While his restaurant was under construction, Samuel Voss put paper over the windows. He didn’t post a “Coming Soon” sign or a logo.
He wanted to keep his plans for a casual farm-to-table eatery under wraps.
In small town like DeWitt, Iowa, though, keeping a secret isn’t easy, especially because his restaurant was moving into the former site of Whisk Away, a popular bakery that had recently closed.
“When I went to the grocery store or the hardware store, I would hear people talking about what they thought it was going to be,” Voss, 32, said. “In a small town, there is a lot of curiosity.”
When something new opens on the town’s main strip of Sixth Avenue, there’s plenty of “positive hype,” according to Angela Rheingans, executive director for the DeWitt Chamber and Development Company.
“We are all a little like, ‘What’s going to replace this bakery we all loved?’’ Rheingans said. “There was hope that it would be something exciting.”
The menu and “welcoming, modern and unique” vibe of Urban Eats, which opened on Dec. 14, didn’t disappoint.
“When something is new, there’s good conversation and excitement around it,” she said. “What’s different about this is that hasn’t slowed down.”
Walking along Sixth Avenue in Dewitt, Iowa, on a recent day, Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” played from the city’s outdoor speakers on the sidewalks.
Inside the newest restaurant on DeWitt’s main strip, the tune changed to something you’d hear today on a pop radio station.
In other words, as soon as you walk in, you can tell this place is different for DeWitt.
DeWitt is home to seven other restaurants as well as an ice cream shop and a few coffee shops, according to the city’s chamber website.
Urban Eats offers much-needed variety, said Rheingans.
“It’s a dining option that is not pizza or food from a bar and grill,” she said. “It’s something different. There’s more of a feeling of, ‘I’m going somewhere special.’”
Voss has heard that from plenty of customers so far.
“There’s been such a need for something like this in town and it has been very vocal,” he said. “I do feel like I’m bringing new things to town. I’m kind of introducing meat and potatoes people to some trendy food things.”
The menu features sandwiches and salads packed with fresh ingredients and flavors as well as homemade soups, such as a tomato soup recipe passed down from Voss’ grandmother. He sources vegetables, eggs and meat from nearby farms and plans to incorporate more locally produced ingredients from Quad-City area farmers markets when the weather warms up.
Voss has also recently launched weekly special events such as Endless Spaghetti Wednesdays and Prime Rib specials on the weekends and brunch on Sundays.
In addition, Urban Eats doesn’t serve alcohol, but patrons are welcome to bring their own bottle of wine or beer to pair with dinner.
During the lunch hour, Urban Eats, which has seating for about 50 people, is typically packed. Those busy moments make Voss glad he took a risk.
“I was scared to death to do this. I think I sunk every penny I had into these four walls,” he said. “Looking at it now, I would’ve done this 15 years ago if I could’ve.”
Back to his roots
Voss said he never expected to open his first restaurant in his hometown.
“DeWitt is a place I thought I probably would’ve landed last,” Voss said.
That’s mostly because, as Voss said, it’s not very big.
Voss grew up on a farm in rural DeWitt and started working at restaurants in town when he was 11.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “It was the only career path I’ve ever wanted to do. It was always, ‘What can I learn next with it?’”
To keep learning, Voss attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago and landed chef jobs at a few Italian restaurants in the city. He also worked at Rastrelli’s in nearby Clinton, Iowa. Following several years of working in corporate food service, where he led kitchens at area casinos and colleges such as Columbia College in Missouri, Voss missed working in independent restaurants. So he decided to open his own.
“I had done all these other things and learned so much,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s try a restaurant. Why not?’”
Voss had picked out a place in Omaha, Nebraska, for his eatery, but then he heard about a vacancy on the main strip in DeWitt. When he visited the space, he was sold.
“At first, I was like, ‘I don’t remember DeWitt being a very big place,” Voss, who lives in Davenport, said. “I think I was underestimating the city when I said that. There’s so much more to the city than this main strip. There are so many people who need a good restaurant to go to.”
Voss said Urban Eats has already become a destination place for residents in Clinton, Fulton, Dubuque and the Quad-Cities.
“DeWitt is an area that is small, but mighty,” he said.