Carolyn McKinney can’t help but laugh every time a group of 20-something Cherokee street sceners ‘find out’ Iowa sideboard (2727 Winnebago St., 314-776-8000), the south-town institution that has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember. She doesn’t know which is funnier – whether they think they’ve found a hidden gem or that her house is suddenly so hip.
“Young people today think they’ve found the dive bar,” McKinney says. “What they don’t realize is that the dive bar that’s now the ‘thing’ is actually the old-fashioned family bar. It’s the root of the neighborhood.”
For the past 35 years, McKinney has been responsible for keeping the Iowa Buffet’s corner tavern tradition alive, though its history with the bar goes back much further. When she started coming as a young child, the place already had a storied past. While it’s unclear exactly when Iowa Buffet was founded, the property where the bar is located was purchased in 1887 and has operated commercially ever since. The first time she can confirm her existence as Iowa Buffet is 1945, thanks to a photograph of her then owners, the Leindeckers. As far as he knows, the couple only owned the bar for a few years and then sold it to Hank and Vicky Koziacki.
McKinney was first called to the bar during Koziacki’s time as a young girl living in St. Louis County. Her family came to town to visit relatives at the weekend, a weekly ritual that involved the children watching a movie at the old Cinderella Theater while their parents shopped at the Soulard Market and visited the Showboat bar. . McKinney describes the moment as magical, filled with pretzels and ice cream from corner stores and running around the neighborhood with friends while the adults played cards at her aunt’s house on Iowa Street.
Iowa Buffet was part of that magic. Even as a child, McKinney was struck by the Koziackis’ involvement in the community and how their bar was the neighborhood’s central gathering place. Hank, who was also a deputy for the city of St. Louis, was the first to sponsor neighborhood sports teams, organize political events at the bar or offer a variety of Polish sausages and sauerkraut on St. Patrick. He brought in Santa Claus for Christmas and handed out candy on Easter. Because of the warm and welcoming atmosphere, Iowa Buffet replaced Showboat as the McKinney family’s gathering place.
“No one was hungry and everyone was taking care of everyone else,” McKinney recalled. “It was the anchor of the street. We county kids would come in and think how much we loved the city. there’s nothing quite like the city to date.”
As much as McKinney loved the Iowa Buffet as a patron, she had no intention of running the place. In fact, his plan was to stay out of the restaurant and bar business. However, as a self-proclaimed “bleeding heart”, she found herself drawn into the service industry through the catering jobs she accepted for people in her parish who could not afford to arrange a wedding. Word spread and she found herself doing restoration work for the parish as a whole after priests and nuns heard of her efforts. She was hoping not to increase her workload, but when a friend helping her feed needed help, she was sucked in.
“My friend Pat wanted to work at a bar, and I told her not to, but I took her for her interview anyway,” McKinney said, recalling the bar wanting to hire her instead. . “I finally convinced him to hire her, and on her first night on the job, she broke her arm. Her boss said to me, ‘It was your idea to hire her, so now you have to come work for me.'”
McKinney was a natural. It didn’t take long for stories of his talents to spread through the South End restaurant and bar scene. She was recruited by one establishment after another even as she insisted she did not want to be in the company. The Koziackis got in on the action, inviting McKinney to buy Iowa Buffet. Eventually, she found herself signing the papers thanks to a friend who disappeared in federal custody.
“About a year later, she said she was able to come back to St. Louis, but she needed a place to live and work,” McKinney said. “She begged me to buy the bar, so what is bleeding-heart Carol doing? My husband and I went to the bank, and the next thing we knew, we had a bar.”
The friend did not stay long. McKinney, however, is still going strong after 35 years. She hasn’t just made peace with her career in the industry; she fell madly in love with it. She describes herself as a fierce guardian of the bar’s old-school essence and has been reluctant to make changes over the years. She even apologized to the Koziacki family when she had to install a hood system and decided to install the patio, fearing that any changes would be against their wishes, even though they assured her that this was not the case.
One thing she refuses to change is Iowa Buffet’s signature burger grill, a relic of how bars cooked food, not in a back kitchen, but right across the street. The bar has been cooking this way since at least the Koziacki era—the burger even bears the name Hank Burger after its former owner—and it’s what people think of when they hear Iowa Buffet.
McKinney isn’t quite sure how the place became a buffet, though she has a few ideas. Many years ago taverns did not have full kitchens, but instead had an area off the side of the bar where they cut to order whole hams or roast beef, and a small steam table with some sides, soup or chili and maybe tamales. Although such an area did not exist when she took over the Iowa Buffet, on Saturdays the bar had its own distribution, offering Limburger cheese, liver sausage, rye bread, pig’s trotters pickled and hard-boiled eggs, as well as regular specialties, such as pork chops cooked on the grill.
These days, that spread may look different, but under McKinney’s watch, Iowa Buffet remains a living, breathing piece of St. Louis’ rich bar history. McKinney thinks that’s the appeal of the place — that customers today are looking for something that feels real. She is thrilled that she can be the one providing it.
“If you want to get to know the heart and soul of a community, it’s the dive bar,” says McKinney. “People come here because they just want to be home. That’s what we offer, and I need them as much as they need me. I’d be lost without it. Which is amazing for me, that’s how much i love it. people always ask me when i’m going to retire, and i tell them when they close the lid. my heart and soul is here, and it’ll never be enough long time.
We are always eager for advice and feedback. Email the author at [email protected]