Matt and Dennis Weafer are excited to offer a unique take on familiar Kentucky-themed dishes at their new restaurant Sassafras in downtown Owensboro. The brothers said they hope to open the restaurant — which they said will have an “upscale casual” environment — sometime this spring.
Sassafras will be located at 420 Frederica Street, which most recently housed Bill’s Restaurant.
Matt Weafer said he and his brother — who each run their own local restaurants — had always talked about doing something together. Matt and his wife Jessica own Niko’s Bakery & Café, and he’s also the executive chef of The Paddock at The Country Club of Owensboro. Dennis owns Fetta Specialty Pizza.
Matt said the ball got rolling for Sassafras when Bill’s Restaurant owner Bill Hughes reached out to say the building was going to become available. (Hughes recently purchased the former Campbell Club, which he is currently renovating with plans to open as the Cupola Club next month.)
Matt said they already know what their menu will look like.
“We’re going for Kentucky-themed foods,” he said. “We’re gonna put a smoker in the back. We’re gonna make charcuterie. We’re gonna do smoked meatloaf, smoked chicken and dumplings. We’ll do burgers and sandwiches. We’ll do fries and poutine. We’re talking about doing Kentucky cassoulet and succotash.”
He said there will also be a big focus on getting local meats and local produce. When it’s in season they will cook everything fresh — then pickle it, preserve it, and utilize it as much as they can throughout the year.
But the Weafers are especially excited to take old dishes and offer something new.
“We have a lot of really good ideas and we’re really excited about the food,” Matt said. “We’re definitely planning on doing something different for this town. That’s the plan, to be different. Everybody’s familiar with the dishes that we’re talking about, but we’re gonna make them exciting. That’s our plan.”
Dennis added, “We’d like to add a little bit more uniqueness to the food in Owensboro.”
The restaurant name is an homage to the Sassafras on Frederica Street, which is the largest known Sassafras tree in the world and measures over 100 feet tall and 21 feet in circumference.
“We were just trying to find something that was iconic to the area and the theme of what we’re doing,” Matt said. “We’re trying to celebrate Kentucky roots. Kentucky Appalachian food heritage is stuff we grew up on, stuff that’s been here for years. It’s native to the area. It’s native in the cuisine of the area, even though we can’t use it. But we can at least celebrate, especially for Owensboro since we’ve got the tree.”
While Bill’s was a private dining establishment, Sassafras will be open to the public. The Weafers are hoping to capitalize on the crowds drawn to various downtown events.
“We were talking the other day about getting the Friday After 5 crowd in here a little bit,” Dennis said. “And we want to get people that are also coming downtown to go see the symphony or a show at the Bluegrass Museum.”
The restaurant will only be open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner to start, but they have expectations to grow.
“We do plan to expand to lunch and even maybe more days throughout the week as time goes,” Dennis said. “But we want to get open and get started, get our staff and methods and menu and everything in place, and then we’ll go from there.”
Matt added that they’ve been “baby-stepping” into it.
“There’s still COVID, we still have limitations, and the food industry is on a yo-yo right now,” he said. “That’s why we’re gonna just work our way into it. We’re gonna open the doors when we’re ready, and be ready for whatever happens next.”
Still, with the building being nearly ready to go as-is, the Weafers are hopeful they can open this spring.
“A lot of times when you open up a restaurant it’s a place that wasn’t already a restaurant,” Matt said. “This has been a restaurant for 100 years, so the footprint is here. Bill left us a lot of tools and equipment that we’re going to be able to utilize, and he built a beautiful place.”
The brothers said they will maintain their duties at their own restaurants but will also be heavily involved in Sassafras operations. Buddy McCarter will be the chef, and Jimmy Decker will be the general manager.
“We feel really confident in the team we put together, but at the end of the day we’re not hands-off people,” Matt said. “We are passionate about the food, passionate about the service, everything. So we’re going to be present.”
They are taking applications to fill out the rest of the staff. Anyone interested in applying can email [email protected].