GRINNELL, Iowa — With its subtle earth tones, exposed ductwork, and craft cocktails, Prairie Canary could be a hip eatery in almost any American city. But it’s not in any American city, and that’s kind of the point.
The restaurant is here in Grinnell, a heartland town of about 9,000, surrounded by miles of corn and soybean fields. If it’s known for anything, it’s as the home of Grinnell College, a small liberal arts institution founded in 1846. The college draws students from around the country and perhaps gives the town a more cosmopolitan character than that of other small Iowa towns. “But,” says Angie Schultz, design manager of the marketing firm Art a la Carte of Grinnell and Newton, Iowa, “even though the college is there, it’s still a rural community.”
A couple of years ago, that proved to be a challenge for a local landlord looking to fill a vacant restaurant space. “The owner had a beautiful building. He was looking for a talented chef and a permanent tenant, and decided that maybe traditional means of marketing the space wouldn’t necessarily work,” says Schultz. It just isn’t that easy luring a high-profile chef to a small town, and that’s where Art a la Carte stepped in. They sat down with the owner and came up with a concept that seems tailor-made for the Food Network era: Hold a contest.
Thus was born the Iowa’s Best Bite Restaurant Challenge. Potential chef/owners were offered a valuable prize package that included reduced rent, startup money, and some inventory. The firm used traditional and social media to put the word out. Getting a new restaurant off the ground is an expensive proposition, and in the end the package proved sufficiently attractive to bring in 42 serious submissions from eight states, says Schultz.
Contestants sent in videos making their case, and four finalists were chosen. Three finalists (the fourth stepped down before the finals) went to Grinnell in July 2012 to present business plans, talk to the decision makers, and prepare a meal for a panel of judges. All were impressive, but a young woman named Carly Groban — now Carly Ross, as she’s gotten married since the competition — rose to the top. Groban had owned two successful restaurants in Des Moines. Her track record impressed the judges, as did her approach.
“Everyone’s biggest concern was that the menu and the concept would be appealing to a wide range of people in Grinnell,” says Ross, as she recalls the contest now. “Both the meat-and-potatoes people and those who wanted something more adventurous.” She learned she’d been chosen on Aug. 1, 2012. Somewhat miraculously, Prairie Canary opened in October. (Winning the contest almost certainly fast-tracked the restaurant’s build-out.)
Today, the restaurant is a Main Street fixture, and Ross and her husband have bought a house in Grinnell. They’re expecting to make a long-term commitment to the community, just as the contest’s organizers had envisioned.
The process has not been without its challenges. Ross has had to adapt her cooking style to meet the needs of her customers. “We had to create a menu that covered a lot of bases. Before this, I had never cooked a hamburger in any kitchen I had worked in. Now it’s the most popular menu item,” she says. The menu doesn’t take tremendous risks, but Prairie Canary surely offers the most adventurous fare in Grinnell, and Ross is committed to using local ingredients and making everything from scratch.
Last summer, that meant heirloom tomato salad with fresh mozzarella and pesto; a chunky beet borscht, which included the pleasant surprise of chopped hard-cooked egg on top. You might not expect seafood so far from the coasts, but seared salmon accompanied by quinoa tabbouleh is perfectly cooked, moist, and fresh. And that burger, made with natural Angus beef from an Iowa farm and cooked medium-rare couldn’t be better. The upstairs dining room is spare and sophisticated; downstairs, a lounge with TVs offers a bar menu.
Business, says Ross, has been steady. “I think we benefit from not having a lot of competition in our niche.”
Schultz says the town is thrilled with the contest’s outcome. “I believe it was a win all around. Carly is successful, the community has a wonderful restaurant, and the owner is thrilled he has a long-term tenant. And we’ve created a model we can take to other communities and help them be successful.”
Prairie Canary, 924 Main St., Grinnell, Iowa, 641-236-0205, www.theprairiecanary.com.