By Todd L. Reding
The winner of the first Iowa’s Best Bites contest has watched her restaurant flourish in downtown Grinnell. Carly Groben, an experienced Iowa restaurateur, participated in the innovative contest designed to recruit a new food establishment in Grinnell’s downtown square. Prairie Canary was the winning concept chosen by a panel of local citizens and restaurant experts. Since its launch in 2012, the restaurant has earned an expansive reputation for quality food, a unique and upscale atmosphere, and a menu that rivals big city establishments.
Like many of Grinnell’s hospitality businesses, the restaurant quickly faced the challenge of recruiting and retaining quality staff. “Finding the right people and developing new leadership in our vibrant town is a challenge,” says Angela Harrington, President and CEO of the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. Prairie Canary was able to overcome this when a talented chef, Sean Bedford, joined the team. “It is critical that you have a good and dedicated chef to keep the business on even keel,” says Harrington who has owned three restaurants in her career.
In May of this year, Bedford accepted a position at a Denver, Colorado company. Combine this with the birth of her child in the same month, and Carly made the decision to bring Prairie Canary to a close. She contacted building owner Dick Knapp, who has been a major investor in Grinnell for more than ten years, and informed him of her intent to close in two weeks.
According to most business advisors, succession of a viable business requires time, a sustainable marketplace and the ability to connect multiple resources for the purpose of successfully transitioning the company to new ownership. It is a fragile exercise. Knowing the success of Prairie Canary, and wanting to maintain this type of restaurant environment in Grinnell; Dick Knapp contacted Angela Harrington. “A part of my role is to try and connect people to make things happen, especially where business development and retention is concerned,” says Harrington. “The timeframe in this situation seemed impossible,” she says.
After many hours of phone conversations and networking, Harrington engaged local business person and soccer coach, Paul Durr. Paul, and wife Kalyn, have experience with restaurants having operated the highly successful Depot restaurant from 1998 through 2005. “I was very excited about the prospect. I love this style of cooking and have seen the potential for growth over the years,” says Durr.
Orchestrated by Harrington; Durr, Groben and Knapp negotiated a deal that will preserve the Prairie Canary’s atmosphere and menu style, while giving a new flare to service and general offerings. Durr will become the new owner of the business in June. “We will be instituting full table service during lunch, and bringing the full bar upstairs immediately,” says Durr. “But the menu will remain largely the same, and our overall approach will be consistent with the successes Carly has built over the past few years,” he says. “I couldn’t be more thrilled,” says Harrington. “The successful transition of existing businesses is just another sign of the health of our community,” she says.