By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Miss Tootsie’s, a popular soul food restaurant on South Street, is celebrating its 15th anniversary. The eatery, which is fast becoming a Philadelphia icon, has very humble beginnings.
Reporter: ‘What was it like when you first moved here?’
KeVen Parker: ‘It was the seediest corner on South Street.’
A lot has changed since KeVen Parker and his mother Joyce opened Miss Tootsie’s in 2000.
South Street near Broad has gone from a ghetto to a hot spot.
“It was a desolate block,” says Parker, who quit his corporate job at the time to open Miss Tootsie’s, named after his mother who was known as “Miss Tootsie.”
“People didn’t even walk to the 100th of South Street– they would walk to Lombard and walk down.”
Fast forward– and street level properties once worth $30,000 are now work more than a million and Miss Tootsies has gone from at 18-seat BYO to a 150-seat cafe, bar and lounge.
In addition to the restaurant, Parker runs a catering company and a “to go” version of Miss Tootsie’s at Reading Terminal. Parker says the success comes from the “soul” in the food they serve.
“Everything that you do when it comes to soul food you must do it with love,” he says, noting a longtime cook “Miss Dee” often serves patrons with the simple phrase “with love.”
“You taste food that’s produced– it’s just okay, but when it’s cooked with love you know they took the time to make sure it was good for you.”
Parker says the “love” began with his mother, who was the best cook in the West Philadelphia project where he grew up. She worked three jobs to take care of him and he learned to cook when she would call between shifts and tell him how to make various dishes. Years later, his catering company lead him to pursing the dream of opening a restaurant.
But Parker gives tribute to the real Miss Tootsie, who passed in 2011. He says his mother was his muse, his best friend, first investor and back bone of the business. Today he feels compelled to reach excellence for her.
“It’s always about reinvention, it’s always about how I can make it better,” says Parker, who is contemplating his next move.
He says a big focus will be designing a succession plan and giving back to young entrepreneurs. This month, he celebrated the 15 year milestone by spreading a little love around the city through random acts of kindness, like paying for groceries, gas and giving out free Trans passes.
“We had to,” says Parker, “my mother was such a giver.”
As for what Miss Tootsie would say about the birthday of her namesake.
“She’d be happy,” says Parker, “she’d say– you got it.”