Sparks Burger Co. ignites passion for locally sourced food in Kansas 

Genevieve McGregor opened Sparks Burger Co. in May 2023. The restaurant in located at 405 Poyntz Avenue in Manhattan, Kansas. (Courtesy photo.)

A vegetarian pastry chef opens a burger restaurant in the heart of Kansas cattle country—it sounds like the ultimate oxymoron or even the beginning of a corny joke, but for Genevieve McGregor it was a dream that became reality. 

After years of baking sweet confections in the food service industry, McGregor felt the pull to open a restaurant that serves fast food that is locally sourced and sustainable. She has always loved making desserts, but more than that, McGregor loves the commercial kitchen atmosphere, working with a team of like-minded people to build a business she is passionate about. 

“When I got to the point where I wasn’t feeling like making truffles and eclairs all the time, fate gave me an idea that incorporated everything I love about what I’ve dedicated my career to, which was serving people and the community, taking care of my co-workers, working tirelessly,” she said.  

McGregor lived in Boulder County, Colorado, for 32 years and was raising a teenage son as a single mother when she started brainstorming on this restaurant idea, but she knew the concept did not make sense for the area she was living in. The community, which is north of Denver, is an extremely expensive area to purchase real estate and for McGregor, it was not an option. 

“Additionally, because of mass development in many places in Colorado, I think the newer residents have lost touch with the historical ranching history and legacy of those areas,” she added. “To say locally sourced doesn’t resonate with people there as much as it does in an agricultural state like Kansas.”  

McGregor said she also had trouble finding family-owned ranches that were in operation and had products to sell at the quantities and prices she needed. So, she made the difficult decision to take her locally sourced restaurant model and bring it to an area where it would flourish. After some research and travel, she decided on Manhattan, Kansas, partly due to its proximity to farms and ranches in the Flint Hills. 

“There’s one thing more beautiful here than anywhere else, and it’s the people,” she said. “They are the most hard-working, honest, humble, down-to-earth people and I’m blown away. I felt a real connection and resonance with the community.” 

Apart from the courage it took to pursue this dream, McGregor made an incredible sacrifice by moving away from her only child, who stayed in Colorado with his father while she moved to Manhattan to start her culinary venture. Sparks Burger Co., located at 405 Poyntz Avenue, was opened on Mother’s Day 2023 as a gift to her son to show him he can do anything he puts his mind to. 

Open for business

The restaurant serves American food commonly associated with fast food restaurants—including hamburgers, hot dogs, waffle fries and milkshakes—but in an approach that is counterintuitive to the way most view fast food. McGregor calls her concept fast food regeneration. 

“I’m trying to take the food service industry and make it as sustainable and ethical as possible,” she said. “How can we take a fast-food meal, which historically has been corrupted both nutritionally and environmentally and make it in a way that is ethical and sustainable?”  

McGregor’s burger shop is even more unique because she has been a vegetarian for the last 30 years. However, she knew from the get-go that her establishment would need to cater to carnivores for it to be successful. Her concern was finding products from operations that fit the criteria of ethically and sustainably sourced. Perhaps most surprising of all, McGregor’s diet has evolved through the design of the menu and opening the restaurant, so she is no longer a strict vegetarian. She slowly started eating meat again, but still tries to limit her intake and only eats meat in moderation. 

“When I started eating red meat again I realized beef was what I had been missing,” she joked. “And I do feel better knowing that these animals were taken care of and they only had one bad day. It’s still hard for me to be a part of an animal dying, but when I decided to solidify this concept, I found a rancher in Missouri who was kind enough to let me go to her slaughterhouse and witness the whole process from start to finish. Part of why I did that was to reconcile with myself and see how it’s done and I’m OK with it.”  

Every animal product served at Sparks Burger Co. is locally sourced within 120 miles of the restaurant. McGregor said she purchases her ground beef and roasts from Leffler Prime Performance in Americus, Kansas; bacon from R Family Farms in Lebanon, Kansas; dairy from Hildebrand Farms Dairy in Junction City, Kansas; hot dogs from Pacheco Beef in Alma, Kansas; cheese from Alma Creamery in Alma, Kansas; seasoning from Cowboy Prairie Dust in Rossville, Kansas; honey from Valor Honey in Manhattan, Kansas, and eggs from Eagle Ridge Ranch in Abilene, Kansas. 

“I would have never in a million years thought a vegetarian would be in a slaughterhouse or in a field shaking a rancher’s hand and making a deal for 500 pounds of ground beef,” she mused.  

Apart from the desire to serve sustainable and nutritious fast food, McGregor also made it part of her mission to provide a healthy work environment for others in the food service industry. She pushes back against the idea that there is currently a labor shortage. 

“I think there’s plenty of people who want to work and I don’t think people are innately lazy or want to sit at home,” she explained. “People in food service love to be busy and we love to work. We just don’t want to work for a corporation who takes advantage of us. My hope is that if I give people the compensation as close to what they deserve as what I can, but also the environment that supports them, that they would be attracted to it and would want to stay.” 

Although she has long-term plans to make Sparks Burger into a chain at some point, McGregor is currently focused on dedicating every day and night to the Manhattan establishment. She hopes after two years, she can create a cookie cutter version of the Manhattan location in a new town, with a different local food supply chain.  

 On its surface, the hot and hectic atmosphere of a bustling restaurant kitchen during a busy dinner service might seem like the exact opposite of a multi-generational ranch in the Flint Hills, but when brought down to their foundations, these two industries have striking similarities. The rancher and the chef are passion-driven individuals who put in the time needed for their businesses to succeed and they have common goals to feed the world. The desire to work in their industry is in their blood and when the rancher and chef come together it’s a beautiful thing.  

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“I think it’s a calling for both of us and it’s very divinely designed that there are people whose mission in life is to grow food and that there are people in life that their mission is to make and serve food,” McGregor explained. “How else will the human race survive if people aren’t interested in those two things? I feel a real kinship with these people and I’m just so honored to promote them because they do such noble work.”  

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].