By Jamie Slack
Photos by Rachel Lock
PEDRO CONCEPCION is a regular figure at the Burger Stand in Topeka just north of Washburn University. He’s greeting customers, creating tasty new concoctions and working with locals to make a better community, all while supervising the kitchen staff to ensure that each burger recipe is executed perfectly. He may make it look easy, but Pedro knows how much works it takes to maintain a successful restaurant. When you add cancer into the mix, it becomes a herculean effort.
Originally from Chicago, Pedro had the opportunity to work with Simon Bates when he opened the Burger Stand in Lawrence. Pedro worked hard and proved that he could handle more responsibility. So when Bates gave him the opportunity to open the Burger Stand’s new location in Topeka, Pedro jumped at the chance to start something new in Kansas. Soon after, he opened his own restaurant, Boca Café, across the street.
At 26 years old, Pedro was on top of the world, creating incredible dishes and shaping the palette of new customers. He thought his life couldn’t get much better. Then a life altering medical diagnosis conspired to take him down.
The devastating diagnosis in August 2013 took the breath out of him.
“After years of working and sacrificing, I believed I should work hard and be able to retire early,” Pedro says. “Then, I collapsed at my restaurant; I was coughing up blood and I couldn’t even keep water down.”
Doctors gave him only months to live, triggering a series of events including a suicide attempt. After all his work to build quality restaurants and introduce new flavors to his customers, now he was forced to get his affairs in order and plan for the end.
“I went to a really dark space,” he says.
Staring into the face of death made him reflect on the life he was living and how he could keep going.
Ultimately, Pedro chose to fight for life and made his way back home to the Windy City to be with family. He sold his beloved restaurant and all of his belongings. Then he traveled with a friend on a journey to find wellness and discover the world—while he still had time.
“I told my mom that if I was going to die, I wanted to see the world first.”
He tried smoking treatments in Hawaii, Alkaline treatments in Puerto Rico, ate bugs in Florida, and took protein treatments in Spain. He vowed to do anything to make himself feel whole again, and he found that his holistic treatments were shrinking his cancer growth. To round out his unconventional treatments from across the world, he then submitted to chemotherapy.
Pedro has been back at the Burger Stand in Topeka for nearly a year now. Co-owning a successful restaurant and attempting to forge ahead as an entrepreneur with a possible careerending cancer diagnosis has become an everyday trial for him. Because his eating habits have changed, he now depends on employees and customers to taste test his new recipes.
“I’ve worked with a lot of the product already, so I know that ingredients will work,” Pedro says. “I tell my kitchen manager about our new burger, the Kimchi Burger. The smoky cheese will go well with the balsamic onions. That’s how I cook.”
Pedro imagines the flavors, layers the ingredients in his mind, and then puts them to work. The Kimchi Burger just won an award for the Burger Stand. The accolades keep coming for Pedro and his restaurant as they also won Best Burger in the Capital-Journal’s Best of Topeka Awards.
Pedro believes that Topeka is the right place for him—he has no intention of leaving anytime soon.
“Chicago is so fast that it’s kind of exhausting trying to keep up with it,” Pedro says. “Here in Topeka, you can relax and enjoy more when it comes to work.”
Pedro has plans to continue creating with food, while also bringing new ideas, cultivating change and helping the Topeka community grow and thrive, one burger at a time.