Angela C. Bond
Mike Donegan is still giving Kansas City the bird at the two Stroud's restaurants in the metro. He moved the original restaurant, which dated back to 1933, to Fairway five years ago.
Several old birds turned 80 years old this year. Joan Collins, of course. Kim Novak. Also: Stroud's Restaurant & Bar. Breasts and legs have figured prominently in all of their careers.
Helen Stroud, a lawyer and a beautiful woman, by most accounts, opened a roadhouse on 85th Street with her husband, Guy, back in 1933. At the time, the spot they'd chosen was well outside the city limits. It wasn't more than a shack, really, and it sold liquor and a limited menu of barbecue beef, fried chicken and 10-cent sandwiches (cheese, salami, liver, sardines). The tavern grew successful enough that it might have thrived as a barbecue joint for decades (like Rosedale Barbecue, which opened in 1934). But meat rationing during World War II forced Helen and Guy to shift their focus from smoked meat to fried fowl. (Their place was still listed as Stroud's Barbecue in local phone books until the 1960s.)
Stroud's was the least glamorous of Kansas City's fried-chicken restaurants in the postwar years, but it outlasted snazzier contemporaries such as the Wishbone and the Green Parrot. Even after a move to a newer building - in Fairway, in 2008 - it remains the metro's most iconic fried-chicken restaurant.
Mike Donegan, the former Kelly's Westport Inn bartender who purchased Stroud's in 1977, says he wishes his business were still in the old space, which was razed to widen 85th Street. "I still want that building back," he says. "We brought as many things to this location as we could, including the tables, the chairs, the light fixtures. But people still come in and want the crooked windows and the old wood floors."
Two months ago, Donegan, now in his 60s, sold an equity share in the Fairway Stroud's (the second Stroud's restaurant, in the Northland, wasn't part of the deal) to local restaurant operation KC Hopps. But that hasn't stopped Donegan, who first bought the restaurant with another Kelly's bartender (Jim Hogan, whom he bought out two decades ago), from coming to work every day. After 36 years, he still loves the business.
"I stopped frying chicken myself 10 years ago, but I still have the burn marks on my arms," he says. "Now we have five men doing the pan-frying on Saturdays and Sundays. It's hot, dangerous, hard work. When those pans are full of grease, they can weigh over 20 pounds. And you have to carefully drain the grease because we use the cracklings left from frying to make our gravy."
Donegan says his real secret is the gravy. "I've seen a lot of fried-chicken restaurants come and go. The chicken wasn't the problem. The problem was the gravy."
The rich, creamy gravy is still a draw at Stroud's, along with the sticky cinnamon rolls that Donegan introduced in 1980, not long after he dropped pie slices from the menu.
"No one was ordering dessert," Donegan says. (The dinners are, you know, big.) "But I liked the idea of offering cinnamon rolls. I knew a lady in Independence who had her own little restaurant that she was closing down. So I hired her to come in and make cinnamon rolls for me."
Donegan attracts considerable loyalty from his customers as well as from his staff. He complains that hiring servers isn't as easy as it used to be ("The restaurant business is all about paperwork today," he says), but Stroud's may have more veteran staffers than any other restaurant in town.
"Sherry Fritzshall has been working for me for 24 years, Elaine Nichols for 25 years," he says. "So has Kathy Kelly. Ewen McClean has been cooking for 24 years. Chris McSorley is my kitchen manager and has been with me for 30 years."
There's a framed photograph near the bar of a young, beardless man with dark hair. Donegan?
"No, that was my twin brother, Dennis," he says. "He ran the Northland Stroud's for years. He died 10 years ago."
The Donegan boys - the sons of Paul Donegan, a tool and die maker, and Louise, a schoolteacher - never dined at Stroud's in their youth.
"We never ate out anywhere," Donegan says. "My mother did the cooking. She was an adequate cook."
Mike Donegan majored in marketing at Central Missouri State College ("I guess I thought I'd go into sales," he says) before he started bartending at Kelly's. One of the other bartenders, Mike Leahy, quit Kelly's to tend bar at Stroud's and was making a lot more money.
"I decided I had to see this place," Donegan says. "And then I got the money together and bought it."
Donegan says he'll never retire. "They'll carry me out of here," he says. "You know, it doesn't feel like work when you love what you do. And I still love it."