KeVen Parker, 57, of Philadelphia, an entrepreneur who carried on his mother’s mission of feeding people deliciously with restaurants on South Street and in Reading Terminal Market and a catering business, died Friday, Jan. 15.
Mr. Parker’s death from cancer took most people, including staff at his Ms. Tootsie’s restaurants, by surprise. Naturally cheery, he had kept private his health issues, including a long struggle with diabetes and its complications.
Mr. Parker moved easily in Philadelphia’s entertainment and lifestyle circles, and his restaurants hosted such people as Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Mo’Nique, and Patti LaBelle. It was talk-radio host Mary Mason who advised him to capitalize the “V” in his first name to help him stand out.
WDAS radio personality Patty Jackson, who’s known Mr. Parker since he started in catering 25 years ago, said people loved him and his food. “He wanted people to enjoy the whole experience,” she said. “He saw through his mother’s dream.”
His sister, Lynette Saunders, described Mr. Parker as the “most caring person in the world. There was never a time in my life when he was not there for me.”
“He was beautiful inside and out — just an amazing man,” said Oshunbumi Fernandez-West, a civic leader and longtime friend who considered him “a brother from another mother.”
Ms. Tootsie’s, at 1312 South St., was named the best Southern-style restaurant for three years running in Black Enterprise magazine, and appeared frequently on food TV shows. The Food Network’s Robert Irvine raved about his fried chicken on The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Mr. Parker also was charitable, donating groceries and meals to families in need through his Spread the Love campaign.
In 2012, Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong, then with the Daily News, recalled visiting him in his office and overhearing a phone call. Mr. Parker arranged for a woman who had been a victim of domestic violence to take her children to a Phillies game — after they were treated to a meal in his restaurant.
He also created a lifestyle brand called KPD Lifestyle to design pieces for the home and office.
Still, Mr. Parker said, owning soul-food restaurants “was never my intention, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever. I wanted to be this great businessman.”
Mr. Parker, a Drexel University graduate, was working in community affairs for Comcast in the mid-1990s. He also was chairman of 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.
He reached out to the one person who could pull off such an event, his mother, Joyce — known to all as “Tootsie” since childhood because of her fondness for Tootsie Rolls. She was the neighborhood cook, her son explained. The breakfast was a success.
“I remember my pastor calling me and saying, ‘I’m getting these calls at the church. People want your phone number,” Mr. Parker said. “They want you to cook for them.’ I said to myself, ‘I wonder if I could do this.’ ”
As he deliberated his future, Mr. Parker recalled, he ran into Comcast founder Ralph Roberts in the hallway of the old headquarters at 1500 Market St. “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.’ ”
Mr. Parker started Simply Delicious Catering in 1996. Soon, he was running the food operation at Cafe 3801 at 38th and Market Streets in University City. After the closing of one of his favorite restaurants, Mom’s Soft Touch at 1314 South St., he asked the owner to sell him the building. Ignoring friends who warned him that the block was dangerous, Mr. Parker and his mother drained their 401(k) accounts and in 2000 opened Ms. Tootsie’s Soul Food Cafe, with 18 seats.
“I was feeling my way around everything,” he said. “I just knew that we could cook this great food. We opened up, and it just took right off. I was in awe.” In 2005, his neighbor, the jeweler Henri David, told Mr. Parker that he was selling his building. David asked him if he was interested in expanding, but Mr. Parker was doubtful that he could get a mortgage. David countered with an offer that Mr. Parker could not refuse: He would hold the mortgage, and Mr. 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 led to Ms. Tootsie’s Restaurant Bar Lounge, a destination restaurant.
Joyce Parker died in 2011, and the Ms. Tootsie’s stand at Reading Terminal Market came along in early 2013, replacing Delilah’s.
Mr. Parker always turned down offers to write a cookbook. His mother, he said, considered their recipes to be “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,” he said.
Besides his sister, Mr. Parker is survived by three nephews and an aunt, Laura Garfield. Funeral arrangements are pending.