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Makes Ames Weird


May 5th, 2021

“Make Ames Weird” buzzes in neon light and the smell of freshly smoked barbecue is wafting out the front door as it opens for the next hungry customer. A line of people goes out the door as they talk, laugh and sometimes even sweat as they endure the hot summer sun while awaiting to have an experience that Ames, Iowa, has perhaps lacked in the past. 


College towns typically have a distinctive culture and sense of community. Critics of Ames have said that the city is deprived of a vibrant culture and arts community when compared to others. A few downtown businesses are changing this long-held perception of the Midwest college town.  


Ryan Newstrom is the owner and founder of Cornbred, a barbecue restaurant that opened in downtown Ames in June of 2019. Located in the old train depot and home to the idiosyncratic signage displaying “Make Ames Weird”, the restaurant of course features world-class barbecue, but its focus is on the entire dining experience- not just the food. 


“I saw what I thought was missing; I’ve been around the world and at restaurants around the world,” said Newstrom. “I think I saw that Ames was missing a lot in terms of culture and soul.” 


While working as the Story County planner, Newstrom began competing in barbecue contests on the weekends, and to his surprise, he was winning them. Newstrom then saw how he could use his skill to practically add culture and better community to his home. 

"I saw what I thought was missing; I've been around the world and at restaurants around the world."

Ryan Newstrom, Owner + Founder, Cornbred

The planning and execution of making Cornbred a reality was a 12-year process from start to finish. The restaurant actually began as a food truck in the summer of 2017. After two years of success with the truck, Newstrom was finally ready to open the restaurant he had been envisioning for years prior. 


Part of what makes Cornbred so unique is how Newstrom juxtaposed a classic barbecue style full of mason jars, smoked meats, and industrial architecture with a trendy and modern brunch space. Think abstract lighting, crystal wine glasses and playful-colored tile. Formality and casual seamlessly merge together, making it a place for anyone of any background to enjoy.


“We don’t sell food here; we sell an experience. We want people to feel like they can stay and enjoy this space” says Newstrom. 


Since the restaurant resides in a historic railroad station, guests can enjoy the intentionally named “Railyard” as an outdoor seating area while enjoying board games with friends, a beer garden, and on Saturday nights, some live music. 


“I think that Ames could take itself a little less seriously,” said Newstrom. “Let’s have fun, let’s be weird, and let’s create a place where people can do that.” 

Adding culture and a stronger sense of community to a city requires a lot more than just one forward-thinking restaurant. The city of Ames and other businesses have also been doing their part to make Ames a more desirable place to visit and live for people of all identities. 


Dan Culhane, the CEO of the Ames Chamber of Commerce, said that he has seen the growth of place in Ames over the last five years. He said there has been an emphasis on growing the downtown and increasing the modernization of Ames. 


“Places like that [Cornbred] create spaces that people want to hang out in, and we need even more of those in Ames,” said Culhane.

"Places like that [Cornbred] create spaces that people want to hang out in, and we need even more of those in Ames"

Dan Culhane, CEO, Ames Chamber of Commerce

Another small business in downtown Ames, Morning Bell Coffee, has worked hard to create a community-centric space that features local artists in rotating art displays. The shop’s owner, Nadav Mer, said that Morning Bell Coffee doesn’t cater to the students, but other demographics of Ames like professors, artists and grad students. 


“I see us as a safe space for a lot of communities in town,” said Mer. 


Mer said that ever since he and his family moved to Ames in 2016, the culture of the city has noticeably evolved and that there are a lot of good things coming in the future of Ames. 


As a 24-year-old resident of the city, Alissa Stoehr has also seen Ames develop and change over the years, but from a consumer’s perspective. She said that there has been significant growth in independent businesses and cultural events outside of Iowa State University. 


“It’s been nice to see different small businesses do a lot with the community,” said Stoehr. 


Another café, that also resides downtown, is well-known for their inclusive and community-focused menu and space. Lockwood Café is owned by Sharon Stewart, whose original goal with the café was to create a communal space that encourages connection through the arts and diverse culture. 


“We really saw that there was a desire for alternative spaces that felt safe,” said Stewart. 


Lockwood Café’s menu offers sweet and savory crepes that are built around a “McDonald’s price point”. Stewart priced her menu this way to make sure the café’s food was accessible to everyone, as well as offering a healthier option to all communities of Ames. 


Stewart said that in the seven years that she and her husband have lived in Ames, they have seen the city develop a much more “funky art scene”. She said that there is a need and desire for culture and connection in Ames and the only way to encourage that is to provide a physical space for that connection to occur. 


One of the biggest ways that Lockwood Café provides a safe space for community connection is with how their staff greets and treats customers, says Stewart. Making every customer of all backgrounds and communities feel seen and heard is something that Stewart has found a lot of value in while she has run her small business. 


Among coffee and crepes, Lockwood Café also includes the arts by having a gallery attached to provide a space for local artists to display their work.  


The downtown cafe’s owner is actually good friends with Mer and Newstrom, among other owners of downtown small businesses. She said they all want to support each other and see each other’s businesses grow and do well. Stewart said that a supportive ecosystem of business owners is vital to creating a positive and vibrant culture for all of Ames to enjoy. 


Taking the risk to own an independent business can be daunting- but these businesses are just a few among many in Ames that are successfully doing it day after day. Food, art, coffee, patios and live music all have the power to bring a community together while supporting small businesses. 


Cornbred’s infamous neon sign will keep on beaming the words “Make Ames Weird”, as all of their customers take a split second to think about what those three simple words mean to them. 


The city of Ames will keep moving towards a stronger branded culture and community if independent businesses are able to stay successful with the help of reliable consumers. 

Whether you eat it, drink it, buy it, listen to it, paint it or watch it, do your part in adding to this small social movement of making Ames weird.

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