samoa and our family had an ancestral village on the big island in Samoa is called Savai’i,” he said.

So, Afi will pay homage to Samoan roots with its open-fire cooking concept.

“And so, my grandfather was born on that island in a village that our family has been in for literally thousands of years,” Hanna continued. “But our ancestral village was near a massive, you know, the island, the volcano that built the island, Savai’i you know. So eruptions weren't, like, uncommon and they weren't necessarily catastrophic and that scary if they understood it was coming and knew sort of what was happening."

Lava did eventually destroy the village.

“When my grandfather was young, there was a lava flow that was happening, and they were aware of it, but it changed and like a piece broke off and the flow started to come down their side of the mountain and they had very short notice that oh, wow, it's coming and it's going to cover the village. So they had to pack everything they owned literally and there was no way to go you know, right or left down the shore. So they basically loaded it all in boats and went to the next island over and they had to do it at night," Hanna explained.

But family can be forged by fire.

"But within my family and the way my mom told us when we were young was she kind of flipped it and she kind of made it into like a real positive that like she wanted us to know where we came from and what we had been through and to understand that like we're from the fire,” Hanna said.

He said the name Afi speaks to the food and his family’s story.

“It's easy to remember. It's like a cool name but then it's like one meaning is just that, hey, we cook on fire, and it means fire, you know? But then there's that deeper history that's personal to me, and I think like it kind of grounds like the meaning of the food there is that we're telling stories, and we're connecting with the past and with traditions and cultures," Hanna said.

The Manaia Collective hopes to open later this year.