Mostly, though, she'd like to see what the neighborhoods in the heart of this city were like before the highway system sliced through them, back when the "suburbs" were out near 75th Street.
A couple of weeks ago, Debbie got her chance to step back into the 1930s when I took her to You Say Tomato. Three friends Randy Parks, Mark Wingard and Michael Pouncil opened the combination coffee shop, grocery store and luncheonette this past July in the old Weneck Brothers grocery store at 2801 Holmes, and it still feels like a business from a much earlier generation. It's no longer a grocery store in the traditional sense, though they've stocked the Art Deco-style wooden shelves with bags of pasta, spring-roll wrappers, jars of marinated vegetables and artisan flatbread. And just like the original grocers in this space the Weneck Brothers Parks and his partners will sell a pound of sugar or a single stick of butter.
"It really is like being in a time warp," Debbie said as she sat at a long wooden table by the sunny front window, sipping a glass of iced, organic green tea. She was amazed at how many details from this building's past had survived the past seven decades, including the big white enamel "Weneck Bros" sign, which Parks and Wingard discovered, coated with layers of dirt and grime but still boasting the original date it was delivered to the store: March 15, 1935.
Parks, Wigard and Pouncil didn't need to do any time traveling to find their offbeat venue. The three men live in this Dutch Hill neighborhood, right around the corner from the long-unoccupied brick building. They had talked about starting up some kind of business for years. "Michael wanted to open a coffeehouse," Parks says, "and Mark wanted a pastry shop, and I wanted an art gallery."
When they saw a "For Rent" sign on the door, the trio jumped at the chance to lease the space. "For a long time, it had been used as a storage facility for Catholic Charities," Parks says. "But other neighbors had told us that it had once been an old grocery store."
In fact, this storefront across from the Longfellow School was a little corner grocery store for most of the 20th century, back when even the snootiest residential neighborhoods typically had at least one small market, a drugstore and a bakery within walking distance. This area had several, including the first Meiners grocery store at 26th Street and Indiana a building that, like a lot of pre-World War II retail shops, was razed years ago. That's what makes You Say Tomato so incredible. The building's owner, Anthony Annello who ran Annello's Grocery in this location from 1958 to 1988 kept the place relatively intact. It still looks a lot like an old grocery store, and even if the old Hussmann freezer case doesn't get cold anymore, it makes a good display area for fresh fruit and produce.
I didn't see a tomato in the grocery half of the store, but customers can get a slice of the red fruit on sandwiches made to order in the open kitchen that the partners built in the center of the room. (The name comes from the 1937 George Gershwin tune "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," which contains the famous lyrics You like to-may-to and I like to-mah-to ... )
There's a lot to like about this comfortable and appealing place, which serves quiche and breakfast sandwiches and cinnamon rolls in the morning and soup, sandwiches and more quiche right up until closing at 7 p.m. All that and snow cones, too, which have been a big hit with the neighborhood kids. Until recently, most of You Say Tomato's customers have come from the surrounding 'hood (including a few Hallmark employees who ventured over from their Crown Center offices). "We don't have any money to advertise yet," Pouncil says, but word is getting out, and business is now brisk on weekend mornings, when Parks adds biscuits and gravy to the menu written on a big white board.
I prefer going on more quiet weekday mornings, because the kitchen isn't really snappy even on slow days. But things should go more smoothly now that Wingard is there full time (he finally left his longtime job as a waiter at Webster House) and Parks, who admits he's more of a visual artist than a chef, is developing his own rhythm in the kitchen. Pouncil is still a part-time manager at Waldo Pizza, but he's spending more time at the Tomato, too.
I've now eaten a handful of variations on Wingard's quiche du jour; he always offers at least two choices, and I have a particular fondness for a featured combination of mild chorizo, roasted red peppers, onion and pepperjack cheese. Debbie prefers the mushroom-and-leek version. Diners can order the quiche "naked" or sided with fresh fruit or one of the best pasta salads I've tasted in a long time: doughy fusilli noodles tossed in a light vinaigrette with bits of feta cheese and salty kalamata olives.
Debbie was happily surprised by all of the unexpected attention to detail here. Her organic iced tea, for example, came in a small pitcher alongside a glass of ice adorned with an orange wedge. Plus, all the meals are served on heavy china plates. "It's like eating in someone's house," she said.
Parks makes the fine-crumb bread for the sandwiches and the sugar-iced cinnamon rolls (using a yeast dough that's too heavy for my taste). Wingard bakes, too, including a damned good coconut cake.
One evening, I stopped in on my way home from work and ate a casual dinner of quiche, pasta salad and a generous bowl of hummus with a big pile of warm pita wedges. Only one other customer was in the place, a stocky bearded guy wearing work boots and, I swear, a skirt. That was the same night I ordered a carry-out sandwich a spicy barbecued beef on bun for a sick friend and thoughtlessly ate half of it on my way to deliver it to his house. Terribly rude of me, but as it turned out, he liked the mocha brownie better than the barbecue anyway.
The next time I rolled into You Say Tomato, I wished I could transport myself back to 1979, when I had the kind of metabolism that let me eat anything I wanted without gaining an ounce. Instead, I sat at one of the 1940s-vintage kitchenette tables and downed a fattening chicken-salad sandwich (made with lots of mayonnaise, sliced red grapes and celery) on a buttery croissant and a bag of chips. I'd brought along my friend Bob, because he's old enough to remember shopping at Annello's market in the late 1970s, when he was living in one of those old apartments on Gillham.
"It was very dark inside," he told Wingard, who explained that the space is so sunny now because the partners uncovered one of the plate-glass windows that had been blocked by a set of store shelves. Now the windows have curtains made from burlap coffee bags, and the Tomato trio has added more light by replacing all of the old bulbs in the marquee-style sockets above windows that date back to the 1920s.
I stared at an old brick mansion across the street while Bob finished a thick egg-salad sandwich, which he loved. "We sell a lot of egg salad," Wingard said, "although I'm not sure why."
I know why. There aren't many cafés in Kansas City that still sell egg-salad sandwiches, let alone bake their own bread, sell butter by the stick and crush ice every morning for the snow cone crowd. As hard as I try, I can't think of even one other combination coffeehouse, sandwich shack and grocery that's quite like You Say Tomato, in this century or any other.