Specializing In Gourmet Comfort Food
Photos | Emma Highfill, Rose Wheat Photography
People can be pretty picky about food, but one staple that almost everyone can agree on is a great grilled cheese. That is what Jon and Jennifer Bohlander were counting on when they decided to open a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant in Topeka.
“My wife always said that everyone loves grilled cheese, and after we ate at a gourmet grilled cheese food truck in Austin, it gave us inspiration,” said Jon, owner of The Wheel Barrel located in the NOTO Arts & Entertainment District.
The name, The Wheel Barrel, is a reference to a wheel of cheese and a barrel of beer. While The Wheel Barrel specializes in gourmet grilled cheese and craft beer, that is not all they serve. The Wheel Barrel also features house made soups and salads, and a Sunday brunch with a build-your- own Bloody Mary bar.
Jon said they opened their gourmet grilled cheese restaurant because they wanted to do something local that was unique and original.
“We wanted to do something you can’t get just anywhere, and we didn’t want to compete against Wanamaker and do burgers and fries. If you are going to do something, do it well and be different,” Jon said.
Jennifer Bohlander already owned a business in NOTO, Matryoshka Tattoo, so it was a natural move for them to open their new restaurant in the district.
“I wanted to work for myself, and we thought it would be good for NOTO as well to have something that would draw people into the district all week long rather than just on First Fridays,” Jon said.
Now, three years after opening its doors, The Wheel Barrel does just that. In fact, the restaurant has become
so popular that it is already outgrowing itself.
“We were busy from day one,” Jon said. “It was kind of ugly getting our feet underneath us, but it keeps getting better. We used to have big lulls between lunch and dinner, but people come at all times now.”
The Wheel Barrel building, which was built in 1911, has housed several different businesses over the years and most recently served as a workshop for a company called Custom Kayaks. It took eight months for the Bohlanders to remodel the building to create the atmosphere they wanted for their restaurant.
“It was just one big room that was being used as a workshop when we bought it,” Jon said. “We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this place. We put in a kitchen, did all the heating and cooling, electrical and plumbing. I did all the carpentry and some of the structural stuff.”
Even with all of the improvements, Jon admits they could use more space, and not just for customers.
“Our refrigeration and storage is in the basement right now, and it would be nice to not have to carry stuff up and down the stairs, so a bigger space would be nice,” Jon said.
But for now, Jon will keep carrying things up the stairs and offer his customers the best grilled cheese in