After enjoying a great experience at our favorite restaurant, how many of us actually stop and think about everything that had to happen to bring us that experience? Someone had to decide to take a risk. Someone had to decide to hone their culinary skills, develop an eye for decor, develop a highly courteous and professional team, and learn how to manage the many ups and downs of the hospitality management industry. That someone had to fail a few times. That person had to overcome those failures, learn from them, put their life on hold and decide to keep providing us with a great dining experience.
Many of you may already know of Keven Parker, or at least you know of Ms. Tootsie’s Restaurant Bar and Lounge on South Street. But few people know about the story behind the delicious comfort food and the great atmosphere that we’ve grown accustomed to with every visit. But what’s most important about Keven Parker’s story is what we can all learn from it. Some of the lessons we’ll learn are specific to Hospitality Management (see video below) but some are life lessons that can be applied to any pursuit of happiness. Enjoy.
CC: I read that you started off as a marketing professional before you ventured into entrepreneurship. Can you tell us about that transition?
KP: I graduated with a degree in Marketing and I was in that career for about 10 years. However, I got introduced to catering through my church. I was the chair person of our Men’s Day one year and I actually knew nothing about what catering was, however one of my assignments as the chairperson was to coordinate the Men’s Day Breakfast. It went so well that a few weeks later, my pastor called me and asked for some business cards for catering. People were calling the church about me catering events for them. So I started to do some investigating on catering. How does it work? What’s the livelihood in that field? And lo and behold, a couple years later, I was a caterer. I started Simply Delicious Catering.
CC: A lot of people who think about making that jump are worried about financing. Were you self financed or did you go through a bank?
KP: Well when I decided that this was definitely my calling, I strategized the game plan. For two years, before I left my company I knew that I needed to save money because if anything didn’t go right, I at least had money to pay my mortgage, my utilities, and all my bills in case I didn’t make a dime. And then the other thing I thought about was, what’s the worst that can happen? I tell people this all the time who aspire to be entrepreneurs. What’s the worst that can happen? You’re educated. You’re employable. You can always go back into the job market. But the worst that can happen is if you never do it. I never wanted to be the old dude sitting on the porch with my grandchildren saying one day I was going to do. And the great thing about how things worked is that I never had to use any of those resources because my catering business just took off.
CC: Catering is about more than just the food. Can you describe the role aesthetics play in your success as a caterer and restaurant owner?
KP: I’ve always loved design. That was one of the things that interest me most in catering. I love taking the food and being able to garnish the food and display the food. What happens is, we don’t eat with our taste buds. We actually eat with our eyes. If it looks appealing and appetizing, you say, “It has to taste great.” And most of the time if it doesn’t taste that good to you, you think to yourself, “Well, my taste buds must not be at that level yet…I don’t know good for when I taste it” lol. So it’s all about presentation AND the quality of food. It all goes together. Some people think you can be a good caterer if you can just cook good. But if you don’t have a good eye, and if you’re not a good business person, you can be the best cook in the world but no one will come to you. Catering is about an experience and everyone wants to have a good experience.
CC: Your mother played a huge part in your ability to cook and and I understand she was very involved with Ms. Tootsies before she passed recently. I know a lot of people who face obstacles as big as this one you’re facing now and sometimes they feel like they can’t get through it. How are you able to accept this and still work towards your goal?
KP: You don’t know how to take the worst time of your life and understand that out of that has to come strength from somewhere. For a moment, I didn’t know what I was going to do. My mom and I were more than mother and son. We were friends and confidants. So the first thing I did was I just prayed about it. How am I going to get through this? And I know my mother so well that I can still hear her voice even now telling me, “Keven, get it done. We don’t have time for this. We got a job to do.” My mom and I were business partners so this was a part of the plan. And for me to abort the process now wouldn’t be acceptable for my mom. So I look at it now and understand that even though my mom transitioned, she left me with her wealth of energy, her knowledge, her discernment and her wisdom. I didn’t have a father, so the foundation she laid is the reason I’m the man I am today.
CC: What is the plan for KDP Lifestyle Luxury Suites?
KP: The ironic part was that I think that when we started this journey 18 years ago, I thought the plan was to open up a restaurant. But the plan is to perfect the brand. And the brand is really about Eat, Drink, Shop and Sleep. It’s about taking this whole concept from city to city and have people understand how you can go one place to eat, one place to drink, one place to sleep and they’re all intertwined. It’s a concept. One of the other parts of our concept is the Spread The Love Tour. In the midst of it, how can we go around and change people’s lives and how can we offer something at this [high] level. As an African American business man, I just want other African Americans, minorities, and young people to see that the impossible is possible. That’s why I can’t stop now. People need to be able to use me as a catalyst to get where they need to be.
CC: Can you tell me more about the Spread The Love Tour?
KP: Spread The Love is random acts of kindness. Our goal is to spread love, to do random acts of kindness of people to change the pulse speed of their day. It can be the lady at the gas station that has 3 kids in her car getting $5 worth of gas. Let’s fill her gas tank up. It can be the senior citizen at the grocery store asking the cashier every 5 seconds, “How much is that? Oh, take that off.” Let’s pay for those groceries. It can be the person at the food cart. I tell people that 20 years ago when I got my first corporate job in Center City, I was living paycheck to paycheck and I know I used to have a tab at the lunch trucks and I remember that every 2 weeks I had to go to the lunch trucks to pay my tab. So we’ll go to the lunch trucks and pay everyone’s tab. You may think to yourself, oh it’s just a $5 lunch, but to a young person who’s living with three roommates in the house and has to choose between eating lunch or dinner, you just changed the pulse speed of their day. So for us, that’s really what it’s about. Just trying to change the way we look at each other and the only thing we ask is that you return the random act of kindness to someone else. So if we save you $7 at the lunch truck then take $1 and buy two people pretzels.
CC: Do you have any regrets or anything you would’ve done differently?
KP: No…I don’t think I do. I think that everything I did was ordained to happen. The mistakes that I made helped me to grow. I think the one thing that I probably would’ve done differently was…me and my mom were just workers. And I probably would’ve just made a little more time for our time because even our time was work time. I just wish we would’ve had more our time and not so much Keven Parker Company time. That’s the only regret. But all my ups and downs and struggles, I learned from each and every one of them. And I think it helped to strengthen the fiber of this company in order to get to the point where we are now. So when new struggles come, we can say, “Been there, done that.” We can shut that down.
To learn more about Keven Parker and The Keven Parker Company visit www.KevenParker.net
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(Posted by Garron Gibbs)