By Ann Gill (M.A., ’76)
“I had a wonderful dining experience on that airplane,” said no one, unless they have been to The Airplane Restaurant in Colorado Springs. Not only does the restaurant feature a fascinating décor of aeronautical memorabilia, but the building itself is attached to a Boeing KC-97, its fuselage providing 42 of the restaurant’s 200-plus seats.
Owner Steve Kanatzar (B.S., ’76) started flying while he was a chemistry major at Colorado State University, but had to quit due to the cost. Following graduation, he worked in the oil shale industry, then at the landmark Celebrity Sports Center in Denver. His next job was with Specialty Restaurants, working in one of their Colorado Springs establishments. He started flying again, which inspired this novel restaurant idea. It took 10 years from the original concept to the grand opening in 2002.
The KC-97 is one of Boeing’s largest piston aircraft. This particular plane, built in 1953, refueled other aircraft all over the world. Steve purchased the plane from the government and shipped it to Colorado Springs on eight semis. Once reassembled, the plane provided construction challenges as he built the restaurant. For example, the plane now is connected to the ground with two 48-inch concrete caissons on each wheel to ensure it does not become airborne in a strong wind.
The main seating area of the restaurant resembles an aviation museum. There are photographs and posters signed by pilots and astronauts, from John Glenn to more recent space travelers. Banisters made of wing tips lead to the KC-97 seating. Model airplanes hang from the ceiling, and the last logbook of the KC-97 is on display. The aviation-themed menu includes Air Tower Nachos, Piper Club and Rueben von Crashed sandwiches, and Flying Chicken Florentine.
The restaurant is beloved by visitors as well as employees, most of whom have worked there since shortly after the restaurant opened 17 years ago. Called “flight attendants,” they dress in a fashion befitting the aeronautical theme; one of the bartenders wears a flight suit. The Travel Channel, Food Channel, Wall Street Journal, and many other outlets have featured the restaurant.
In addition to being a successful, creative restaurateur, Steve also is a service-oriented community member and business leader. On Saturday mornings, the restaurant hosts a tutoring program to improve reading skills for third- to fifth-grade students from a nearby school, some of whom are 200% below the poverty level. Students, parents, and tutors are fed breakfast. Steve also feeds the local Ronald McDonald House. He has served as board chair for the Colorado Restaurant Association, receiving their Distinguished Service Award in 2018.
Steve and wife Debbi Leggett Kanatzar (B.S., ’94), who has been wonderfully supportive of this adventure, have three children and six grandchildren. Although still living on the Front Range, Steve has had quite a journey from his days researching flash distillation in a CSU chemistry lab and studying to get that A in a 700-level instrumental analysis course, but the destination has been worth every step. As a lifelong friend asked Steve, “What’s it like to walk into your dream every day?”