One City Cafe, where the poor dine with dignity and jazz

Bon Appétit! One City Café opened its doors to the public last month, offering a healthy, classy dining experience regardless of a person’s ability to pay. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — For decades, the poor, the homeless and the hungry in central Kansas City knew that St. James Parish and the Bishop Sullivan Center would help. 

In 1906, Msgr. John W. Keyes founded St. James parish and served as its pastor until his death in 1950. He was remembered for setting the tone for ministry to the poor, aiding them out of the rectory when there was no other place. In 1970, the parish opened its first food pantry and soup kitchen to feed anybody who came. In 1995, the 1939 St. James School gymnasium was turned into a community center, becoming St. James Place. A few years later, Kansas City construction company owner Ernest Straub, Sr., who had long been a fan of Bishop John J. Sullivan, adopted the charity. In 2002, the parish turned over operation of its social services to the Bishop Sullivan Center. Demand for Bishop Sullivan Center programs at St. James Place, such as job training and placement, was growing exponentially so the parish offered the agency its community center to house them. The food pantry and soup kitchen continued their services to the poor as well.

Bishop Sullivan Center, which also provides utility assistance, a food pantry and other services at St. James Place at 39th and Troost, decided several years ago to rethink its meal service.

Doug Lagner, site director and Tom Turner, director of Bishop Sullivan Center agreed that they had desired offering those who came to them wanting a meal, warmth on a cold night, and companions to share conversation and some laughter, all that in an inviting setting.

Langner glanced around the dining area, at the tables filled with diners and laughter or serious conversation, at children being silly while eating and their slightly embarrassed, smiling parents.

“Just remember,” he said, “the Last Supper. The greatest sacrament was instituted around the dinner table! Who knows what good might happen here?”

Who better to consult, draft a design and get it built, than Ernest Straub’s son Ernie, now president of Straub Construction? In Phoenix, AZ, he had seen a model for what he, Langner and Turner discussed. Round tables, comfortable chairs, music, artwork and good, healthy food.

The walls in the dining area were stripped down to bare brick; which was then cleaned. New kitchen equipment, dishes, silverware and a new cooler were purchased. A salad and dessert bar was built and art work commissioned or purchased. A new name was chosen, One City Café, and signage designed.

The new cafe was so named to bridge the long-standing racial divide of Troost Ave and serve those both east and west, bringing people together. Straub summed it up, succinctly: “That they all may be one.”  

One City Café and St. James Place also got a new roof, a new loading dock and a repaved parking lot. Their capital campaign approached $900,000, but it’s been a good investment Langner said. Individual donations make up around 80 percent of the center’s budget.

Straub admitted that during the construction, a lot of his time and that of others was donated and many fees were discounted. “But it was worth it!” he said with a smile that lit up the room.

“Dad loved helping those in need,” said Straub. “He was so good at getting money for projects, especially projects close to his heart. He had a heart for Bishop Sullivan Center.” Straub pointed toward the restrooms in an addition on the north side of the building. “For years there were no restrooms. The directors and the parish tried, but the city wouldn’t give them a building permit. Dad wouldn’t rest until he succeeded. He got the permit and built the restrooms!”

One City Café opened Jan. 10, with a fresh look, fresh food, cool jazz and friendly volunteers serving food and bussing tables. The menus, which change nightly, offer nutritious and appealing meals, with a soupçon of dignity — a completely new dining experience for the 145 – 170 people it serves nightly. The ambience — artwork, bare brick and background jazz —has a noticeable ancillary effect: people are drawn in to the tables, where they sit down, joining others who might already be at the table, and the conversations begin.

Decisions as to how to use the food received from Harvesters, what food to buy, and what would appeal to those who will eat it are made by Dwight Tiller, formerly a line cook for Aramark at a Kansas City Chiefs Training Facility and a culinary arts student at Johnson County Community College. Now known as “Chef D,” he rolled out his menu Jan. 24, and so far, so successful. His is one of the smiling faces behind the cafeteria line in the shiny new kitchen. His volunteers and the wait staff are made up of several longtime volunteers and a bunch of college kids from Avila University, Rockhurst University and UMKC and Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan.

The college students participate in “Serve, Learn, Earn,” a program taught by Turner and Langner. Langner explained, “Pope Francis said we can’t just talk about being and bringing Christ to others, we have to be it and do it. It’s a positive form of discipleship.” He said every Tuesday night, the college students serve those who come to the café, absorbing the existential nature of service; spend time discussing the social doctrine of the Church through various writings, and earn a paycheck that can be used to help pay for mission or service trips, or whatever is needed.

Susan Redieck, Rockhurst University junior and president of RAKERS (Random Acts of Kindness Sharers) at Rockhurst, said, “I’ve been coming here for the past three years and when first I saw the transformation [into One City Cafe,] I was flabbergasted. The One City Café is a place of comfort, where all walks of life are welcome to have their bodies and dignity nurtured. I’ve met many incredible people, heard inspiring stories, and shared countless laughs.”

“I’ve just been coming there with a program at my school since I was a freshman. Each week we have different readings, some from a book called Tales of Two Americas. It’s extremely interesting because the stories within it are from locals! We also have articles that are sent to us. These readings follow a theme. For instance, we have done empathy and social inequality. After the readings we write a 1 to 2 page reflection, connecting it to our experience at One City Cafe and our life. This program has aided in my understanding of the poverty cycle as well as helped me reflect on what it means to be human. I’ve learned a lot about myself and those we serve, and I’ve been trying to apply this knowledge to my daily life and help those around me be a little more educated. 

A diverse crowd, watched over by Bill Waris and Ernest Straub, in a painting at One City Cafe. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

In conclusion, Susan indulged in a little dreaming: “This semester I am not going on a service trip, but I’m hoping to go abroad in the summer. I’ve been looking at a camp and teaching opportunity overseas. If I pursue this, the money from this program would help pay for my flight, if not, it would help pay for my tuition.”

At One City Café, consistency is important, Langner said. “Students and our guests get to know each other and call each other by name. In doing so, they become someone made in the image and likeness of God.”


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

September 28, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph