This summer, Amber Brown celebrated the Commissary’s one-year anniversary.
Brown opened the ghost kitchen last June, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a year when the food industry faced many challenges, the community kitchen gave aspiring food entrepreneurs and fellow chefs a place to get their starts and get licensed.
“To start a business in the middle of a pandemic and actually be successful is insane,” Brown said. “It’s been interesting, to say the least.”
Now, Brown is giving local food businesses another place to land with her newest concept, The Pub & Hub. The bar and food truck hub will officially open its doors at a Friday the 13th-themed grand opening.
After years of running the Commissary and her food trucks primarily herself, The Pub & Hub will also be the first of Brown’s businesses that has a full staff on board to help.
“It’s going to be a new step for me,” Brown said. “This is kind of a self-sufficient business for me, and I’ve never had that.”
Brown’s background with food and operating her own business began at an early age.
“I got into a lot of trouble when I was a kid, and that created limited opportunities for me. I wasn’t able to work at a regular job. Basically, I had a felony hanging over my head for a marijuana charge.”
Brown is quick to say that it was her past that got her to this point.
At 19 years old, she was pregnant with her son and on her own. She had to figure out what she was going to do, what she was good at and what she might want to do with her life. She went on to get her GED, then enrolled at Johnson County Community College in the Culinary program, which concluded with a 3,000-hour apprenticeship at Teller’s restaurant — now Merchants Pub & Plate. She felt it was her best option.
But her struggles did not end with graduation.
“In the restaurant industry, back then especially, it was more of a man’s world,” Brown said. “We [women] were looked at quite differently, like we weren’t strong enough and didn’t have what it took to be a chef or a kitchen manager, so I was really discouraged.”
She had been offered a job replacing a male chef at a local eatery for significantly less money than what he had been making, even though she had more experience than he had.
“At that point I realized it was time for me to venture off on my own and start my own company.”
She started her own catering company, working out of the 4-H commissary kitchen at the fairgrounds, then started doing a popup kitchen at the VFW. She followed that up by starting her first food truck called Southern Poppy. It is still being operated in the southern Ozarks by her father, under the name The Smoking Shack.
It was a struggle for her here in town, though — “It just wasn’t going well for me in Lawrence.”
So she sold off everything she owned and moved to Arizona, where she bought a new food truck. It was there she realized that what happened in Lawrence was that she was trying to conform to what others thought she should be doing. She didn’t put her own personality into it.
Once she figured out what she wanted to do, she began having success — but she got homesick. All her family is from the Lawrence area.
So, once again she packed everything up, including her truck, and moved back to Lawrence. She opened it as “Harry Potter”-themed Amber Scullery, and she had success for about two years. Then COVID-19 happened.
In the middle of canceled parties and events, Brown had been catering exclusively out of the truck, but that space was tiny, and hard to make work. Then she discovered that Cosmic Café at 1910 Haskell Ave. had closed down.
“As soon as they announced it on Facebook, I hit them up and said, ‘Hey, I don’t mean to be rude, but who’s your landlord?’”
Since the Commissary moved into that space, it has hosted numerous local food businesses such as Chef and Smoker and Awake the Dead, a breakfast bar that returned as a popup after closing its doors last year.
It has also been a time of gutting and renovation. She has had to tear out the floors and ceiling of the space, and there is still more to do.
A few doors down, she took over a bar space that had closed prior to the pandemic. It took five months of struggle to get the liquor license. She was looking at putting a kitchen into that space for a sit-down restaurant, but the cost was prohibitive.
“So we’ll move the food truck over there and just open it back up as a bar,” she said.
The grand opening of the Pub & Hub is something Brown has looked forward to for a long time. Her ultimate goal for the space is to make it a food truck hub.
“City ordinances have basically run food trucks off for the last 10 years. That’s changing, though. They are working on changing some of those laws.”
“There is no place for food trucks to pop up on a daily basis right now,” she continued. “I’m going to be able to give that to people.”
The Pub & Hub will operate with many of the same COVID-19 guidelines that the Commissary has used this past year, such as curbside meals, social distancing, and new touchless QR code menus.
In a few weeks, near the end of September, she plans on having Food Truck Friday and Saturdays, where they will be able to block off the parking lot, have seated tables outside and live music inside.
Brown is excited to let the community in. She’s always loved Lawrence, she said, and being able to provide a resource for other members of the Lawrence community to reach their business goals is important to her — because she knows what that’s like.
“That’s where I was when I started my business,” Brown said. “I’ve been here for a long time running my food truck and my catering business, and I’ve had a lot of support over the years from the community.”
Brown loves giving back to the community. She does a lot of volunteering, including working with Just Food and O’Connell Youth Ranch. She has also started a reintegration program where she gives people who have felonies on their records a chance to work in her kitchen.
Tickets for the Pub & Hub’s VIP grand opening, set to begin at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 13, are available at prices ranging from $10-$100 at this link. Find more information about the Pub & Hub on Facebook and Instagram, and find Brown’s website at chefladybrown.com.