The World We’re Gonna Make: Jim & Karen Kanelos on Love, Food, and ‘The Office Bar & Grill’
Fate. It’s a funny word, a funny idea. Some people scoff at it. ‘Ain’t nobody runs my life but me!’ one might say. Another might take comfort in the idea that their futures are in the hands of somebody, or something, else. Yet another, still, might be content in simply not knowing.
They can say, they can say it all sounds crazy.
They can say, they can say I’ve lost my mind.
I don’t care, I don’t care; so call me crazy.
We can live in a world that we design.
- The Greatest Showman
For Jim and Karen Kanelos, owners of The Office Bar & Grill, fate was never something that either had ever really considered; at least, in regards to their own lives.
Looking back, it’s ironic - Jim Kanelos is a very proud Greek man. He believes in hard work and getting out of something what you put into it. He has always taken his life into his own hands and he lives in a world that he, himself, has designed. Fate was never given the chance, so it seemed.
Growing up in Wyoming, with a very orthodox Greek family, wasn’t always the easiest life. Jim and his family had struggles, just like any other family. But there was always work, always laughter, always love.
And there was always, always food.
Jim’s family had spent years in the restaurant business. His father, James Sr., actually owned what would later become ‘The Office Bar & Grill.’ Until 1998, it was called ‘The Olympus’ and it was, to Jim, the greatest show on earth.
“I worked side by side with my dad, in this business, forever,” Jim said of his childhood. “His idea was to make a better life for his children. The biggest thing I have to prove, to myself and to my father, is that we can be successful if we work as hard as he has.”
“We did,” he continued.
Jim learned the restaurant business from the bottom up. He washed dishes, he bussed tables, he cooked a thousand Gyros. He loved it. He loved learning the family business. He loved living the restaurant lifestyle. More than anything, though, he loved working with his dad. Especially when he got a nod of approval.
“He’s never the kind of guy that’s gonna say ‘good job,’” Jim said of his father. “You see it in his eyes.”
While working with his dad, Jim noticed another set of eyes, as well. And they belonged to the former Karen Goodman.
There’s a house we can build;
Every room inside is filled with things from far away.
Special things I compile;
Each one there to make you smile on a rainy day.
- The Greatest Showman
When Karen met Jim, she was a fully-licensed cosmetologist, working as a hair stylist. “I loved it,” she said with a smile. She was good at it, too. But she was no stranger to the restaurant business herself, and it wouldn’t be long before she was called back to it.
Karen’s grandparents owned a restaurant in her hometown of Cheyenne. As fate would have it, the restaurant, named after her grandfather, was called “Jim’s Café.”
“I grew up in the restaurant business as well,” Karen reminisced. “For all the years of my childhood, I worked with my grandparents.”
It’s really not surprising, then, that Karen would return to the restaurant business one day. What was surprising, to her at least, was for whom she would return.
She initially turned him down. When Jim was introduced to Karen by a mutual friend, he was immediately smitten. To him, she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Jim knew that he wanted Karen to be his from the moment he met her. But she was having none of it.
“I asked her out and she said no,” Jim remembered with a laugh. “Then, I asked her out again and she set up a date. And she cancelled. Then, I think I asked a third time.”
Again, she turned him down. Jim knew how to take a hint, as long as it was offered 2 or 3 times. He stopped asking and decided, perhaps for the very first time, to give fate a chance. If it was meant to happen, it would.
“She came into the restaurant one night and asked if I was working,” Jim said. “I went out and saw her and went ‘Wow, she could have gone anywhere, but she came here and asked for me? Alright, one more time.’ So I asked her out a fourth time.”
“Finally she said yes and then she wanted to marry me right after that,” he added.
While Jim and Karen began their courtship, Jim was also taking on more responsibility at the restaurant. Not content to just spend his evenings with Karen, one of the first big business decisions Jim made was to offer her a job.
“She was a hairdresser and I said ‘Why don’t you come work for me?’” Jim stated. “And I talked her into it. She’s a people person and she works hard. What we love about the business is that the harder you work, the more it gives back to you. I’m a hard worker, and I’ll be the first to admit that she’s an even harder worker than me. Everyone in my family would even say that.”
Jim’s first decision was to hire Karen and everyone agreed it was a fantastic idea. His second idea, however, was a bit more controversial.
“When [the restaurant] was on CY and Poplar, I can remember putting up the first TV,” Jim said. “My dad asked me, ‘What are you doing?’
“I said ‘It’s a TV. For the customers.’
“He said, ‘Why don’t you put one in the back for the dishwashers, too?’
“When he saw me putting up movie posters and pictures, he said ‘Oh my goodness, what are you doing?’ Keep in mind, this is an old Greek guy.
“I said ‘Trust me dad, trust me. I haven’t failed you yet, just trust me.’ As soon as we started bringing more and more of that décor in and he saw how much people loved it, he got to the point that he actually enjoyed it as well.”
Jim said that the decision to put up all of the various Hollywood paraphernalia that he had collected over the years was made to entertain his customers. Some think, however, that it was done simply to make Karen smile.
Both decisions, those of decorating the restaurant and hiring Karen, were two of the best business decisions Jim could have made. While it took his father some time to come around on the decorum, he was immediately just as smitten with Karen as Jim Jr. was. This was because Karen was not only beautiful; she was also one of the hardest working, kindest people both Jims had ever met.
“I saw how hard she worked and how friendly she was with the customers,” Jim said of Karen. “She just has those gifted social skills. Honestly, somebody could come who just had the worst day of their lives and they could talk with Karen and, all of a sudden, they just have a different outlook.”
Karen was special. Jim knew it the moment he met her. And he didn’t intend to waste any more time wondering. Fate had made good, and he wasn’t going to question it.
“I had never been married or engaged before, but after a couple of weeks, I looked at her and said ‘You’re the girl I’m going to marry.’”
It wasn’t too long after that prophetic statement was made, that it came to fruition. Karen and Jim were married in 1992 and in those 29 years, there have been struggles and celebrations. There have been peaks and valleys. But there has always been work, there has always been laughter, there has always been love.
And there has always, always been food.
Karen and Jim bought The Olympus from Jim’s dad in 1998. They renamed it ‘Karen and Jim’s’ and for the next 20 years, that’s exactly what it has been. Karen and Jim’s featured various insights into their lives and their family. It was, for all intents and purposes, an extension of their home. In 2004, Karen and Jim’s moved from the corner of CY and Poplar to its current location, right in the middle of Downtown Casper. It was an institution of the downtown scene before a downtown scene even existed. With its movie posters and pictures and statues and replicas, Karen and Jim’s was a labor of love in every sense of the word. It was their baby before they had babies.
But babies grow up. Times change and so, too, did Karen and Jim’s.
“When [the state of Wyoming] came to us and said they’d like to buy our property, our first question was ‘Why?’” Jim stated. “They told us about the state building [which would have] about 350-400 employees. We explained to them that we’d be fools to sell because, well, state employees like to have lunch. They like to enjoy themselves after work. So right away we thought that we needed to come up with a new concept to accommodate our surroundings.”
That new concept was ‘The Office Bar & Grill.’ It has less ‘flare’ than Karen and Jim’s did, but it has just as much heart. It also has windows and a patio and a new menu and a new bar and some of the best employees in the area, all of whom were trained by Karen and Jim themselves.
“If our employees aren’t happy and attentive and knowledgeable and on the ball, we won’t be successful,” Jim said. “But they are. We work with them non-stop to try to bring them to that level, to where they’re just like Karen out front.”
“And they’re just like Jim in the kitchen,” Karen added.
Having such a great team doesn’t mean that Jim and Karen are just sitting in the back counting money, however. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. One of them is there all day, every single day, working just as hard in the kitchen or behind the bar or on the floor.
“By us being here and keeping an eye on everything, we’re ready to jump in at any time behind the bar, behind the grill, bus tables, refill a drink, get you another Ranch; whatever it is, we’re here for that and our employees see that and our employees appreciate that,” Jim said.
“They’re incredible,” Karen said of their team.
Jim agreed. “They’re what make this business.”
Karen and Jim are very proud of their restaurant and of their employees. Karen is quick to offer encouragement to the team, with a kind word or a bright smile. Jim is a bit more subtle. He doesn’t heap praise with his words every single day, but his employees know when they’re making him proud.
They can see it in his eyes.
If the employees of The Office make up the body of the business, then Karen is the heart and Jim is the soul.
In fact, The Office could be considered to be the heart and soul of Downtown Casper.
This is especially true when any events are taking place downtown. The Office is one of the first to help promote other businesses and various events that are constantly occurring in the Old Yellowstone District.. Karen and Jim didn’t expect this area to become what it is, but they’re eager to see what it becomes.
“There’s more potential right now, downtown, than there ever has been,” Jim said. “To be quite honest, I don’t think we’ve seen half of what downtown is going to be.”
However big, however small, let me be part of it all.
Share your dreams with me.
You may be right, you may be wrong;
Just say that you’ll bring me along
To the world you see.
- The Greatest Showman
Before Jim Kanelos met Karen Goodman, he never thought much about fate. Jim was a man of action; he got it from his father. He believed that you get out of what you put into something. This was something he applied to his work and to his life in general. It was how he and his dad built the restaurant. But there are some things you can build and some things that just are.
Karen and Jim’s, the restaurant, was something that was built- with years of hard work, blood, sweat, tears and Tzatziki sauce. Karen and Jim, the couple, well…that was written in the stars. Their relationship; it just is. Fate chose to bring Karen and Jim together because it knew the magic that would come from the pairing. That magic reveals itself every time Jim steals a kiss from Karen behind the bar, every time Karen smiles at a customer who has had a bad day, every time somebody comes into The Office for the first time and immediately feels like they are home.
Looking at the bar or at their relationship, there is no denying that Karen and Jim have built something special together. Whether it was designed by fate, hard work or maybe a little bit of both, one thing cannot be denied and it was Karen who put it best:
‘We could never do it without each other.”