A culinary oasis in food desert

A culinary oasis in food desert

Emily Campbell, owner and chef of The Elephant Bistro & Bar, has created a foodie oasis in a food desert.
Emily Campbell, owner and chef of The Elephant Bistro & Bar, has created a foodie oasis in a food desert.

In a food desert in Northwest Kansas, The Elephant Bistro & Bar has become a watering hole for foodies traveling 100 miles to enjoy the international flavors prepared with classical French methods of executive chef & owner Emily Campbell.

When it opened in 2018, The Elephant was quite literally the third restaurant to open in the one-streetlight town of Hoxie, population 1,200, according to recent figures. But Emily and her husband Doug had “big dreams” to bring a foodie oasis to rural Kansas.

“My husband and I are originally from rural Kansas, and after I went to culinary school in Seattle, my husband and I decided to move back home,” Emily Campbell says. “We drew up the plan to open a restaurant on a cocktail napkin having no idea if we could do it, or if people would come.”

Five years later, The Elephant Bistro & Bar is such a popular destination restaurant, according to reports in a Kansas newspaper, that it is booked out weeks in advance, with diners traveling in from nearly 100 miles away.

In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Campbell discusses the rewards and adventures since opening for business.

Boxerbrand: What made you think of elephants when naming your restaurant?

Campbell: Our friends helped us come up with the name as we sat and talked about our ideas to make this a real destination for people. We are located in a food desert and the elephant is the animal that will lead all animals to food and the watering hole. And the elephant is known to never forget, and we want to be unforgettable.

Boxerbrand: How did your concept emerge from a sketch on a cocktail napkin?

Campbell: When we thought about the kind of experience we wanted to offer, we imagined our cuisine— I’m a natural cook with culinary training — and the idea was to create a place where people could come to sample cuisine with influences from around the world in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. We’re located in a very small town, so we wanted it to feel casual enough for everyday, but to elevate the food experience of the area by offering dishes influenced by European, Asian and Mexican cuisine.

My husband, who works in construction, renovated our space. He pulled down drywall to expose the beautiful, original brick walls, and we repurposed old flooring into tables he made. Our bar top is constructed of materials from a bowling alley lane, which some of our friends owned.

So the idea was to retain the feel of rural Kansas, but to elevate the flavors and plating.

Boxerbrand: Tell me about your cuisine.

Campbell: When I was studying in Seattle, I embraced the farm-to-table concept. So in this sense, living in the middle of farm country, we were well positioned to offer some of the freshest ingredients.

I’m very proud of our beef products. We work directly with a local supplier who dries his own steak, and given our geography, our dry-aged steaks are very popular on our menu. The steak is aged in Bogue, Kansas between 42-50 days, and the result is a steak that is bold and tender with a buttery succulence. We will prepare them wood-fired or grilled to order.

Our patrons also love our Hawaiian ginger-lime ahi tuna, the “Big Eye Tuna Tacos” and the Kaua’i Poke, so, we’ve been able to offer a foodie experience.

We also pride ourselves on the freshness of the ingredients, and sourcing locally. We get all our lettuce from a local hydroponic farm, and the bison we served is raised 30 miles away.

Boxerbrand: What are the challenges you face, and how do you navigate change?

Campbell: One of our biggest challenges is staffing. Being in a rural area, we have a limited applicant pool. And when college students go back to school in the fall, it can be a challenge. I’ve worked a good 15-16 hour day sometimes, this past week being so busy that I was bartending, cooking and serving! We’ve been so short staffed that some of our regulars who believe in what we’re doing, have stepped in and volunteered to work some shifts.

But we’ve had some nice surprises during challenging times too.

Our point-of-sale system started offering an online platform for us to make sales during Covid, and this turned out to be a great thing for us. We weren’t doing online ordering before Covid, but with our new platform, we’re able to serve more people with limited staff.

Boxerbrand: How are you attracting and retaining staff?

Campbell: The thing I’m trying to do is to create a team atmosphere. We pool our tips because I don’t like the attitude that ‘this is my table, and this is what I’m focused on.’ At The Elephant, everyone is helping out, running food, and we find this is a more fair way to reward them. We flow our to-go order tips to the kitchen staff to give them the incentive, and our front of house people have the option to tip the kitchen as well. We’ve also started to do outreach to the community by doing an open house, showing prospective employees each position, and discussing it.

Boxerbrand: What makes you optimistic about the future of hospitality?

Campbell: People always have to eat and I think there will always be a need for a place like ours, for people who want to go out and do something and meet people. We’re always looking for ways to raise the interest level. For example, we’ve partnered with a local jazz duo who comes to play jazz once a month from a local university, and we’re partnering with a distillery, who’ll come in and do a workshop. When we first opened I was worried about pulling people in, but my worry has shifted to how we’ll keep up with the demand!

The Elephant Bistro & Bar uses Italian Ultra in its table presentation. Thank you!

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