Back to Topeka- Book Research and The Cyrus Hotel

When I told people about the setting for The Bad News Café, most of the time they would ask “Why Topeka?” As I make progress on the new book (also set in North Topeka), and spend an increasing amount of time out there, I still get the same question. Of all the possible midwestern settings, what is it about the town that inspires me to spend the equivalent of a few years working on stories with THAT backdrop?  Local history is one driver for the new book, but what I always say is- it reminds me of where I grew up without being where I grew up. Writing about Wyandotte County would be too much of a distraction, so North Topeka is a great location that reminds me of home but allows me to take creative liberties in my storytelling. I’ve spent enough time there, studied some of the history, and talked with enough locals to have a semi-intelligent conversation about the town. Three major floods and shifts in the business landscape took their toll on North Topeka… it has that “other side of the tracks” feel that I grew up with in the ‘Dotte. It’s awesome to watch it making a comeback in the same way I watch Strawberry Hill in KCK flourishing after a long hiatus.

Someone I know described the people to me as “nice but not friendly”. I totally understand what they mean, I consider myself pretty nice but not necessarily friendly…when I don’t know you. It’s just an outsider vs. local thing. North Topeka has taken a lot of shit for no real reason other than location. Floods came, a lot of people and businesses left, the trains became more sparse, and it was cheaper to live there than the higher ground. That’s a huge oversimplification, but I’m not a local historian. I get it though. It’s local pride coupled with the knowledge that some view it as “that” part of town. That’s the story of the first half of my life…Wyandotte vs. Johnson County. It’s pretty stupid when you think about the fact that people get uppity because they’re located a couple miles away and are slightly less poor. We earned a lot of our reputation though. In high school we’d go pick trash bags of ditch weed by the train tracks in Wolcott, dry it, and then wait for the preppie boys from JoCo to come slumming on the weekends. They got to pretend it wasn’t garbage weed, leave their money, and head back over the Kansas River with stories of the ‘hood and all of their blood intact. If you’re not from a place, just be cool and don’t act like you’re doing people a favor by visiting their home. I’m stuck on North Topeka, not sure how to explain it any better.

With that declarative testimony out of the way, the main reason for my post is to have something to show for my work. We had a great visit last weekend. So nice in fact that we weren’t even slightly annoyed to find out that it was Cruise Night downtown and the streets around our hotel were closed.  It seems like the festival crowds out there are way less “Walking Dead on Meth” than some of ours in KC…so we shall opt for more of them in the future.

 

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I feel like I can’t just go out there for fun. There has to be some work component related to book writing. This trip it was a visit to The Topeka Room at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library. It’s a beautiful place and will be a family destination for us when we come back out. I went there to see what kind of historical information I could find that was related to Charles Parham, and the roots of the Pentecostal movement in Topeka. Long story short, I found a book that was ok, but the librarian found a vertical file for me that was a gold mine. I will not bore you with it here, but trust me, it was a treasure trove of pre-millennial dispensationalist goodness. I’ll be making another trip just to talk with their local history librarian and see what else may be available.

 

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I know I talk a lot about “the new book” and offer up generally vague tidbits involving Topeka and the Pentecostal movement. After I wrote The Bad News Café, I found that the single most annoying task was to try and write a book summary for the cover and online retail sites. So THIS time around I came up with an easily updated summary way earlier in the process. This is a very rough draft, but will give you enough info to know if it sounds interesting to you or not-

It is a story about two families with roots in the birth of the Pentecostal movement that began in Topeka in 1901, and the current day finds their respective churches struggling in very different ways to find relevance in the midst of an overall decline in American membership. The main character is a single mom from the fundamentalist “fire and brimstone” family. Her life choices have her weighing the best path for her children who, in her periodic absences, have been raised in the dogma of her own childhood. Limited opportunities,  unbending traditions, and a daughter who has achieved local fame, puts her on a path to finally find salvation in the betrayal of a past that does not possess forgiveness. 
I’m still working on some of the research to insure authenticity, but the overall storyline is about 75% mapped out, and I’ve got close to 10,000 words worth of notes written that will drive the majority of the action. It’s a much more detailed undertaking than my first book, and I have very high hopes for it. My “artistic process” is very specific as far as my methods, so slow and steady is the discipline I must follow to make it work.
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The Topeka Capital Journal from January 1901- reporting on Parham’s congregation at Stone’s Folly

I can talk 80’s weed, metal, and M80 production with anyone who has a similarly rustic pedigree, but I’m getting older and tend to enjoy more refined relaxations when time and a limited budget allows. We are a solid Hyatt Place and Hilton Garden Inn family when we travel. You give me a comfortable hotel room in the neighborhood of $85 to $105, and I’ll happily spend less on our date night dinners in order to make up for the added expense. The Cyrus Hotel has been on my radar for a little while because we have friends who work at Aparium’s sister Crossroads Hotel in KC. Plus they just did a great job of marketing themselves as an upscale but homey boutique hotel in downtown Topeka (and they do social media very well). Once I move into the “musical nightlife” phase of the book’s research and writing, I anticipate spending more nights in Topeka vs. driving back to KC at 2am. And being a creature of habit with a deep devotion to supporting local businesses, Cyrus Hotel and The Weather Room are places I’ll frequent whenever possible.  I don’t know if it’s just an Aparium thing, or if most hotels do it, but the Cyrus may still be in the “promotional pricing” phase with its rooms. We’ll have to see, but I’m interested in how a cost bump would translate in Topeka vs. Kansas City. Right now the Crossroads Hotel has what looks like about a $179-$199 per night post-promo rack rate, and over the next few months it looks like the Cyrus is in the $129 range. Still promotional? How much room do they have to increase it if so? I have no idea, the inner-workings of local boutique hotels that are part of a larger corporate structure just intrigue me.

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All of my pointless questions aside, if you don’t know me, you aren’t aware that I don’t do traditional reviews. I only write about places that I like, not places that I don’t like. And I have an annoying, rambling way of doing it in a manner that is of no marketable/shareable/re-tweetable value to whomever or whatever I am writing about. I’m not an “influencer”…even saying the word makes me throw up in my throat a little bit. Influencers are just free range “Elite” Yelpers, and my feelings about Yelp are a matter of record. I’m about making connections and building relationships with the people who are behind the places I love, and checking out the places that they love. I 100% understand the value of influencers from the business perspective, I’m just not someone prone to trafficking in comps and then rushing off to the next shiny new filter-friendly spot. Example- we had a server at The Weather Room named Prince who did a great job on several levels. So he’s “my guy” now. When I go back, that’s who I’ll request for as long as he’s available, and he will be someone from whom I learn about the place and about the town. That has proven to be a bulletproof way of approaching the hospitality industry for me, and has made me a valuable resource for my friends when questions about where to eat, drink, or stay arise. The biggest bonus is that I rarely have to worry about a bad experience anywhere I go because the vetting has been done by likeminded locals.

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ANYWAY- we are on board with the Cyrus Hotel. As someone who is delving into local history for my own project, I do appreciate how they chose to make Cyrus K. Holliday such an omnipresent goddamn figure throughout the building. There are so many smart things about the place. The atmosphere is upscale and somewhat subdued, but every employee we encountered was bright and engaging. It’s a great balance. With it being Cruise Night, the crowd was pretty diverse… white Zin ladies checking in with their purse dogs, and dudes rolling in with coolers bigger than their suitcases. And the vibe I got was- come as you are. When you are “Topeka’s first boutique hotel”, you have to be smart about the fact that you are also the newest guest in the town. You aren’t there to teach people “how to boutique” or cater solely to the boors who will say “thank god FINALLY something that reminds me of” whatever the hell town and hotel they throw out for comparison…every…three…minutes. These days when I hear “boutique hotel” my mind immediately goes to hipsterdom…Edison bulbs inside of Edison bulbs and kombucha ice cubes in a drink from the order your server pounded out on an ol’ timey manual typewriter. Or velocipede parking at reclaimed wooden racks out front, next to the Tesla charging station. The Cyrus Hotel is relaxed but not insulated, with an interior design that is upscale but natural. I guess the way I would describe it as a boutique hotel is that the experience starts at the door vs. when you get to your room.

 

The rooms are smart too. We stayed in the basic (smallest) king room, and the use of space is pretty remarkable. The integration of the wardrobe, tv, desk, and mini-bar/fridge is such a pro move. Great bed and a larger bathroom and shower than you’d expect. The hotel shower is something that I’m weirdly picky about, a really good one weighs heavily into my enthusiasm to return. The large, all tile walk-in shower is an excellent feature AND probably reduces turnaround time when it comes to cleaning. While it’s not a plus or a minus, it is worth bringing up the fact that there are no ice machines on the floors. Has to be an Aparium thing, it’s the same at Crossroads. You call downstairs and they deliver your ice. I know. The guys with the rolling coolers will have people earning their pay. You know the employees just love that shit…”Oh please, let ME run that ice! I cherish this aspect of our business model!”  I can think of three or four good reasons why there are no ice machines, it’s just that deep rooted whiskey tango inside me with the knee jerk “Where’s my fuckin’ ICE? Oh! You don’t want me havin’ ICE? Well la dee daaa! I guess I will just perch upon my tuffet and run someone to DEATH! Bring my ICE!”

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I am very, very, very serious about coffee. So much so that it will get its own small paragraph. In-room coffee machines are garbage that shouldn’t exist. Keurigs are even worse. I don’t normally drink Starbucks, but I will if it’s the only thing near the hotel. And if there’s good coffee in the hotel I’ll pay whatever you want to charge for it. I’m a fan of nice little value add-ons, and at first I was like “Oh, cute. Wooden nickels for a free coffee. Just walk on down WHERE THEY KEEP THE ICE FROM YOU for a cup of hotel coffee…wheeeeee!”….all of that thought to myself while Googling where to find the nearest real coffee. The fact that they use PT’s did not impress me at first because I was expecting a big AA meeting drip machine that would defile the beloved premium local coffee. No joke- the coffee is good. Real coffee drinker good, drip done properly served in a big ass travel cup. And it’s brewed nice and strong, so it’s not just coffee that you drink on your way to get coffee.

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Hotel restaurants can be tricky. 21C has pretty much mastered the “you don’t even have to leave the property” aspect of fine dining, so it’s always  good to have another brand in competition towards that goal. As I already mentioned, our experience at The Weather Room was very good. It was good enough to just keep going back there when I want a higher end meal in Topeka, until someone there tells me “hey, you need to try this other place too”.  The menu is smart; a good launching point to find their groove in the community, and it’s a great value. There are influences in dishes that can provide an avenue for an increasingly chef-driven format (Moroccan seasonings and preparations will always get our money), and the ever-important local and seasonal aspects are in line for a mid-sized menu.  When you consider they are serving breakfast, lunch, happy hour, dinner, room service (ultra-value pricewise), and weekend brunch, it is damn impressive what is coming out of the kitchen. The steaks are done right, and nobody is leaving hungry…so at a minimum it’s got the straight midwestern appeal.  I look forward to seeing what the remainder of spring and summer bring to the menu.

The front of house crew has it together. I’m not one of those diners who treats people like I’m giving them a pop quiz, but I will do some light data mining to get a feel on whether or not there is a sense of ownership in the front of the house. That’s my personal x-factor. You give me service where people communicate a sense of who they are and why they choose to be there, and I’ll overlook aspects of the food that might normally keep me from coming back. But you give me that same service with genuinely good food, and you will probably end up  in our rotation. Our server let us know what he liked about the menu and why, as well as his take on how the menu has progressed and where he imagined it heading. Table management was great, as was communication with the bar staff when I plugged KC’s beloved local Rieger liquors (for which I make no money and am not affiliated with) and asked for a mocktail. As a non-drinker I generally don’t expect too much when requesting a non-alcoholic drink on a busy weekend night….it does not factor into my overall opinion if I wind up with OJ and a splash of Sprite with a lime wedge. I get it. Ringing a soda for something that requires your time is less than optimum. BUT when my server comes back and asks on behalf of the bartender what flavors I like….that shit resonates in my heart. Well played Weather Room.

 

 

There’s a lot to look forward to as I travel back and forth to Topeka in order to work on my book. Food, drink, coffee, donuts, plenty of history related and recreational sites for the whole family or our grownup getaways. I hate it when people come to Kansas City from a larger town and play the comparison game. I always remember sitting at Novel in KC, listening to a couple next to me tell me how impressed they were with my town. Yeah, we have roads and we use silverware…how crazy is that?  Then it turned out they were from……wait for it……Denver. It wouldn’t have mattered if they were from New York or Chicago, every town deserves to be appreciated within its own context. Everyplace has something new to teach you. Why Topeka? I find new things to like every time I go.

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Categories: Fine Dining, New, Topeka

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