Feature photo: Jon Koresko moved to Missouri last fall after completing a thru-ride of the Katy Trail and deciding to re-open the KT Caboose just down from the Marthasville Trailhead. Serving fresh, healthy food options at a low price is his goal.
By Karen Cernich
KT Caboose in Marthasville Is ‘A Gathering Place’ for Both Trail Users and Locals
Brothers Dan and Jeremy Ernstmann of Kansas City were more than half way into their bike ride from Jefferson City to St. Charles as they approached the Marthasville Trail Head last month. It was getting to be lunch time when they realized how hungry they were and began looking for a place to stop. Then they spotted the KT Caboose. The old Burlington Northern car reopened in May serving breakfast and lunch to cyclists and locals alike — things like avocado toast, falafel wrap, apple harvest sandwich, fruit smoothies and more. But what you won’t find on the menu is what the owner, Jon Koresko, is most proud of, even more than the fresh (and often organic) ingredients — the camaraderie, socializing and interaction among the diners. In fact, Jon is so proud of that aspect of the business that he describes the Caboose as “a gathering place” first and a restaurant second. A lifelong hiker/cyclist himself, Jon knows what these kinds of places mean to trail users.
“I’m only here to make a significant difference, and part of that is feeding people healthy food,” he said. “It’s mind, body and spirit, and I believe a healthy body can lead to a healthy mind and healthy spirit.”
Before he came to Missouri last summer to ride the Katy Trail, Jon had biked the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. and completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. He quit his job as the IT director at a retirement community to hike the AT in 2016. “I decided it was time to make a change, and I asked myself if I could only do one thing with my life, what would it be?” He averaged hiking 16 ½ miles a day and completed the AT — from Maine to Georgia — in 135 days. “It was my proudest accomplishment in life and probably will be for a long time. It started me on the pursuit of realizing that when I do something meaningful with my life, something that matters to me, everything makes more sense.”
A Pennsylvania native, Jon lived in Lancaster, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. before moving to Missouri. He left behind a lucrative (and rewarding) career as a computer contractor to pursue something more fulfilling, although he really enjoyed his previous work. “My specialty was infrastructure — servers, building a network that allowed people to have computer systems, implementing software solutions,” he said, noting he liked being able to help people with their computer issues, which in turn helped them successfully complete their work. It was really nice, too, how happy everyone always was to see him, and the work allowed him to travel. “It was a nice life,” he said.
Jon came to Missouri last year specifically to ride the length of the Katy Trail. He had biked the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail in 2019 and was preparing to do it again in 2020, but as he talked with other trail users about their trips, he changed his plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail along the West Coast. He was going to start in July 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed that. It didn’t take Jon long to come up with an alternative plan. “The Katy Trail being the longest rails-to-trails in the country, it was on my mind,” he said. So he came to Missouri in fall 2020 for a thru-ride of the Katy. On his first night, he stayed in Marthasville and on his way back through town he noticed a “For Lease” sign on the caboose. Before he knew it, he’d made up his mind to stay for awhile.
Goal: Serving Healthy Food at Low Prices
Jon didn’t have any experience working in a restaurant before he opened the KT Caboose, although he did once consider going to culinary school. “A recipe to me is just a set of instructions so if you can follow instructions, you can cook anything. And you just learn the different cooking techniques along the way,” he said. However, being able to transition from cooking for himself to cooking for a crowd has been a challenge.
“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Jon admits, recalling how one day he had 11 cyclists show up at once, then four more a few minutes later, then five more . . . and in a period of 30 to 45 minutes, he had to make 15 meals and five ice creams.
From the beginning, one of Jon’s main goals with the business has been to make healthy food tasty (and affordable). “One of the things that is intentional for me is to keep the prices low,” he said, noting his menu items include mostly organic ingredients and all sandwiches come with a pickle and chips as a side. “I won’t serve anything I won’t eat,” he said. That means he tries to avoid foods and ingredients with preservatives, artificial flavors and colors. “There’s also no frozen stuff in there,” he said, gesturing to the kitchen. “Everything is cooked when you order.”
Jon puts in long hours, around 14 each day, and the highlight is always coming out of the kitchen to connect with his customers.
Jon’s menu isn’t big, but the dishes are so popular that he gets a lot of word-of-mouth advertising from previous customers (some even drive out from the St. Louis area just to get a taste). His recipes are mostly dishes that he’s eaten other places and then replicates, adding his own take. The Harvest Apple is his signature sandwich — wheat bread, apple butter, a slice of apple, cheddar cheese and spinach, layered and toasted on the grill. A brewery in Pennsylvania serves something similar with a pear, but here in Missouri, just down the road from a Happy Apple orchard, Jon decided to swap the pear for apple, and customers went crazy for it. (The Harvest Apple can also be ordered as a salad.) Other menu favorites are the falafel wrap and the Beyond Burger, which is a veggie burger. There’s also grilled cheese and an ALT (avocado, lettuce and tomato). The breakfast menu includes avocado toast, bagel and cream cheese, egg and cheese, French toast and a Dutch Mess.
On the drink side, the Caboose serves coffee and tea, but also smoothies made with Greek yogurt, milk and fruit purchased from local farmers and craft sodas, which Jon describes as being like “Italian” sodas. They come in flavors like strawberry and mango, vanilla or green apple and are made with pure cane sugar. “Traditional sodas are one of the worst things you can drink. I won’t serve it,” Jon said. “These are basically ice, seltzer water and the syrup with some cream so they have like 19 or 20 grams of sugar instead of 40 or more (in many traditional sodas).” His craft sodas don’t contain any caffeine, but Jon said he has been thinking about offering supplements that can add caffeine and other boosters. As a hiker/backpacker, he knows the importance of caffeine to trail users. It really does give you a boost of energy, he said.
Open Through October
Jon expects to keep the KT Caboose open through the end of October or whenever people stop using the trail as much and it’s too cold to sit out on the deck. He’ll evaluate the business at the end of the year and then reopen next March or April. Looking ahead, he admits he doesn’t plan to stay here in Missouri long term, maybe three or four years tops.
He currently has five part-time employees, including Chloe Reed, a local high school student.
“We (the town) so appreciate what he’s done here,” she said one evening when she stopped in for dinner. Bud Konieczny agreed. “I just love the conversations we have here,” he remarked.
‘It’s a Special Trail’
Jon said what he appreciates most about the Katy Trail, compared to other trails that he’s hike and biked, are the trail towns. “That’s a really cool part of it, all of that history,” he said. One of his favorite aspects of riding the Katy is riding stopping at each of the trailheads to read the history of the area. “Couple that with the beautiful skies and sunsets, and it’s definitely a unique trail,” Jon said. “And it’s a good length – short enough to do in one stretch (taking five or six days to complete) but long enough that the experience will make an impact on you. It’s a special trail.”
The KT Caboose is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day except Wednesday. Jon accepts cash or card, and all prices include tax.