Dining With Denise Neil

Wichitan Wink Hartman closes two Lawrence restaurants over political backlash, he says

Wichita businessman and former Republican lieutenant governor candidate Wink Hartman says he understands that many people in Lawrence have political views that are different from his own.

What he doesn’t understand, Hartman said in a phone interview on Wednesday, is how those differences could have gotten so heated that he would have to close his two Jimmy’s Egg restaurants in the town less than six months after opening them.

Hartman, a Jimmy’s Egg franchisee since 2008, and Wichitan Morrie Sheets, who is Hartman’s managing partner in his six Jimmy’s Egg restaurants, closed down their two Lawrence restaurants at the end of business on Sunday. They were at 945 Massachusetts St. and at 1520 Wakarusa Drive.

Hartman said that during the time the restaurants were open, employees and patrons were harassed by people who took issue with the politics of Kris Kobach, the controversial politician who lost his bid to become Kansas governor last November with Hartman as his running mate. Kobach, the former Kansas Secretary of State, is now a Republican U.S. Senate candidate.

From the first day the restaurants opened, Hartman said, people were writing obscene messages on menus, spitting on his employees, urinating on employees’ cars and shouting at people who went into the restaurant that they should eat somewhere else.

“We decided it was best for all of us if we just closed them and took our equipment and went elsewhere,” Hartman said. “It’s almost beyond belief.”

Hartman said he spent about $1.5 million on the two restaurants. On Sunday, owners changed the locks on the doors and informed their landlords they were leaving.

According to a story in the Lawrence Journal World, residents in the college town quickly learned that Hartman was part of Jimmy’s Egg, and that opposition might have been more intense because Hartman was announced as Kobach’s running mate at about the same time Jimmy’s Egg announced plans to move into Lawrence.

It was all fueled by private message boards, said Sheets, who is a KU graduate.

River Burns, who worked at a manager at both Jimmy’s Egg stores in Lawrence, said that none of the employees had any idea the restaurants were closing until they finished their shifts on Sunday.

Burns, who primarily worked at the Wakarusa store, said she never personally witnessed any hostile acts. Most of the incidents, she said, happened at the restaurant on Massachusetts Street, which is in downtown Lawrence and near the University of Kansas campus. The customers at her store were mainly older suburbanites who didn’t appear to be concerned about the politics of the owner.

She said it was widely believed among the about 30 total employees who staffed the two stores that Jimmy’s Egg wasn’t going to make it in Lawrence. They just didn’t think the end would come so soon.

“Morrie said, ‘We have too much of a reputation,’ and I think he’s right,” she said. “It’s not what Lawrence, Kansas, really puts their money into.”

Burns said she had another job lined up at a jewelry store in Massachusetts but that many of her other coworkers were now looking for work.

Hartman, who has several Jimmy’s Egg restaurants in the Wichita area, said that he has never encountered issues like this in other cities.

“I have created thousands and thousands of jobs in the state of Kansas, and not one time have I ever had any problems,” he said.

Hartman’s and Sheets’ Wichita Jimmy’s Eggs are at Pawnee and Seneca, Douglas and Hydraulic, Central and Tyler, 21st and Rock and Central and Webb. There’s also one in El Dorado.

Sheets and Hartman closed two Jimmy’s Egg stores over the past year: One at 3801 E. Harry in January and one at 220 S. West St. in November. At the time of the Harry closing, Sheets said he and Hartman wanted to focus on building their new Lawrence stores.

Hartman said his next step is to get his restaurant equipment out of Lawrence and move it “to a different location where somebody cares.

“It’s a little bit shocking,” he said. “But quite frankly, as you sit down and think about it, it’s not that surprising.”

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Denise Neil has covered restaurants and entertainment since 1997. Her Dining with Denise Facebook page is the go-to place for diners to get information about local restaurants. She’s a regular judge at local food competitions and speaks to groups all over Wichita about dining.