Papa Keno’s historic feel in luxurious new digs
Lifetimes of daily adult decisions begin the day freshmen arrive in Lawrence. Many are cursory; others resonate for years. So it is, of course, with the choice of a favored downtown pizza joint.
For many Jayhawks over the past 30 years, that’s meant loyalty to the slice as big as their face.
“These are the choices that you make as a young adult, the places where you’re going to hang out and you’re going to take ownership over while you’re at college,” reflects David Hawley, f’09, owner, along with his wife, Nora Nemchock Hawley, f’06, of Papa Keno’s Pizzeria. “And that stays with them for such a long time. It’s got this lasting imprint.”
That lasting imprint is exactly why the Hawleys are eager to introduce town and gown, as well as returning alumni, to the new Papa Keno’s, which recently moved a few blocks north, to 837 Mass St.
Jayhawks of recent generations will remember that space as the home of Jock’s Nitch athletic apparel (which moved across the street, into the historic former site of Ernst & Son Hardware), and, for decades before that, the Royal College shoe shop.
The former home of Papa Keno’s at 1035 Mass—now the venue for Latchkey Deli, a promising new artisan sandwich shop—had been a big part of the pizzeria’s charm: bare-brick walls, open floor plan, a vintage arcade game or two, all presented in a distinctly easygoing vibe.
But, at just 1,500 square feet, the space was too small to make any significant kitchen or seating improvements, and the old building was in dire need of repairs—never an attractive prospect for tenants on a lease. When the Hawleys heard about the old Jock’s Nitch building not only being vacated but also offered for sale, they jumped at the opportunity and began interior demolition immediately after signing the papers.
As the first phase of their improvements took shape, the Hawleys and their five sons departed for a spring break respite, intending to get the new shop operational within a couple of months of their return. The pandemic obliterated that timeline, of course, and, after enduring two weeks of quarantine, their work on the new store slowed to a trickle, with only one team of trade workers allowed inside on any given day, rather than the usual synchronized ballet of a bustling construction site.
The result was worth the wait. The new home affirms the Hawleys’ intention to retain the former store’s aura within an elegant new space, the showpiece headquarters for what they hope will become a growing network of Papa Keno’s franchises across the Midwest. (One has already opened in south Overland Park.)
Given the Hawleys’ shared background in metalsmithing and the obvious influence of their other Lawrence-based business, Architectural Titanium, the new Papa Keno’s shimmers with cold-rolled steel, titanium panels and even a proprietary “crystal titanium” bar.
The mezzanine loft is now a reservable seating area, and the back of the room has been reconfigured for families with children, overlooking a preserved autograph wall signed by KU athletes.
For those still uncomfortable with entering restaurants, a custom-built curbside seating area allows patrons to place an order from the new Papa Keno’s phone app and have it delivered to them outside to savor al fresco or carry home.
“We had so many talks before we purchased this space,” Nora Hawley says. “We did not want to change the feeling of what makes Keno’s Keno’s. It’s amazing food, but it’s also a little bit of a rock ’n’ roll feeling. It’s not too uptight. There’s a looseness to it. So David and I were intense with our design process to be able to retain that feeling, but elevate the experience a little bit.”
Papa Keno’s has been the Student Alumni Network Restaurant Partner Program’s exclusive pizza restaurant since 2017, a relationship the Hawleys say has helped them introduce their New York-style pizza and a range of other menu items to students who, of course, one day return to Lawrence as alumni. But beyond making connections to an ever-evolving customer base, they also maintain their steadfast support for SAN to express their own affections for their alma mater and the school their sons have already taken to heart.
“Each year we get a freshman class in, they’re living up on Daisy Hill, and it takes them a little while to branch out, get comfortable, find what they like,” David Hawley says. “So we love that connection with the Alumni Association, not only because it gets us involved with our school—we’re all Jayhawks and we love KU—but we also get to meet students and they get to find out about us.”
—By Chris Lazzarino