Frisco Barroom Co-owner John Barr on Building Community by Building a Bar

 In Food, Interviews

Developer John Barr met his wife, Kelley Hall-Barr, on a long train ride to New Orleans. Decades of partnership later, they’re on a new journey together: restoring a historic building on the former Frisco train line to its former glory and starting a new business inside that the Old Orchard neighborhood of Webster Groves will enjoy for generations.

That business—the wildly popular Frisco Barroom and restaurant, 8810 Big Bend—already has diners from all over the region lining up. But the Frisco is just the Barr’s most-recent stop, and the path that the couple took to the corner of Big Bend and Log Cabin Lane is a fascinating and winding one. We spoke with John Barr about the partnership, pierogi and why, if you want to fix a struggling block, sometimes the best thing to do is roll up your sleeves and start running a bar.

Frisco Barroom Patio St. Louis

You run Frisco Barroom with your wife Kelley Hall-Barr, but this isn’t your first business together. Tell me a little bit about the two of you met and decided to launch a career together.
Kelly and I met traveling on the train down to New Orleans. I was a St. Louis native; she was from Traverse City, Michigan. We played cards on the way down, and on the way back, we ended up on the same train again, so we had a rematch. We started dating long distance; she had started a candle company that was in its infancy at the time, and I was working in and out of the restaurant industry and was just starting to buy and sell properties. She was interested in the property side of what I was doing; she was always giving me advice on décor and look. And I was telling her how she could take her candle company and do bigger things with it.

Ultimately, we got married, and we ended up merging what we were doing together. I jumped into managing [what became K. Hall Designs]—which, by then, was a bath-and-body company—and all their manufacturing; she kept designing, and we kept buying and selling properties together, too.

After 15 years of doing that, it was time to move on. And when we both looked at what our skill sets were—dealing with old properties, small-business development, along with my history in restaurants—we saw a path. Working in commercial real estate, working closely with tenants and developing businesses would be a good fit for us. And we wanted to do it through the lens of downtown development, an area that could use some TLC.

It’s so rare to see developers thinking that way, much less getting in the trenches and actually running a couple of those Downtown businesses themselves. You and Kelley are the managers of one of ALIVE’s favorite stores, Civil Alchemy, and it just happens to be down the street from Frisco Barroom, which I know you also manage personally. Why did you choose the Old Orchard neighborhood as the home for this project?
There were several areas in the city of St. Louis that looked like they might be blighted, or at least ready for a change. And there were several rural areas outside the city that fit the bill, too. We never thought we’d be able to buy a building in Webster Groves, let alone afford it. But it really fell into our laps.

[The building that now houses the Frisco Barroom] was right across the street from our house, and we were customers of the business that used to be in there, The Natural Way grocery store. I’d be in there every day, and after a while, I noticed that the shelves were starting to become kinda bare. As an everyday customer, I was wondering, why can’t I get my vitamins? And being interested in business, I’d start asking [the staff] other questions too. After a while, I figured out that the business was struggling, and I guess the landlord caught wind of my questions, too. One day he told me he was looking to sell it, and two hours later, we were under contract.

It really wasn’t something we were looking to do, but we felt like we needed to do something for this building and this neighborhood. We supported The Natural Way in trying to stay alive for a while, but after a while it just wasn’t happening. So about nine months later, Natural Way told us there were going to close this location, and we started thinking about what we wanted this to be.

Frisco Barroom St. Louis

Why did you decide a barroom would be the right fit for the community? Did you look back to the history of the space when you were choosing the right business to fill it?
Absolutely. When it came to [Frisco,] I wanted it to feel like it used to feel, and many years from now, I wanted it to feel like it had always been here. [The neighborhood] used to be the home of the Old Orchard train station on the Frisco Line; the street behind there is still called Frisco Avenue. All these buildings used to serve the passengers on that train, and [the barroom space] was once the dry-goods store; whenever people rode the train out to visit their summer homes out in Webster, this is where they’d stop. In redoing the space to become a barroom, we wanted it to feel like the barroom you would have walked onto off of the Frisco back in the day. The biggest compliment, to me, is when people can’t tell what is new and what is old.

What do you want people to feel when they leave after a night at the Frisco?
That the space we’ve built is a timeless space. The food that we’re making, and that we hope to someday master, is simple, down-to-earth familiar food from across the Midwest. Especially in this part of Webster, our desire is to appeal to a really broad group of people, from working-class families to people who are celebrating something and are willing to drop $100 on a bottle of wine and $23 on a steak. [This space] should be open and accessible to everyone in our community. I hope that we’re bringing something that’s available for everyone in our community to enjoy, and for people want to check out our community to enjoy, too.

All photos courtesy of John Barr.

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