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Monday, June 7, 2021

Northern Kentucky Bounces Back to Life: Midway Cafe (Sponsored by meetNKY)

Co-owners, Erika Kraus and Staci Edmonds of the Midway Cafe Fort Thomas. Photo: Phil Armstrong.  

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by Robin Gee
Photos by Phil Armstrong

Midway Cafe | 1017 South Fort Thomas Ave., Fort Thomas | Monday - Saturday 11 am – 2:30 am; Sunday 11 am – 1 am | Call (859) 781-7666.

Located at 1017 S. Fort Thomas. Outdoor seating and a renovated inside space. Photo: Phil Armstrong. 

Welcome to another installment of "Northern Kentucky Bounces Back to Life." In this series, sponsored by meetNKY, we sit down with local business owners to ask them about the past year and the year ahead.

The owners of Midway Cafe in the heart of the Midway Business District count themselves fortunate that they never really had to close down completely during the pandemic. When things shut down, they did a fast pivot, beefed up their to-go business and soldiered on.

Owners Staci Edmonds and Erika Kraus credit much of their resiliency to building a strong customer base and community following before the pandemic. Their great reputation for wings and bourbon and being able to offer alcohol to go definitely helped, they said, but it was the strong community support that kept them going.

The owners also credit their staff, about 40 people, who despite reduced hours, continued on, switching their duties to support the to-go business and anything else that was needed. 

An incredible bourbon selection, highlighted by single barrel picks and hard to find allocated bottles at a price that customers can taste them. No dusty bottles here! Photo: Phil Armstrong. 

The "nerdy bourbon bar" with great food

Edmonds and Kraus are cousins. Both had background in restaurant and bar industry before they opened Midway Cafe together with their husbands, Dave Edmonds and Matt Albers, about six years ago.

"Food wise, we are definitely known for our wings," said Kraus. "We’ve won some competitions with our wings...We also get all our meats from a local butcher, Ebert’s in Newport. We’re all about burgers, wings – really good classic food." 

The Midway routinely goes on single barrel picks with a consortium of other "bourbon nerds" bar owners; six in total. The result: Select Six Single Barrel picks, which are very coveted by the bourbon community. Pictured are those bottles. Photo: Phil Armstrong.  

The food is a draw, but perhaps their best kept secret (that’s not a secret at all among enthusiasts) is their well-stocked array of bourbons. "We have a huge assortment, and we’re very involved with a lot of bourbon groups in the area. We’re kind of a nerdy bourbon bar."

Those in the know pick Midway as a favorite for bourbon, but for newer customers who come in for the food, the extent of their offerings can be a welcome surprise, Kraus said.

"We kinda like being a little bit under the radar. When you walk in, it’s like 'oh my goodness, look at all the bourbon they have!'"

Award-winning wings. No seriously: they were voted Best Wings in Greater Cincinnati. Pictured: cajun dry rub. The jumbo wings are never frozen, slow smoked, then flash-fried to order. Photo Phil Armstrong. 

The Fort Thomas Matters burger and Saratoga chips, with a side of BBQ sauce. The FTM burger, this website's namesake burger is local beef patty loaded with grilled ham, crispy fried jalapeños, pepper jack and garlic aioli. Photo: Phil Armstrong. 

Getting through with a little help from their friends

Support from within the bourbon community, and in the local community at large, kept Midway going throughout this past year.

"We knew we had to rally together as a community. We are super fortunate that we’re in a community like Fort Thomas that wanted to help us and was there for us," said Kraus. "I can’t tell you how many times people came in and said, 'You supported our kids' in XYZ, so we want to support you. What can we do for you, what can we do for your employees?"

Edmonds credited the relationships they had built in the community through the restaurant’s support for many local efforts, including raising funds for victims of two recent house fires. The restaurant also helped raise significant funds to help a local girl in her struggle with cancer.

Since they were in a better position than some in the industry, the restaurant owners reached out to support small businesses within the community. They selected a different small business each week, bought $100 in gift cards from that business and gave them out in $5 increments with each to-go order.

In turn, the community helped support their staff. "They fundraised money for our employees, did everything they could to show support by buying to-go food, to-go alcohol, and whatever they could do to help us get through," said Kraus.

She noted that they did not lose any staff during the pandemic, even though they had to cut down some hours. "They all stayed and worked for us — and they made great money because everybody wanted to keep showing the support for how great they are as well," she said.

Kraus said she felt the community had wrapped its arms around Midway taking care of her employees as they were taking care of the business.

As for physical changes, the restaurant put extra tables outside, added umbrellas and a heater in the cold months. Being able to offer to-go alcohol with their to-go food was another plus. "And we had ride-or-die people who came in 40 degree weather wanting to support us and sat outside when we didn’t have open tables inside," she noted.

Dive into a plate of cheese fries to get you started. Photo: Phil Armstrong. 

Building community online

During the pandemic period, Kraus said they took on the challenge of what to do every day. "Staci and I would come in and say ‘alright, how can we stand out...what can we do, what can we sell today.’ So, we started doing Facebook live videos; we did bourbon raffles and giveaways. We started doing trivia online where customers could interact with us."

They learned to use social media in some surprising and fun ways. "We did a segment called Dad Joke Friday where we would bring people in and tell dad jokes. It was a way of still interacting with all our friends and all our customers, and it put a face to it, normalized seeing us again."

It was a way of reminding the community they were still there and helped to draw people even closer, she said. "You know, we said, we still need your support, we still love you. We don’t want you think we’ve forgotten about you."

Edmonds added that it was a nice surprise how well received their efforts were. People seemed to look forward to the interactions. They would jump on the page and say, "it’s 2 o’clock, where are you?"

Kraus and Edmonds plan to continue interacting through social media. "I think it was a way for people who didn’t know us as well to get to know us. People said, ‘We feel like we’re in your living room with you.’ People kept asking us, can you go live today?'" Edmonds said. 

The perfect meal. The Midway offers fresh salads to compliment the meal. Photo: Phil Armstrong. 

Teamwork: the key takeaway

Both owners credited their team for getting Midway Cafe through this challenging year. "The number one takeaway from this has to be how fortunate we are with our employees, how much our employees are actually our family. They were here for us, they sacrificed so much," Kraus said.

She noted her staff has been on the front lines. "They were there when having to explain these rules had never been a thing before. They took it on the chin when people were angry because they were on one side or the other on how the pandemic rules should be. And they were still smiling through it all," she added.

“We are so fortunate to have a team that cared so much about Midway, treating it like their home and being there for us...The support from our team, the support from Fort Thomas and support from our bourbon community has been humbling and overwhelming." she said.

Looking forward to the year ahead

Fort Thomas is all about community events, and the owners said they are hoping things like the Music and Merchants Festival and Fourth of July parade will return this year. 

"We’re definitely looking forward to everybody coming back," Kraus said. "We know the full sense of normalcy is not going to be there right away, but with the nicer weather, seeing everybody walking and people stopping in...I’m looking forward to creating that sense of community a little bit more again." 

She said it’s good to remember everyone is going through the same thing. "Every single industry is struggling to catch up and get back. And, there are so many places that are understaffed. We just want people to be patient and know we are doing our best." 

When asked what she would say to people about the experience of the past year, Kraus said, "Just continue to spread kindness, to be honest. To be patient with all the restaurants, not just Midway. We are all doing the best we can. We are trying to charge back up to where we were before...We just want people to keep supporting and keep being kind to one another." 

Dive into the rest of the photos and make a point to get to Midway Cafe Fort Thomas, located at 1017 S. Fort Thomas Avenue this week. Photos by Phil Armstrong. 


About meetNKY Northern Kentucky Convention & Visitors Bureau

For more than 40 years, the Northern Kentucky CVB has provided outstanding meeting and convention services, and comprehensive travel information for business and leisure visitors to the Cincinnati and NKY area. In 1974, the Kentucky Legislature approved legislation allowing Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties to form the Bureau, which initially was called the Northern Kentucky Tourist, Recreation & Convention Commission.


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