Danielle Lehman’s Open Belly Podcast Explores Life in the Restaurant Industry

Photo by Aaron Leimkuehler

The Women in Business series is presented by UMB Women and Wealth

When Danielle Lehman moved to Kansas City from Los Angeles five years ago, she was determined to explore Kansas City’s inspired food scene. What she found were amazing restaurants that suffered from zero exposure. “I felt like there were a lot of really great options that weren’t getting attention from the media or on social media,” she says. “They were mom and pop, immigrant-owned restaurants that maybe offered cuisines people were intimidated to try or weren’t familiar with.”

Armed with her love of food and desire to shine a spotlight on these restaurateurs, she started a well-received podcast in February 2019 called Open Belly. One teeny problem, however. “I had no experience doing any sort of audio production—at all,” she says with a laugh. Fortunately, she was a quick study. “As I started to get to know some of the chefs just from dining in their restaurants, I found there were a lot of stories and perspectives people should know about,” she says. “I wanted to give them an outlet and help bring in new business and help their businesses continue to thrive.”

Lehman says she’s not a foodie. “I’m more of a culinary advocate,” she quips. Her heartfelt podcasts have certainly resonated with listeners thanks to her quiet storytelling approach. “Hearing the emotion and depth in [the owners’] voices, I felt like it was really important not to put my own spin on it. I wanted people to connect with them on a deeper level because you hear them talking. You can almost imagine you’re sitting at the counter talking to the chef.”

Lehman finagled the first season of her podcast on a shoestring budget, but reaction from the community was remarkable. “I was surprised at how many people listened to it and resonated with the podcast,” she says. “For one, there were people who loved food and listened for exploration reasons and have new places to try. Second, there were a lot of people—maybe children of immigrants—who connected with a lot of the stories that we shared. I was overwhelmed by the positive response.”

The fruits of Lehman’s labor were almost instantaneous. The first season featured only Kansas City-centric restaurants. “Going into restaurants and hearing ‘So-and-so just came in and heard about us on your podcast,’ was a really great feeling,” she says. In the midst of all this, Lehman was also pulling double duty running Boxer & Mutt, the digital marketing firm she launched nearly eight years ago. (She named it after her two furball sidekicks.) Along with honing corporate websites, Lehman says there’s been natural crossover with area restaurants. It’s a best-of-both-worlds scenario. “I found I loved working for myself,” she says. “As a friendly-fun digital marketing consultant, I needed a name that wasn’t too serious or stuffy.”

Never one to rest on her laurels, Lehman—who grew up in Hutchinson, Kansas—also started curbsidekc.com in March, a website where respective restaurant owners could showcase their to-go/curbside menu offerings. With more than 180,000+ clicks, the website is a bona-fide success. Lehman then launched a curbside notary project—tying in with some nearby eateries. “Pop into your favorite coffee shop, grab your fave latte and have your ballot notarized all at once,” she says. “It was a win-win for everybody.”

When pressed about the name of Lehman’s podcast, she said it just made sense. “The idea behind Open Belly? I hope people will approach food and life with an open heart, an open mind and an open belly,” she says. “Instead of coming to the table with ideas about different cultures or your own opinion, use food as a way to facilitate a conversation. Have an open belly. We’ll all be better off.”

One thing she discovered along the way was a fondness for all the culinary pros she interviewed. “I’m good at finding people and stories that people will find interesting,” she says. “It’s an unfiltered conversation so the person can share their own story.” She also found a propensity for Butter Chicken—specifically from Sohaila’s Kitchen at Lenexa Public Market.

“It’s perfect for this time of year. A warm, saucy, hearty, creamy, tomato-y dish served over rice,” she says. “It’s comforting and there’s just something about the way she makes it. I don’t know what their secret is, but I could eat it every day.”

Her most popular podcast, meanwhile, was also her first out of the gate. “I hear the most feedback about my Waldo Thai interview,” she says. “It was one of my favorites. Pam and Darrel were so fun and open to having a conversation with me—and being vulnerable. It was lighthearted and fun, but had some really touching moments as well.”

Clearly, Lehman has an affinity for Kansas City and the warm admiration she’s received for her endeavors. “Kansas City is one of the most underrated cities in America,” she says. “This community has totally accepted me and embraced the projects I’m a part of—and that would have never happened in L.A.”