by Cecilia Harris
Kansas Simply Wonderful, Winter 2001
The legendary Brookville Hotel, famous for its fried chicken dinners, has flown the coop. The restaurant now roosts in Abilene, where a replica of the original Brookville structure gives owners Mark and Connie Martin something to crow about.
The hotel's familiar façade - an 1870's whitewashed, rounded false front - greets visitors in the new location. Inside, longtime customers recognize the same lobby and dining rooms, although subtle changes expanded the dimensions to allow for seating of up to 280 people. The floor plan includes reproductions of the Brookville State Bank and the J.S. Martin Hardware Store, in which the restaurant had expanded during its century-long tenure in Brookville.
"We wanted our customers to relate to the same spaces as were in the old building," Mark Martin said, adding that three of the hotel rooms upstairs, which hadn't been rented since 1972, also were duplicated in the new facility. The effort to maintain the same environment included moving items such as light fixtures, the bank clock, and ironwork from the Brookville buildings, to the new location.
Diners also will find the same generous portions of fried chicken, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, cream-style corn, baking powder biscuits, sweet-sour coleslaw, and home-style ice cream that have enticed a flock of people to visit the restaurant time and time again. The meal is still served on Blue Willow china, a tradition that began in the 1950's.
"We are using literally the same ingredients and products we have used for the last 20 years," Martin said. The chicken continues to be breaded with the same seasonings and fried in lard in the same skillets used in Brookville before the move. The kitchen however is larger to allow ample workspace and storage areas, and an adjoining garage provides easy access for growing catering service. The floor plan also includes an area to accommodate a serving line for the increasing number of take-out meals. Those who prefer to dine at the restaurant discover three of the dining rooms have been redecorated. The walls in the "Spirit of Kansas Room" feature murals depicting Brookville during its Wild West era, when railroad employees and cowboys stayed at the hotel. "Brandy's Opera House" is dedicated to the memory of the Martins' daughter. The murals in this small dining room show Brandy singing on a theatre stage while her family members, including her parents and grandparents, watch from their seats in opera boxes above. A third dining room is named for Mark's grandmother, Helen Martin, who began serving the famous chicken dinners in 1915. Her parents, Gus and Mae Magnuson, operated the Cowtown Café in the hotel in the early 1890's, later purchasing the structure.
The restaurant continues the tradition of quality and personal service. Martin credits his friendly, responsible, and hardworking employees, including those who are "providing service in the trenches (cooks and dishwashers) when everyone else is in entertainment."
"We have an excellent staff who are very people-orientated and communicate well," Martin said. "We couldn't do our job and be as good as we are if it weren't for the people we employ. They are really good people who make my job so much easier." Twelve of the employees who worked at the Brookville location continue to work in Abilene, and others assisted with the transition by training new employees during the first few months.
Like a rooster scratching in the dirt, Martin searched for answers to problems arising in the historic Brookville location before finally deciding to move to Abilene. The last straw "was the fact we had run out of options as far as the wastewater facilities were concerned." He also cited problems with the maintenance associated with the century-old buildings, dining rooms located various levels, and the small amount of floor space that limited the number of reservations, disappointing hundreds of potential diners. "The old building wasn't designed to accommodate 500 to 600 people on Mother's Day."
Martin said he never expected to move from Brookville, but "change is good." Relocating at the intersection of Interstate 70 and Kansas Highway 15 has doubled the restaurant's business.
"We see so many people coming in now that wouldn't take the time to drive seven miles off the Interstate," Martin said. "We are twice as busy as when we were in the Brookville location."
Although many of his customers are new, others have been coming to the Brookville Hotel for years. "When you've been in the business as long as we have, we are now serving our third, fourth, and fifth generations." The new facility will allow for that tradition to continue, something Martin often questioned in the former location. "This will take us through the next three or four decades. Seeing the Brookville Hotel carry on is a possibility here."