Historic KC restaurants aim to keep soul food alive

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The expression “soul food” first emerged in the 1960s to describe the ethnic cuisine made and eaten by African Americans during times of slavery.

Enslaved Africans were given leftovers and undesirable parts of meat by their owners, which they would make delicious by seasoning with spices drawn from traditional African recipes.

“And that’s where soul food came from — taking a little and turning it into a lot,” said Vera Willis, owner of Peachtree Cafeteria.

In July 1926, her family opened one of the first soul food buffets in Kansas City. Willis drew from her Louisiana roots and kept the essence of her mother’s cooking.

It was about serving great food, but for Willis, her business was also a ministry.

“It’s a blueprint out of poverty. This restaurant has employed thousands over the years,” she said. “I wish sometimes that customers would see in some of the young adults what I see in them. I guess I feel their pain.”

Young adults who started their careers at Peachtree Cafeteria have gone on to become attorneys, business owners, nurses and teachers. Willis says it is still her mission to provide opportunities to those who are underserved.

Willis also believes there is power in people sharing their differences over a warm meal — a common experience allows space for open conversations.

She has seen disparity during her time in the restaurant industry and says there is more progress to be made.

“I was one of the first restaurants in the soul food industry to start putting our history on the walls,” Willis said. “When I look at that picture, I see diversity. Black and Caucasians together.”

While soul food was born out of struggle and survival, after 250 years, it has evolved. People of different races and classes now enjoy what is commonly known as “comfort food” — recipes made from scratch, doused with southern seasonings and a mother’s love.

“I think it’s here to stay as long as we can keep cooking,” said Denise Hays Ward, owner of Niecie’s Restaurant. “I hope long after Niecie’s is gone, my son and his son and his daughter or whoever can keep it moving.”