Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Leona Yarbrough, iconic local restaurateur, outlived her restaurant

Posted By on Tue, Sep 13, 2011 at 11:20 AM

One of the best movies ever made about a restaurateur was the 1945 drama Mildred Pierce, based on a hard-boiled James M. Cain novel about a waitress who ambitiously, tirelessy builds a small empire of home-cooking restaurants — fried chicken and waffles were among the popular menu items. Former Kansas City resident Joan Crawford won an Academy Award playing the title role.

Leona Yarbrough was one of the best-known female restaurant owners in Kansas City in the 1960s and 70s.
  • Leona Yarbrough was one of the best-known female restaurant owners in Kansas City in the 1960s and '70s.
Three years after Mildred Pierce was released, a young woman from Vandalia, Illinois, Leona Yarbrough, arrived in Kansas City and got a job at one of the few restaurants in Kansas City owned and managed by a woman: Ann Peterson's in the Fairway Shops on Shawnee Mission Parkway. Leona worked as a waitress, then a cook at the genteel suburban restaurant where customers filled out their own order forms and handed the completed ticket to the waitresses. Nearly two decades later, Yarbrough bought the restaurant and changed the name to her own.

Yarbrough, who was voted "Restaurateur of the Year" in 1985 by the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association, died at age 90 on September 5. She outlived both her namesake restaurant — the second location closed in Shawnee in 2009 — and her son, Ron, who operated the restaurants after she retired.

"Leona was really like a mom," says Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books in the Fairway Shops. "She would come and talk with all of her customers. She knew everyone. The patrons were part of her family. If you had suggestions about dishes she might add to her menu, she would try them out."

Yarbrough was best-known for her freshly baked cinnamon rolls, fruit and cream pies ("The chocolate cream pie," Jennings says, "was my favorite") and home-style entrees like baked chicken coated with Cheez-Its, fried chicken, and liver and onions. Leona Yarbrough's outlasted any number of restaurant trends over the decades, from salad bars and disco dance floors to cocktail lounges and creme brulee. It remained a classic small-town neighborhood restaurant even when Applebee's co-opted that concept.

Not everyone loved the peculiar old-school charm of Leona's. Fat City received several tweets from readers who had comments like this: "It always seemed there was an ambulance parked outside to whisk someone away after their last meal." Or "When it was in Fairway, I remember the sign just said 'Restaurant.' I asked my parents who went there and they said Old People." Restaurateur Nicholas Grunauer wrote: "Lots of old people. Kind of fun to write down your own order. Canned vegetables. Cheap Old-School eats."

"I loved it," says Vivien Jennings. "I still remember the meatloaf."

Leona Yarbrough: an American original.

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