Profiles in Black entrepreneurship: Business owner creates neighborhood gathering space
Photos by Kenney Ellison
Before he became an entrepreneur, Alan Kneeland got his start in the restaurant industry at the age of 16. Over the years, he worked his way up from dishwasher, to trainer, then becoming a manager at Panera, and eventually serving as general manager before making the jump to small business owner.
Today, Kneeland has taken that experience in the industry and put it to work in his own bar and restaurant, The Combine. Kneeland always knew that one day he wanted to own his own bar. “Before I became a GM, I was an assistant manager and I was thinking to myself ‘I would love to have my own restaurant, I would love to have my own bar. How do I do that?’” said Kneeland.
His answer was to start by building connections with business owners and in his community.
One of Kneeland’s mentors introduced him to Jason Pryor, owner of Pizza 51, who is now Kneeland’s partner in The Combine. Kneeland worked under Pryor running his pizza restaurant in Fairway before rejoining Panera as general manager. One day, his dream opportunity came to him when Pryor proposed going into business together, along with their third partner, Charles Peach.
“We all brought our expertise to the table and just created it.”Alan Kneeland
The Combine’s name comes not only from the three partners and their different experiences in the industry, but also from their desire to bring people together on Troost Avenue, a road that has historically segregated the city’s Black residents from white residents.
Kneeland was born and raising in Kansas City, growing up off 75th Street and Troost Avenue—just a few miles from The Combine. “I know about…how deep that dividing line in Kansas City runs,” said Kneeland. “We’re on that dividing line in Kansas City, so we wanted to create one space that brought people together.”
For Kneeland, getting the restaurant’s name into the community and building connections is critical. Like other participants in the Urban League of Greater Kansas City (ULKC) and H&R Block small business program to support Black-owned businesses, The Combine has also participated in Feed KC, serving more than 250 boxed lunches to frontline workers at Truman Medical Center, Banneker Elementary School, and KCATA. That effort gained them a lot of positive exposure on social media.
Kneeland also serves as chair of the education committee on the board for the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association, where he helps showcase career opportunities in the culinary and hospitality industries to children in the KC area. Kneeland wants to highlight the many paths a career in the industry can take, beyond dishwashing or serving as a cashier. He wants kids to see opportunities for successful careers in marketing, accounting, being a chef, or even entrepreneurship.
While there’s a lot to celebrate, Kneeland’s restaurant has faced a number of challenges during their short journey. They first opened in November 2020, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and quickly had to adjust—creating a curbside pick-up option and leveraging DoorDash to get their name out in the neighborhood.
“People that say ‘I love the space, this is going to be my new neighborhood hangout,’ we’re doing something right,” said Kneeland. When Kneeland sees new social followers or positive reviews on social media, he thinks they’re on the right track for success.
“I have learned a lot in the last seven months of opening the business,” said Kneeland. As part of the ULKC and H&R Block program, Kneeland is learning more about opportunities for improving financial management skills as a business owner. He says the coaches in the program have extended help for credit repair services, taxes, and one new tool that he’s taken advantage of— Wave, an all-in-one accounting and business banking system for small business owners recommended by his Block Advisors coach.
“It shows me how I can keep invoices and keep track of my financial statements,” said Kneeland. “In businesses, receipts can be confusing but to have an app that keeps everything documented and in order helps tremendously.”
Before his Block Advisors small business-certified coach turned him onto Wave, Kneeland had been tracking finances using paper and pen and holding weekly financial meetings with his partner to review the paperwork. Using the app has helped free up more of his time, allowing him to get back to focusing on his business—something extremely valuable for any small business owner.
As it is, Kneeland spends a lot of his time at the business. Being an entrepreneur, he says, takes “drive, thick skin, long nights and days.” He had a clear idea heading into it what was ahead and is staying true to his original plan, but Kneeland wants other Black entrepreneurs to be able to have the same opportunities he has. “What I do, may not be the same thing that somebody else does but at least I had that opportunity and the chance to create something.”
For Kneeland, that means he’s focused on creating a bar and restaurant that becomes a second home for people in the neighborhood. “I want people to have interactions with people they never would outside this space.”
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