Talking to Laura Norris as she is days away from opening her new Italian deli and café in Westport, Cucina della Ragazza, 301 Westport Rd., you’d never know about the sweat she and her family and friends have put in to make it happen.
The restaurant’s space was last used as a cell phone shop. One of the first things Norris did to transform it into a restaurant was to remove the drywall that covered a large stone fireplace, making it a focal point of the room. One of the biggest challenges along the way was getting approval for a large hooded cooking vent to the street that would be visible from the outside of the building.
“We would be open by now if we hadn’t run into so many obstacles,” Norris said.
The most recent hurdle, she said, was that the vent had to be reviewed by the arts commission that meets once a month. On Dec. 2, she proudly announced on her Facebook page that it had been approved.
“I could probably open tomorrow if I was just to be a bar and serve sandwiches,” she said, “but I don’t want to do it that way. And I promised the neighborhood what it would be and don’t want to back out on that.”
With a laugh, Norris describes the café as “deli by day, wine by night.”
“We’re going to have great wine and great food. But we also want you to feel good when you walk in. The atmosphere is warm, and people are friendly.”
The restaurant is next door to Bistro 303, on the same block as other gay-owned businesses and favorites like Wonderland, Blo Salon, The Corner restaurant , Dave’s Stagecoach Inn and Mario’s Deli.
Norris said the owners of Bistro 303 had been helpful. “I think we’re definitely going to complement each other. They have been awesome. Gene has been so supportive. It helps me because I see them every day and they say ‘when can we have sandwiches?’”
Norris said the translation for Cucina della Ragazza is “girl’s kitchen,” and that’s how she came up with the name. Her mother is full-blooded Italian. A portrait of her mother and two uncles as children and her grandmother hangs on the wall at the entrance. “They come from the area south of Naples, and that will be reflected in the food,” Norris said.
Norris is well-known in the Kansas City LGBT community through her executive work with area nonprofits. Her many friends include Missy Koonce, who formerly was an owner of bar Natasha, the restaurant and nightclub. Norris credited Koonce with helping her with everything from human resources issues, to the menu, to the creation of Italian specialty drinks.
Of her decision to open a restaurant, she said, “I started thinking seriously about it last fall, and I had been thinking about it since I was probably about 23. My whole world has been nonprofit up until this point.”
She said that her previous nonprofit experience took her frequently to New York.
“I became obsessed with the delis in the Bronx,” Norris said. “And when I went to Italy, then I became more obsessed. They do it very differently in Rome than New York. And then I started traveling around visiting Italian delis in the last few years, seeing how people did it.”
She said that finding a deli with a wine bar was not common, which was another reason for her concept in Kansas City. Not only will the restaurant have a wine bar of Italian and European wines, but it will also have a full liquor bar.
Cucina della Ragazza will have table service on weekends and deli counter service earlier in the week. The hours will be 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and 10:30 a.m.-midnight Thursday-Friday and 9 a.m.-midnight on Saturday. They will be closed on Sunday.
“It will be a small menu on the weekends, maybe seven or eight items, outside of the regular sandwiches,” she said. She also plans to be open for breakfast at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings, serving Italian frittatas and other brunch items. In addition, she said, they will host private parties and perhaps even political events.
“My frame of reference for this whole thing is to make my life different, not necessarily make a lot of money, but do something I really want to do,” Norris said. “I got burned out on the nonprofit world. Now I’m my own boss. I worked for great boards, so I don’t have complaints there. I just think the downfall in the economy over the last eight years or however long it’s been … I thought I’d rather sell $8 sandwiches than do the kind of fundraising I was doing all those years.”
Norris said she spent a lot of time on her business plan. “Because of my nonprofit background, I wrote it like I would a grant proposal and was very thorough. I had lots of different restaurant people and accountants. I was fortunate to have friends in the business that would help me look at the plan.”
She also used her networking connections to apply for a loan through the Small Business Administration and the Women’s Employment Network in cooperation with several lenders.
“People are just like, ‘how in the world did you get an SBA loan?’ Because they don’t like to do this kind of investment,” Norris said.
She has a couple of equity investors who own 15 percent of the business and she owns 85 percent through her own loans and what she called “the bank of family and friends.” Norris said that she had to make some changes in order to fund her dream.
“I moved in with my parents so I could afford to do this, and in part because I own a cabin and that is the collateral for my loans,” she said.
Norris had previously been the executive director of Youth Friends, a local nonprofit focused on mentoring and education for youth. She said they had decided to dissolve Youth Friends in February.
“We went into silent negotiations with a major nonprofit to take over Youth Friends. But in February, they backed out and we were left with some tough decisions to make in what to do with the program.”
Even though her business plan for Cucina della Ragazza was done at that time, she said she really couldn’t get back to focusing on the new business until about May 2013.
From that point forward, work progressed rapidly on the new space, building the bar and dining tables, setting up a kitchen and more. In fact the tables were handmade by Norris and her brother Grant, and the bar was built by a friend, Taz Ridley.
She created the plan for the interior from scratch. Norris said she wanted the bar to be at the front of the restaurant near the windows so she would have complete visibility of the restaurant, with seating outside the bar running the length of the space toward the back of the room. The room is bright and airy, and a large chandelier dominates the area near the front door, which is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows.
Norris said that all the details of the December opening will be announced on the Facebook page for Cucina della Ragazza. They are also working on their website, which will be www.ragazzakc.com (it’s not yet active).
Norris said she could not have done this without the support of family and friends. “For myself, I only know how important my community of friends has been to make this happen.”