By Amy Geiszler-Jones - Photography by Madison Ham
Editor’s Note: CEO Spotlight is a recurring monthly feature on CEOs, presidents and business owners in the Wichita area.
Jennifer Ray just wanted to open a quiet little neighborhood bar.
“And then this happened,” she said, as she drank a mid-morning coffee in a booth overlooking the patio of the Monarch, her popular bar and restaurant in Wichita’s historic Delano district.
It happened fast – with success coming through a mix of serendipity and a lot of hard work. Earlier this year, Ray’s nearly 5-year-old business earned the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year award. Her humility when accepting the award was genuine, the kind that comes from a homegrown product who revels in her city’s entrepreneurship and creativity and has found a way to immerse herself in it and advance it.
Located at the physical entrance into one of Wichita’s most storied, historic neighborhoods, the Monarch has become a hot spot for the lunch crowd, an after-work gathering spot for friends, a happening place on the weekend and perhaps the only bar in Wichita to offer more than 200 varieties of bourbons – so many that the listing is provided to customers in a multipage, hardbound “bourbon book.”
As a college student at Wichita State University, Ray started working at Emerson Biggin’s at Old Town and eventually became its general manager. During that time she learned important lessons, some of them about herself and some about running a business. She’d gone to college, thinking she’d be a teacher, but she kept changing majors – criminal justice, then marketing, then business.
“I was trying hard to pound that round peg into a square hole,” she said, of trying to figure out what career path would be for her.
But she has kept learning, from working for others and networking with several other successful women entrepreneurs and business leaders in Wichita, like The Anchor’s Shane Gross, Xclusive Events’ Crystal McDonald, The Public’s Brooke Russell and the House of Schwan’s Pam Irish.
In late 2012, a better-act-fast opportunity came up to locate in a prime spot in Wichita – at the roundabout near Delano’s clock tower. It took 30 days for her to come up with a concept and the name and another 30 to open the door to her own place. The bar’s name is an homage to one of Wichita’s first bars in the 1870s.
She added creative touches to the space by hand-making tables, removing red tread plates (the leftover décor from its time as a bar called The Garage) and decorating the walls with original artwork from area artists. Boyfriend Gavin Peters, a well-known food photographer, helped her broker deals with the artists to purchase the pieces to create her own art gallery. Customers often take some time to view the artwork and the accompanying nameplates.
She started with four major pieces that took her two years to pay off. “And ever since I’ve been adding and adding. I now have 27 different local artists represented,” she said. “Oh, wait, scratch that, I’m picking up four more.”
“I was looking for a unique style here and have the privilege to have access to artists,” Ray said. “It’s been important to me to that I pay for it.”
Along with the art, the good menu and the extensive bourbon list, customers also like the Monarch’s central location, which was one of the reasons Ray jumped at the chance to occupy the space. Located almost in the heart of the city, it’s easy for residents to get to from almost any direction. Plus there is another amenity: “I’ve got a beautiful patio that overlooks the Delano clock tower.” The patio can accommodate about 150 customers, about the same as the indoor seating.
About the time Ray took up residence with her business – after having spent some time actually living in Delano – the Delano district was seeing some rejuvenation. It’s going to see a lot more. Just recently, the city of Wichita formed an advisory committee to help it guide the Delano neighborhood’s revitalization. The city’s new library is being built nearby, as well.
Ray likes seeing things like that happening in her town and in her neighborhood.
“It’s nice to see people taking an interest in their city,” she said. “The stronger the core is, the stronger the city will be.”
As a business owner she feels compelled to give back. “It has to be a two-way street. I can’t just expect people to come in and pay me money. I need to give back to the community,” Ray said.
Ray does that by volunteering with the Wichita River Festivals and being on various boards of director, including the Tallgrass Film Festival and the Downtown YMCA. She’s held fundraisers for local charities and has hosted community-dialogue events for KMUW’s Engage ICT project.
Sometimes customer ask her about opening a second location, but she quickly shoots that idea down.
“That lightening will not strike twice,” she said. “I’ve been so lucky that things have fell into place.”
While it’s far from quiet, it is a one-of-a-kind neighborhood bar of her own that she’s happy to share with her hometown.