By Abby Hoover
A new concept in Mexican cuisine is coming soon to Fifth Street in historic Columbus Park in the former North End restaurant space.
In under four weeks, partners Perry Jordan and Kevin Hill have brought on local restaurateur and consultant Katee McLean to bring their ideas to life – including a creative menu and colorful cocktails – and began renovating the space.
The North End at 910 E. Fifth St. closed permanently in 2020, leaving the iconic building painted like an Italian flag vacant.
The building changed hands soon after, and new owner Kevin Hill began attempting to revitalize the local favorite, which had soured with a constant presence of low-level crimes and drunkenness spilling onto the surrounding streets.
After conversations with the Columbus Park Neighborhood Association, Hill decided to hold off until he found the right concept, one that would make everyone happy.
Construction is moving fast in the restaurant space, flipping it from dark wood, faux brick and bar lit with the colors of the Italian flag to a space more reflective of its new name: Hibiscus.
What is sure to be a controversial point in the historically Italian neighborhood, Perry and Hill plan to have the outside of the building painted.
“We’re looking to the future of this neighborhood and where the neighborhood’s headed, sprucing it up a bit,” McLean said of the exterior facade.
The menu will be different from any of the many Mexican food trucks and restaurants found along Independence Avenue, although still rooted in tradition.
“We’re kind of playing on Mexican street food dining in kind of an elevated, more eloquent way,” McLean said. “We’ve been playing around, we just want bright, vibrant and fresh. That’s kind of the look and feel, vibe, of the entire space is we want this to feel like you’re being transported somewhere special.”
For Jordan, putting a restaurant back in the space feels like destiny. He is opening Tasty Unicorn, the brick-and-mortar version of his ice cream truck, just across the street at 913 E. Fifth St. in March.
“I’m staring out the window of Tasty Unicorn one day while I was over there seeing the progress, and across the street, I go, ‘It just looks so empty and vacant, we need to put something there,’” Jordan said. “I reached out, got information for the current owner of the building, reached out to him and said ‘Hey, you want to rent it? What’s your situation?’”
Hill didn’t know what he wanted to do with the space yet, so they got together in person to discuss ideas. Although he’d received other offers, he liked Jordan’s concept.
“At that point, we decided instead of me leasing it, we’re going to partner on it,” Jordan said. “It just went from one level to a whole other level. We just kind of clicked and came together on it and we’re just kind of running off of it. It’s been really good energy between the two of us, then we brought Katee into the mix.”
They’ve spent the last two weeks in nearly every Mexican restaurant in Kansas City, which has helped them develop their vision and direction.
“I’m hoping this bridges the gap between the younger crowd of downtown into Northeast,” Jordan said. “I hope that brings them over here so they’re like, ‘You know, Northeast isn’t scary,’ like a lot of people think it is. Come try this and then continue down the avenue to try the other Mexican restaurants because there’s a lot of good choices.”
While the partners say they’ve secured a liquor license for Hibiscus, their drink menu will be a far cry from the shot machines at the North End.
“We’re not trying to focus on the bar aspect of it, we’re going to have much higher end, more expensive cocktails,” Jordan said. “It’s a restaurant with drinks, not a bar with food.”
While Jordan’s fighting the stigma of the previous owners, he understands the neighbors’ concerns and hopes they’ll give him a chance to change their minds.
“If I owned a house down here, I’d be concerned with what’s getting ready to open, so it’s an uphill battle,” Jordan said.
Just like with Tasty Unicorn, he’s planning on doing fundraisers for the Don Bosco Centers.
“We want to see this whole street, the whole neighborhood, come back to life,” Jordan said. “Even when the North End was open, it had a lot of life to it, but it’s even more so now with having the coffee shop, Swoon cookies, Tasty Unicorn across the street, it’s going to be a beautiful street.”
If everything goes as planned, they’ll open Hibiscus in April. They plan to be open Friday through Sunday in the beginning, and once they’re confident in their menu and have a full staff, they’ll open six days a week.
“We had a great Italian restaurant here, the North End was great, we have all the recipes and when I wanted to open it just myself I was probably going to run with a little bit of a condensed version of that menu,” Jordan said. “But when you look at the grand scheme of things, Mexican food is pretty universal, a lot of people like it.”
McLean envisions a place for a nice meal, but also lots of tapas-style shareables. Most menu items will be between $7 and $18, but specials like a whole snapper will be higher.
“We’ll try to stay in that range where you could come in and spend a little less and have like a lighter Happy Hour-type situation, or somebody could come in and do a multi-course and have a nicer dining experience,” McLean said. “So it lets people in the neighborhood pick and choose the kind of an experience. I think ‘refreshing’ is a good word for this space and the food. That’s kind of what we’re going for, bright, vibrant, refreshing, something new and a little different.”
Jordan is excited for the interesting dessert creations they’re cooking up for Hibiscus, like alcohol-infused ice cream.
“We’re definitely gonna have some healthier choices like some vegan options and things like that,” Jordan said. “It’s very important to us.”
They plan to utilize the patio space in the warmer months, but want to make sure it’s a space the neighborhood is proud of.
“We will have zero tolerance for fighting, belligerently drunk people, I mean, that’s certainly something that our bartenders will be very big on,” Jordan said. “But we’re not going to have run of the mill bartenders. We’re going to have more like actual mixologists and much more elevated bartenders… People that go out for elevated drinks aren’t there to get drunk, they’re there for the drink because they actually enjoy it.”
They’ll start hiring within the next 30 days, and although their style of service will be a little unconventional, Jordan said it will allow them to pay their staff better.
“We want to keep the food elevated a little bit to where it costs a little bit more but you’re getting a better dish,” Hill said. “We don’t want people who are just coming in here to sit and drink, get drunk, drink their sorrows away. We want people to come in here and feel like this place is lively and fresh and inviting.”
When Hill bought the property, he was excited to get started, but he told the neighborhood he wouldn’t do it until he knew it could be successful. At the time, he couldn’t provide a business plan to the neighborhood and although he said it would be different, he couldn’t show them how. Now, he says he’s on the right track, with the right partner.
“I’ve had several people come and talk to me about leasing the space,” Hill said. “At the end of the day, they’re tenants and it’s money for me, but I always have to answer for those tenants. Some situations are good, some situations are bad, but ultimately I have to answer for those tenants and with the past, I don’t feel like you got many more chances with this neighborhood. It just wasn’t worth it to me to take that risk with any of those tenants at that time.”
While Jordan has some restaurant experience, Hill has none. That’s why they brought on McLean, who owned and operated two restaurants, Krokström and Vildhäst, which are now permanently closed. With their combination of business experience, restaurant ownership and fresh eyes, they collaborate well.
They’re excited for the revitalization of areas surrounding Columbus Park, too. Construction will soon begin on the KC Current Women’s Soccer Stadium, a new brewery is going in down in the East Bottoms, River Market and downtown are teeming with new life, and Bally’s Casino is undergoing major renovations.
Hibiscus will soon occupy the vacant former North End space on Fifth Street, filling in one more gap in a block that has seen incredible local investment and revitalization in the past two years.