Owning soul-food restaurants, says KeVen Parker of Ms. Tootsie’s Restaurant Bar Lounge, “was never my intention, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever. I wanted to be this great businessman.”
Parker, now 56, was on his way to doing just that in the 1990s while working in community affairs for Comcast. He also was chairman for the cash-strapped Men’s Day program at First African Baptist Church, then in South Philadelphia. “I came up with this bright idea to do a breakfast,” he recalled.
To pull it off, he enlisted the help of a seasoned cook.
“Every Sunday, my mother cooked a big meal. She fed almost everybody in the neighborhood,” he said. “They just kept coming and coming, and kids would be in the front and the parents would be upstairs with my mom in the kitchen. It was just the best memories of my life.”
Joyce “Tootsie” Parker, so nicknamed as a girl because of her fondness for Tootsie Rolls, put her son’s mind to ease when he nervously told her that he had sold more than 100 tickets.
“She said, ‘Oh, we can do it. In the housing project, how many people do you think I cooked for?’” Parker said. “We cooked the breakfast and it was a success. I remember my pastor calling me and saying, ‘I’m getting these calls at the church. People want your phone number. They want you to cook for them.’ I said to myself, ‘I wonder if I could do this.’”
His early days as a part-time caterer were not easy. His car broke down, and a neighbor’s cab-driving boyfriend shuttled him to jobs.
“I was catering out of a cab for like a month,” Parker said. “People never knew, because I would get the cab to park up the street and have me and my staff unload it and take it in. And then we would wait there and call the cab back.”
Parker decided to take the next big step. "I remember going to Comcast and talking to Ralph Roberts. He always walked the halls and always was there. We were small then. I remember telling my boss about wanting to leave. She set up this meeting. She said, ‘You need to talk to him. You have a great future here.’
“I remember [Roberts] asking why I wanted to leave. Was it money? I said, ‘I just really want to pursue my future. I don’t know what I want to do. But I’m young enough that if I make a mistake and it doesn’t work, I can go get another job. But I’ll never know if I don’t try.’ He said to me, ‘I agree 100 percent.’”
Parker had frequented a restaurant on the 1300 block of South Street called Mom’s Soft Touch. It closed. He asked the owner to sell him the building. Parker and his mother (reluctantly) drained their 401(k) accounts. They opened Ms. Tootsie’s with all of 18 seats in 2000, ignoring friends who warned him that the block was dangerous.
“I really didn’t know about food portions,” he said. “I was still learning about food cost. I was feeling my way around everything. I just knew that we could cook this great food. We opened up, and it just took right off. I was in awe."
Five years later, neighboring jeweler Henri David told Parker that he was selling his building. David asked if Parker was interested in expanding, but Parker was doubtful he could get a mortgage. David countered with an offer Parker could not refuse: He would hold the mortgage. Parker would pay it down each month.
“He said to me, 'I don’t want anyone else to have this building but you, because I see something in you that’s going to change this whole neighborhood.” That created Ms. Tootsie’s Restaurant Bar Lounge, which opened in 2005 with three dining rooms and a full bar.
Joyce Parker died in 2011. Tootsie’s stand at Reading Terminal Market came along in early 2013, replacing Delilah’s.
Oh, no. Mary Mason [the former talk-show host, who had a flair for the dramatic] gave it to me. I just remember she saying to me one time, “It’s not K-e-v-e-n. It is K-e-capital-v-e-n.”
Finding great help. I think it’s a different day. It’s a different generation. It’s a microwaveable society. I think that the youth of today, there’s some missing components. Responsibility. A lot of them don’t have responsibility. They want it now. I don’t care what you pay them; they don’t have a level of commitment.
I remember my mother saying that she was not ready. She said, ‘KeVen, I’m not ready to share with the world my recipes because they’re our gems.’ She also said, ‘Don’t do anything for the money. The money will come. And don’t compromise our product.’ We had a deal with a supermarket to do our mac and cheese. They did like four or five prototypes, and my mother was like, ‘We’re not doing that.’ I asked why? She said, ‘It’s not our product.’ What she knew was not to compromise what our family labored for for a dollar.
I can’t. So many of the things that are in our recipes are things that you wouldn’t even imagine being in it. Remember, these recipes go back like 50, 60, 70 years when people didn’t have a lot of resources. So they had to use things, they improvise. It’s crazy because some of the things that they used and they improvised, you would never even think that it would go in a product and make a product taste so good.