His new venture works well in Strong City, a town in the Flint Hills with a population of about 400.
But will chef Stan Lerner’s “honor stands” — which invite people to grab fresh-baked bread and other items from unmanned pantries and trust them to leave the correct amount of cash on the “honor system” — also work in Wichita?
Lerner, who owns Chef’s Stan’s Place — a tiny one-day-a-week brunch spot he opened last year in a former church building on the edge of Strong City — will be in Wichita this week scouting out spots where he might be able to set up a few of his honor stands.
Friends he’s told about his new passion project say the idea won’t work in bigger cities and that he’s taking a risk moving into Wichita. But Lerner is undeterred.
“I don’t agree,” he said. “I want to show people you can do an honor stand anywhere and that it’s not just people in small towns you can trust. I think you can trust people anywhere.”
Lerner, who for six months in 2021 ran Chef’s Table Roadhouse in the old Logan’s Roadhouse spot at 353 S. Rock Road in Wichita, opened his first honor stand a couple of weeks ago. He was inspired by a neighboring Strong City business — Kelly’s Bees — which has been operating its own honor stand and letting customers pick up honey and other items at their leisure. That stand even allows customers to make their own change from an open cash box kept inside.
Baking bread — specifically sourdough bread that he puts together by hand — is another passion of Lerner’s, and he decided he could get his homemade sourdough rounds to people in Strong City using an honor stand. He constructed a rustic-looking cabinet using old doors and set it up outside of an abandoned car wash building he owns next door to his restaurant.
Every day, he stocks the stand with sourdough rounds, boxes of cookies — chocolate chip and oatmeal cranberry — and jars of toasted soybeans, which are a crunchy snack he makes using locally grown beans. The stand includes a sign listing prices for each item ($6 for bread, $5 for cookies and $7 for soybeans) and also has a cash box anchored in the cabinet. (Lerner’s is not open for change-making, though.) He’s in the process of developing other products, including an Amish bread, that will work in the stands.
So far, he’s been stocking the cabinet once a day with about 10 loaves of bread, and they’re always gone within hours. His goal for this week is to start restocking it in the afternoon. He leaves the cabinet open “from sunup to sundown,” he said, and although the experiment is new, so far, the math has come out perfectly at the end of each day. People in Strong City are leaving exactly the right amount of money for the products they take.
“We even had one person who was $4 short, so they messaged me on Facebook that they would be coming by today to drop $4 off,” he said.
He’s already recouped the money he put into building the cabinet, Lerner said, and now he’s making big plans to expand the project. In addition to Wichita, he hopes to eventually add stands in towns like Augusta, Douglass, Winfield, Arkansas City, El Dorado, Florence and Newkirk, Oklahoma. His dream is that the project becomes so successful that he can renovate his still unsold building in Winfield — the spot at 815 Main St. that until last year held a restaurant Lerner called Chef’s Table — and turn it into a bakery headquarters where he produces items for the stands.
Lerner said one of his main motivations is getting good bread to people. But he’s also fascinated by the idea of honor stands and what they mean on a human level.
“Honor stands are a different approach to capitalism,” he said. “I call it constructive capitalism. It’s not just investment in bread or making cabinets. It’s an investment in people — giving them a chance to do something that makes them feel good: being honorable.”
The Strong City stand is outdoors, and Lerner envisions future stands would be, too. He chose sourdough bread partially because it’s a sturdy bread that can stand up to fluctuation temperatures, and he says he’ll be looking for locations where his stands can be pushed up against buildings to help protect his products from the elements. On rainy days, he said, he’ll have to keep the stands closed.
When he envisions locations for the stands in Wichita, Lerner said, he pictures East Douglas in College Hill — maybe even shopping centers like Bradly Fair or corporate campuses like Koch Industries. He hopes to have his first Wichita stand open by spring.
“This is capitalism — it’s not a nonprofit venture,” Lerner said. “But that’s not the priority of the venture. The first priority is to get people healthy bread that has no additives and no preservatives. And the next part is to have a social impact and show you can do business in a different way. If it can create jobs and turn a profit, that’s the icing on the cake.”
Lerner encourages anyone with ideas about where he could place honor stands in Wichita to contact him on his Chef Stan’s Place Facebook page or by phone at 213-400-4559.
His restaurant in Strong City is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays. His Strong City honor stand is at the corner of KS-177 and Church Street.