Cheesy Pepperjack Tornado

The view from a street in Des Moines’ Drake Neighborhood (2020)

Part I: It Is What It Is

Here’s a good what if? moment from the annals of my strange young life. 

My first conversations about being hired on at my former employer, The Des Moines Register, took place not in late 2018 but in early 2017. As we prepared to move from Long Island to Iowa, I began interviewing for the open position of food writer at the Register. I got pretty far along in the process, eventually going through several rounds of interviewing before meeting with the newspaper’s board.

Understandably, I was passed over due to my relative inexperience for another candidate, a friendly food enthusiast with no real writing background. Instead, he had established experience in the Des Moines food scene and personal relationships with some of its biggest players. He spent next three or so years pumping out SEO-optimized taxonomies of Des Moines restaurants and news items alerting readers as to which place had just opened and which place just closed. We shared a byline on a couple pieces.

In what Nobel Prize-winner Bob Dylan might refer to as a “simple twist of fate,” the last Register food writer was fired not long after my own firing in September. If you weren’t paying attention, you might not have noticed. I certainly didn’t at first, though to be fair I had other things on my mind. I won’t burn my source on this any more than I already have, but I’ll just say this: If you had been following this writer’s work, you could likely guess the firing offense. 

No one could have known that only months after the last Register food writer’s firing, the Des Moines restaurant industry, supermarkets, and the eating lifestyle of its residents would be completely upended by the coronavirus pandemic. The economic impact will likely render the different listings, categorizations, and maps he built woefully out of date, its information made incorrect by the disappearance of many of the listed restaurants.

It’s tempting to wonder what my life could’ve been like if the Register had taken a chance on a green reporter with no print experience just moving back to the Midwest from the coast. Would I have been successful at the food writer position? Maybe. I certainly have an enthusiasm for thinking and writing about food. Would it have kept me from the trouble I eventually found my way into reporting on trending and viral news? Maybe. Knowing myself, probably not. 

As the virtuosic bassist and songwriter Thundercat has said: It is what it is.

Meanwhile, Gannett stock value has evaporated. Plus they’re still on the hook for the gratuitous interest payments that allowed their recent mega-merger to go through, the one that was finalized just in time for advertising dollars to disappear. My former colleagues are still doing necessary and essential work, enduring the same anxiety and as everyone else while still covering the pandemic in Iowa from every angle, and getting furloughed or having their already meager salaries slashed as a reward. 

But the departure of the last Register food writer leaves the obvious question: Is anyone reporting full-time on restaurants and the food industry in central Iowa during a crucial and volatile moment? The short answer is no. 

There’s certainly been a valiant effort to keep up. The Register’s Iowa Columnist wrote a nice profile about a pho restaurant in Merle Hay Mall’s food court adapting to the pandemic. The breaking news and business reporters have been covering the supply chain and anything food-related that feels like hard news probably. I know everyone works hard, but no one is owning the beat. The local blogs don’t cover it.

Cityview, Des Moines’ free lifestyle magazine currently suffering from a collapsed business model, was generally useless anyway. Now that they can’t just dump their magazine around town, they’ve put out an impossible to read digital edition with some good gossip (if you can squint) on the drama within the family that inherited Noah’s Ark (One of Des Moines’ oldest restaurants) and some dispatches from their food columnist Jim Duncan, whose writing generally ranges from grumpy to boring. 

There is no real full-time food reporter covering the food and restaurant industry in a metro area of 655,409 people during a world-altering pandemic. What will the Des Moines restaurant scene look like when this is all over? What will it look like in two months, even? Who knows. Thanks to this lack of coverage in the Des Moines food scene, it’s hard to know what’s even going on right now.

At least one enterprising individual blogger has stepped forward to fill the information gap. The operator of the Instagram account wholedamnwoman (FKA DSMFoodLover) promotes fundraisers for different businesses and reports on food news in the Des Moines area along with her various other concerns. She’s even taken the time to build a local restaurant database that provides a highly useful and itemized listing of restaurants offerings and their takeout/ curbside/ delivery status in the pandemic era subdivided into different neighborhoods and towns, along with other resources for those looking to help the local entertainment and service community. 

This doesn’t make up for the lack of a full-time food and restaurant reporter. Of course, this lack is really another symptom of a decimated, fractured media economy that has long inadequately served the Des Moines metro. It’s not because those still reporting at the Register or other publications aren’t working hard enough, they’re just stretched far too thin for it to be enough and vital areas of coverage are made into a secondary thoughts by the pressures of austerity.

The view from below I-235 in Des Moines (2020)

Part II: Beneath the Lid

On October 10, 1918, as World War I wound down, a headline appeared on the front page of the Des Moines Register: QUARANTINE’S LID SETTLES OVER CITY. 

The article goes on to inform the public on the general closings and restrictions being put in place as a virulent flu descended upon the city. When I first saw the headline in March, it seemed like an apt metaphor.

Having followed the coronavirus since its early emergence in China, I understood the dangers it posed, not to my own health necessary (though no one without insurance ever wants to get sick), but to others. The clear need to self-isolate arrived at a time when I was slowly beginning to emerge from a social self-isolation after the events of September. Just as I was reaching a place where I was feeling more comfortable going out in public, it was back into the apartment for the foreseeable future. 

It was clear from the beginning that quarantine’s lid was much tighter for some than others. No shelter in place came from the governor’s office. Other than an inability to enter restaurants and other areas where people gather, it was evident to anyone that looked outside that many in the Des Moines area were not practicing social distancing effectively and not staying home as generally advised. 

In the long ago-seeming days of March, the lack of commitment from the state and erratic treatment by the federal government filtered down to create an environment of confusion. Those trying to prevent the spread of virus to others or those with vulnerabilities trying to avoid contracting the virus themselves were put in harm’s way by those who didn’t or couldn’t believe in the seriousness of the virus and were unwilling to follow recommended safety measures. 

Though the pile of the sick and the dead gets a little taller each day, Iowa is already emerging from its half-hearted quarantine. Gov. Reynolds’ commitment to remaining “open for business” has forced many businesses to find their own way to continue their operations as usual despite a completely altered economic terrain. This is especially true when it comes to restaurants and grocery stores, where workers are struggling on the frontlines of the pandemic, mostly away from the public’s view. 

At the Smokey Row coffee house location on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard just off I-235, workers are feeling trapped. Pre-pandemic, the oddly triangular building served as an innocuous place to host bible meetings and prayer groups while drinking some of the worst coffee available in the state. It’s status as one of the few coffee shops in the Des Moines downtown corridor with a drive-through window has now made it one of the area’s most accessible coffee shops. 

Workers at Smokey Row feel they’ve been put in a dangerous and compromising condition. According to a source close to the workers there, several Smokey Row employees have been fired after expressing concerns about coming into work due to inadequate protections against the coronavirus in the workplace in a job that requires high volume interaction with the public. Those who remain are left deal with these fears while managing the crowded drive-through window. 

Further south on MLK Boulevard, Gateway Market—the expensive organic market owned by Orchestrate, one of Des Moines’ most prominent restaurant groups—is dealing with its own issues. According to a source with close knowledge of the store’s operations, an employee at the grocery store tested positive for Covid-19 in mid-April. It’s been weeks now since that employee was sent home to quarantine. In the interim, employees have been allowed to wear masks, though effective spacing of employees and customers is impossible in the store’s current configuration. 

There’s strange restaurant news out of Des Moines’ East Village as well. In the midst of the pandemic, the husband of the owner of the bar The Continental has claimed via his business’ Facebook page that Jason Simon, owner of restaurants Eatery A, Alba, The Motley School Tavern and apparently the building The Continental occupies, is attempting to force the cocktail bar out with some serious rent gouging and reportedly threatening to double the bar’s rent. 

One group of food sellers I’m curious to learn more about right now is food truck operators. As I’ve reported in the past, Des Moines can be pretty discriminatory about where it allows food trucks to operate, relegating the taco trucks to the city’s east and south sides. Food trucks seem to be both well-positioned to survive the pandemic in the sense that they operate with relatively low-overhead and are adaptable relative to brick-and-mortar places, but some are also uniquely vulnerable as they feed the essential workers, the very workers who are at highest risk of contracting Covid-19 but have never been sent home and never adequately protected (to be clear, this about proximity and social density, not cleanliness). 

Some restaurants are stuck in their own pandemic limbo. Full Court Press, the restaurant group that owns Fong’s Pizza and many other downtown restaurants, was in the process of opening a burger and beer joint in the former site of Crazy Horse Guitars, the beloved Drake Neighborhood guitar shop that sold particularly beautiful instruments (and other things, if you knew the password) before its owner died. Now an “Opening Soon” sign hangs hopefully from its window. 

One welcome sight is the growing availability of Caribbean food in the city. After moving back to Iowa from a neighborhood in Brooklyn with abundant and incredible Caribbean food, I felt it’s absence in Des Moines deeply. Now enterprising cooks are making the most of a dark time. Miss Molly’s Jamaican Food Truck, which has sporadically appeared over the past few years at downtown festivals and suburban bars, partnered with the cocktail bar Jupiter Moon to serve takeout food along with the bar’s takeout cocktails for at least one Saturday last month, something they’ll hopefully do again. Palm’s Caribbean Cuisine has been offering take out on the weekends and looks delicious.  

Still, the festivals that seem to occur every week each summer and have become a staple of the city and the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s decade-long downtown redevelopment project will likely not happen now. Despite Gov. Reynold’s moves towards reopening the state, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and the city council seem poised to keep these festivals—which many food vendors once relied on for income—from happening out of a reasonable belief that such events would contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. Cownie and the others seem to be cautiously trying to keep a lid on things as much as possible, but are clearly trying to avoid open embattlement with Gov. Reynolds. Just wait until June or July when it comes time to see whether Des Moines will put up a fight to keep the Iowa State Fair from happening, an event that attracted over one million people last year.   

The citizens of Des Moines are also being forced to reckon with the ways the pandemic is revealing the vulnerabilities of the supply chain in their backyard. Hy-Vee, the grocery store once known for being employee-owned before realizing a more effective grocery empire could be obtained in the Midwest through generous donations to the Republican Party, has been forced to limit meat purchases and, in some places, put limitations on egg purchases, striking fear in the hearts of middle Americans and their devotion to a meat-centric diet. 

There’s much more to be written and discussed in regard to meat production, and the mostly-immigrant workers who have been completely left out to dry (and die) by Gov. Reynolds and other Midwestern lawmakers as well as the general unsustainability of the powerful meat industry (particularly pork in Iowa), but I won’t go much further here. 

What will the food landscape of Des Moines look like after the pandemic? The worst case scenario, as it is in many cities and towns, is a total obliteration of independently owned restaurants and food sources due to a lack of structural support after the collapse of formerly dependable revenue models. For many towns, especially those in isolated rural areas, this worst-case scenario has long been a reality anyway. Those who do survive will likely do so with a bit of privilege, ingenuity, and more than likely just by the skin of their teeth. 

A view from above I-235 in Des Moines (2020)

Part III: The Eight-Pump Empire 

Though the lid of quarantine was lightly fastened over Des Moines, land development in the city has continued without a hitch despite much of it seeming unessential. This has been especially true for one of the city’s most visible commercial developers, the innuendos-ly named gas station Kum & Go.

In the pre-pandemic days, I made frequent stops to my nearest gas station, the Kum & Go at the corner of 31st Street and University Avenue, usually to pick up beer and snacks. If I was in need of a quick bite, something to keep the hunger at bay before dinner, I surveyed the roller grill where various oblong-shaped food composites rotated invitingly under the warming light. 

My go-to was the Cheesy Pepperjack Tornado. Whatever the “tornado” branding was supposed to connote (A violent and sudden rush of flavor?), it was essentially a large stick of breaded pepper jack cheese, a mozzarella stick of a different kind. It was tasty, a little spicy, and a perfect tide-me-over snack. 

Now I’m not sure when I’ll eat another Cheesy Pepperjack Tornado. This isn’t just because we now live in a world where food items languishing on a warming grill all afternoon somehow seem even more unwise to consume than before. It’s also due to the fact that Kum & Go tore my Kum & Go down. They did this so they could build a new Kum & Go. They also razed a 107-year-old apartment building next door in order to do it. 

The plan to tear down and rebuild this Kum & Go was first presented to the Drake Neighborhood Association over a decade ago. The plan for a ten-pump gas station was rejected then for being too large. Ten years later, the association approved plans for the eight-pump gas station currently under construction. What changed? Drake University has certainly grown more ambitious in the last decade. It has long had plans to develop the neighborhood it occupies (one of the most diverse in the city) with new structures to be built in the immediate proximity of the newly reconstructed Kum & Go.

My old corner gas station was one of the wildest and strangest places in Des Moines. Whether it was at the top of the evening rush hour or two in the morning, it was always a memorable place to be. The employees and other patrons there felt like neighbors to me, bound together by our shared desire for cheap food, alcohol, and nicotine. The gas station also served as a base of operations for some of the local homeless who were then subsequently displaced when it was torn down. I wonder if I’ll see these people again when the Kum & Go returns. I know it can’t be the same. 

The Drake Neighborhood isn’t the only Des Moines area where Kum & Go’s real estate empire is expanding despite the ongoing pandemic. New signage has popped up on the recently renovated Edna M. Griffin Building for an imminently opening Kum & Go convenience store. It’s another amenity in a neighborhood that was a food desert only ten years ago, before the quick build-up of luxury apartments and the influx of whiter, wealthy residents. The company claims the focus will be on offering healthy food options (meaning: no roller grill and no Cheesy Pepperjack Tornadoes). We’ll see how this affects the already established immigrant-owned convenience store around the corner.

It was only a few years ago that Kum & Go opened their glass temple of a corporate office. It was designed by the same architecture firm that designed the Central Library. It’s completion brought a modernist aesthetic unification in pale bronze to the Western Gateway neighborhood. The music venue and bar Gas Lamp sits awkwardly between the Kum & Go office and Meredith Corporation’s walled off Better Homes & Gardens garden, it’s future unknown. Kum & Go owns the building Gas Lamp occupies along with many of the other nearby buildings and the lease was up at the end of 2019.  

It’s worth noting here perhaps that Kum & Go’s empire has seen its fortunes greatly expand since it’s owners, the Krause family, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Iowa Republican Terry Branstad’s successful campaign for his fifth (non-consecutive) term as governor in 2011. Within months of Branstad taking office for his second installment, state regulations were changed to allow gas stations like Kum & Go to start selling liquor. 

But that’s a story for another time. 

View of I-235 from Cottage Grove Avenue in Des Moines (2020)

Part IV: Coda

The term gentrification—the process of redeveloping an area and in the process displacing lower-income residents with higher-income residents—is a barely known concept in Des Moines. 

A quick search of the Register print archives reveals that the word “gentrification” has appeared only once in the local news section of the newspaper since 2010. A man who had just moved into the Randolph, an apartment building that had previously served as a home for low-income residents before being renovated, expressed concern about his own role in gentrifying downtown in a 2016 article.

But the process of gentrification is happening constantly in plain sight across multiple neighborhoods throughout Des Moines. The pandemic has not slowed it down, but provided the material conditions for it to accelerate. Kum & Go is just one corporation in the land development business in Des Moines that was able to continue business as usual while the world’s economic structure was irrevocably altered around them. 

It’s clear, now more than ever, that good reporting on the food and restaurant industry needs to be about so much more than menu recitations and lobotomized list-making. If editors and readers couldn’t see it before, perhaps the massive rise in unemployment and the coronavirus outbreaks at meat-packing plants may have them finally convinced convinced that what food people eat and how they eat it impacts nearly every aspect of the world around us.