The Hays House reopened at 6 a.m. Friday following a nearly six-month layoff due to a kitchen fire. It’s a relief to the business owners in downtown Council Grove. The Hays House, nestled between a series of downtown businesses, is one of the city’s larger employers with a staff of 40.
Derrick Doty, proprietor of the Council Grove Barber Shop, said in the months following the fire that he wondered whether he should close up shop and move on.
“I was barely making $400 a week during a few weeks there,” Doty said. “This winter was one of the saddest I have seen in this town. The downtown was dead.”
Some townspeople may not like the idea of the Hays House being the heart of the Council Grove downtown. But Doty argues that every small town has one large business that stands out and brings tourists, and that business happens to be the Hays House for Council Grove.
Rick Paul, general manager and executive chef, said he wants the other businesses to use the Hays House — which was the oldest continuously operating restaurant west of the Mississippi and built by the great-grandson of Daniel Boone — as a reference point.
For that to take shape, Paul said Hays House has to get back to the point where it is welcoming 120,000 guests through its doors each year, nearly 60 times the population of the town of Council Grove.
“We want people to be proud to call the Hays House their Council Grove restaurant,” he said.
Doty said Hays House doesn’t have to be a one-stop shop for visitors.
“The owner of Dairy Queen was telling me that people do not wake up and say let’s go to Dairy Queen, but people do wake up and say let’s go the Hays House. It gets people to do other things.”
Paul said Hays House also is going to rely on other Council Grove establishments for its success.
“We are going to buy as much of our food locally as we can,” Paul said. Buying locally is a practice Paul used when he owned the restaurant with his wife from 1988-2002.
Debbie Adcock, executive director of the Council Grove and Morris County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said she has fielded three to five calls per day since the restaurant closed for remodeling in mid-December.
Adcock said the restaurant is an irreplaceable center of business for Council Grove.
As important as the Hays House is to the community, there was discussion about whether it should reopen after the fire. Paul said some citizens asked whether the Hays House was something worth saving. They unanimously agreed that that it was and invested in its future. Twenty-five people came together to invest in the restaurant, including former Jeopardy! contestant Dennis Wright.
The investors ap-proached Paul, who started working at Hays House in 1981, about taking over.
Paul said he still had a passion for running the historic restaurant, even after being absent for about a decade.
“There’s a piece of me in this building,” Paul said.
Even though Paul had previously run the restaurant, the fire’s destruction put Paul and his staff back at square one.
“We had no food, no equipment, no small wares or any type of plastic containers,” the chef said. “It was like building up an established business. It was kind of a crapshoot.”
Not only did the investors have to buy new equipment, they also had to repaint the walls, upgrade the bathrooms and apply new carpet because of the extensive smoke damage in the building. But Paul said the break was a relief.
“When you’re open for 363 days a year, there isn’t much time to customize things,” he said.
Despite the upgrades, Paul said he wanted to maintain the 19th-century feel of the building, where heavy feet are greeted with creaks. He also wanted to re-establish what he calls “the Hays House way,” which he said is an old-fashioned style of service that emphasizes friendliness and hospitality.
Paul wants his employees to exemplify that ethos. The staff is a mix of new and old faces, including seven holdovers from Paul’s first tenure as owner.
“All our folks out here have frequent smiles on their faces,” Paul said. “We want people to feel as if they are a guest in our home.”
A string of early-morning customers were greeted by their first names and waitresses crowded around one table oohing and aahing at one customer’s baby.
Throughout its history, the Hays House has served as a gathering point for mail distribution meals, church meetings, and court trials. Paul hopes to use that history in his favor as he tries to re-establish the Hays House as “Council Grove’s restaurant,” but he does not want to rely on it.
“I want people to come for the history, but come back for the food,” he said.