Divided city council approves alcohol sales at Overland Park arboretum cafe

Cafe Celeste in the Long House at the Overland Park Arboretum.

Cafe Celeste in the Long House at the Overland Park Arboretum. Photo credit Kaylie McLaughlin.

Cafe Celeste, the new restaurant space in the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, will sell some alcoholic beverages alongside its menu. 

Last week, the Overland Park City Council voted 7-4 to move forward with the three-year special use permit, one step in a multilayered process that will eventually allow the cafe to sell alcoholic beverages.  

“When you build a special place like this,” said Mayor Curt Skoog, nodding to the long process of bringing the arboretum to life over many decades, “part of it is the experience of coming to it and having a bite to eat, having a cup of coffee, to enjoy nature. And today in society, people would like to have a glass of wine with lunch or a beer at the end of the day.” 

During the lengthy debate about moving ahead with future daily liquor sales at the arboretum, the conversation turned tense at times as Councilmember Jeff Cox vehemently and forcefully opposed the measure.

Cafe Celeste will also serve alcohol

  • Alcohol has been permitted at the arboretum in the past through special event permits. 
  • But, the vote last Monday, will open the new cafe in the arboretum up to regular alcohol sales outside of these special gatherings. 
  • Exactly what kind of beverages will be available at the cafe is unclear.
Overland Park LongHouse Visitor Center in the Arboretum. Fiorella's Jack Stack will operate Cafe Celeste in the LongHouse.
Cafe Celeste is in the new LongHouse Visitor Center at the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Photo credit Lucie Krisman.

Councilmembers clash over arboretum “commercialization”

Cox, who has fairly regularly voiced his dissatisfaction with what he sees as the “commercialization” of Overland Park’s arboretum, said approving the special use permit last week would “turn the cafe into a bar.” 

“I’m going to bring it up every damn time here. What’s going on and how you’re ruining the arboretum, it’s a shame, it’s a disgrace,” he said, earning some applause from audience members. 

Cox also accused Councilmember Fred Spears, who serves on the Arts and Recreation Foundation of Overland Park, of having “designs on ruining the arboretum for decades” after Spears suggested the city and the foundation had long planned to sell alcohol at the LongHouse. 

Councilmember Paul Lyons pushed back on Cox’s assertions that the city was ruining the arboretum, calling the space and facility “outstanding.”

“It puzzles me a little bit about the emotion surrounding this particular issue,” Lyons said, noting that alcohol sales at the arboretum has been discussed before. He also said he sees it as a way to help the arboretum become more financially “sustainable.” 

Throughout the debate, Councilmembers Faris Farassati, Scott Mosher and Scott Hamblin all echoed some of Cox’s concerns about permitting alcohol sales at the arboretum. They ultimately voted with him to oppose the special use permit. 

Fiorella’s Jack Stack will run Cafe Celeste and be in charge of the alcohol license. Photo credit Kaylie McLaughlin.

Additionally, Farassati questioned whether the sale of alcohol at the arboretum challenged the site’s mission as an educational center.

Parks and Recreation Director Jermel Stevenson said the goal was, simply to offer another amenity for regional visitors, not to convert the LongHouse into a bar. Councilmember Tom Carignan also pointed out that alcohol is sold in the cafes at the Nelson Atkins and Kemper art museums, which are educational facilities.

During the question-and-answer portion of the discussion, Cox also pressed city staff to tell him whose idea it was to open up the cafe for alcohol sales. Stevenson said it was no one person’s idea, but a product of discussion about the arboretum’s business model. He called it a “collaborative conception.” 

Next steps:

  • The special use permit is one step required to allow Cafe Celeste to sell alcoholic drinks. 
  • Now, the cafe has to get a liquor license from the state, which Fiorella’s Jack Stack will be responsible for as part of the agreement the city reached last month to allow that company to run the cafe.
  • It’s unclear when the cafe will start selling alcohol. 

More on this: Jack Stack BBQ to run cafe at Overland Park Arboretum’s new visitor center