The men of You Say Tomato better not call the whole thing off.

A Fruitful Endeavor 

The men of You Say Tomato better not call the whole thing off.

My friend Debbie has this recurring fantasy about climbing into a time machine — part of the fantasy is that someone would have actually invented such a device — and traveling backward through history so that she could see Kansas City during the 1920s and '30s. She wants to ride the streetcar downtown and have a cocktail at the Zombie Club and maybe a romantic dinner with some sleek-haired gangster in the Pompeiian Room of the Baltimore Hotel. She'd like to be hanging around Union Station on June 17, 1933, to see what really happened when mobster Frank Nash and four cops were killed in the bloody shootout that's known as the Union Station Massacre.

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.

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