OVER THE YEARS, KeVen Parker's Ms. Tootsie brand has come to stand for a whole lot more than fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.
It's become about elegant entertaining in a hip, modern vibe. It's Prada sneakers paired with jeans from the Gap; it's an old wooden church pulpit from Parker's great-grandfather's church repurposed into a hostess stand for a restaurant. It's Southern heritage that embraces the past but moves it forward, epitomized by a typical night at Ms. Tootsie's Restaurant Bar Lounge on South Street near 13th, where you can dine on pulled pork sliders and a sweet (but potent) glass of Grown Folks Iced Tea before heading upstairs to the Luxe Lounge to hear some jazz.
It's what Parker calls the KDP experience.
These days, Parker is bringing that experience to an audience that has long only known him for his cooking.
How? With KDP Luxury Suites, three high-end apartments right next door to Ms. Tootsie's, where you can rest on a $6,000 California king-size bed from Neiman Marcus that he bought years ago for his Overbrook Farm home. And with the KDP Lifestyle store, at street level below the suites, where you can browse through an eclectic mix of upholstered furniture, artwork and home furnishings handpicked by Parker.
"I wanted it to be reflective of my lifestyle, the things you would look at and say, 'That's KeVen,' " he explained.
Parker's expansion has been good for South Street, said Patricia Washington, vice president of cultural tourism for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corp.
Ms. Tootsie's was already a "destination restaurant" for visitors from around the country, she said, and that's "so important to a neighborhood. People will go farther off the Avenue of the Arts because [Ms. Tootsie's] reputation is so incredible. That has been the catalyst for turning that block around."
With the addition of the other businesses, "it's all synergistic, and it all goes along with the brand," Washington said, noting that Parker is one of GPTMC's Philly 360 creative ambassadors this year.
Yes, Ms. Tootsie was a real person
Multiple photos of the late Joyce "Tootsie" Parker are the first things you see when you walk into the eponymous Southern-style restaurant. And it's hard not to wonder what Ms. Joyce would make of what all her son has been up to since her death from pancreatic cancer in July 2011.
It seems that losing the central figure in his life - the person who lent him the seed money to get started - motivated Parker to accelerate his vision of expanding the Ms. Tootsie brand.
"When I lost my mom in the last year, I went through a whole reinvention process," explained Parker, 45. "It was a like a tsunami for me. Nothing looked the same. Nothing was the same.
"We were partners. We did this together," he said. "I wanted to complete the projects that my mom and I had started. It was so important to me that things didn't fall by the wayside. I just threw myself into work. That's what kept me sane."
Parker, who has a marketing degree from Drexel University, got his start in the catering business when he volunteered for a men's day event at First African Baptist Church, at 16th and Christian streets. At the time, he was comfortably ensconced in the corporate world, working for Comcast. But after that breakfast, he started getting requests from churchgoers to cater their events. Even though he had virtually no experience in the biz, Parker started Simply Delicious Catering in 1996.
Before long, he was running the food operation at Cafe 3801 on Market Street. After one of his favorite eateries, Mom's Soft Touch, closed, Parker took over the spot and opened Ms. Tootsie's Soul Food Cafe. By 2007, though, Parker was feeling the need for more space. So he expanded into the space next door, which he renamed Ms. Tootsie's Restaurant Bar Lounge.
Ms. Tootsie's has been crowned the best Southern-style restaurant for three years running in Black Enterprise magazine. Earlier this year, the Food Network's Robert Irvine raved on "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" about the restaurant's fried chicken.
Facing 'what next?'
The loss of his mother changed almost everything. They'd been more than mother and son. They were best friends, business partners and confidantes.
He knows she would have wanted him to expand the KDP brand, so he pushed forward, unveiling the Love Lounge, a cozy dining room set aside for couples. In this section of the restaurant, all the tables are set for just two people, and the decor has a sexy, romantic theme.
"I hear all the time from people who come here who say, 'This was the perfect night. It's like Valentine's Day,' " Parker said as we did a walk-through recently. "Everything is designed around having a romantic evening out."
In January, Parker kicked off a yearlong charitable campaign called Spread the Love, which helps people buy groceries or arranges for a local couple to have a free meal at his restaurant.
During a recent visit to his office, I listened as Parker arranged for a woman who'd been a victim of domestic violence to take her children to a Phillies game - after they are treated to a free meal in his restaurant.
Last year, Parker also opened KDP Lifestyle. Everything in it - from the Buddha wall hanging to the framed image of political activist Angela Davis - reflects his style. The showstopper, though, is in the rear of the store, where he keeps a grand four-poster bed that belonged to Ms. Tootsie. It's made up as if waiting for the grand dame herself to once again slip between the beautiful bedcovers. It's not for sale. "I just wanted her energy and for her to be in the space," Parker explained.
Then there's KDP Luxury Suites. They, too, reflect Parker's personal taste and contain items plucked from his home. They rent for $225 a night, though Parker's thinking of switching to long-term leasing to attract tenants more apt to take good care of his personal belongings.
You'd think that with all Parker has going on, he might take a break. Instead, he wants to do more. He's been shopping around a pilot for a new reality TV show, "A Day in the Life of Ms. Tootsie's."
And he's looking to franchise the Ms. Tootsie's restaurant and KDP Lifestyle store and Luxury Suites brand next year in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington - "eat, drink, sleep and shop," he said of the concept.
This summer's extreme heat wasn't great for business at the South Street location, though it's been "consistent," he said.
That section of South Street was "barren" when he arrived 18 years ago, Parker said. "Now it's beautiful."
Whatever the future holds, he knows he's accomplished what he and his mother set out to do.
"I've accepted the physical absence, but I know the spiritual presence is so strong. I feel my mom even in my decision-making process," he said. "My mom and I had a strong, strong connection. I walk in my home and I feel the energy. I feel the calmness. I feel my mom. That's like why when you walk in this restaurant, you look at my mom, the beginning of it all."