Regular readers of this column know I've been hard on the place. Two years ago, fed up with the clueless high-society clique who'd appointed themselves to oversee a financial disaster, I politely requested that the station's board of directors step the hell aside. I suggested replacements for them, creative Kansas Citians who would actually have done cool things with the place ("Move Over, Mary," May 20, 2004).
In August that year, I lamented the fact that Union Station was home to the saddest food court in the world. Insultingly, it dared to exist in the room once occupied by the Harvey House Restaurant. To see how low Union Station had sunk, you only needed to order a slice of cardboard pizza, sit in the empty-at-lunchtime room and stare up at the giant black-and-white photographs of the old Harvey House, a bustling and dignified diner that served not only train travelers but also regular Kansas Citians who went there late at night to see and be seen. (Mercifully, the last food-court vendor eventually closed up shop.)
Union Station's interim director, Sean O'Byrne, was looking for ideas on what to do with the whole damn building. I had one request. "All we want are eggs, hash browns and toast," I wrote. "A cheeseburger and fries. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Chocolate cake. Apple pie. A few cups of coffee, late at night, in a booth surrounded by friends. We'd be there all the time" ("Order Up," August 26, 2004).
Long story short, we're going to get some eggs. Andi Udris, the former head of the Economic Development Corporation, ended up in charge of the station. Over the past couple of years, Udris got Union Station's new train museum running and continued other efforts to bring the place back from the edge of oblivion.
On February 24, the board signed off on a plan to convert the food-court space into a diner. It won't be a literal re-creation of the Harvey House, but if they don't muck it up it'll be a real restaurant that's at least sufficiently reminiscent of the original Harvey House.
And there's a twist.
It comes in the form of a maintenance man named Richard Cargo who turns out to be a phenomenal cook.
Cargo was born in Memphis in 1946 and learned how to cook from his grandmother, Lula Rogers. The first thing he remembers learning how to make was a pineapple-coconut cake. "I liked mixing the flour, the sugar, the butter and the milk, and what it formed," he says. "I knew I had a feel for baking things. "
As an adult, he worked for the national Armour Foods company, first on the night cleanup shift and later cooking hams and delivering meat. Cargo came to Kansas City in 1976 and ended up as a high-rise-apartment manager for the Housing Authority. But he kept cooking, baking cakes for special events and desserts for Housing Authority picnics. In 1981 he opened a bakery of his own at 12th Street and Chestnut, making 6-inch pies that sold in gas stations, liquor stores and 7-Elevens. Eventually the money ran out, and Cargo went back to home repair and real estate management. He continued to bake wedding cakes and pies two wedding cakes a week, as many as eight or 10 pies a day in his house, with its big kitchen and dining room, at 21st Street and Montgall.
Union Station reopened in November 1999, and the next year, Cargo went to work there as a "technical services engineer," setting up exhibits, caring for them, taking them down. At first, he says, he didn't pay much attention to the significance of the building. But then one day he was working in the station's basement. "It looked like hell," he says. "A really old, dusty-smelling, echoey, moldy-type place." The station's subterranean corridor stretched east to Crown Center and west to Broadway. "It felt sort of scary, because supposedly there were ghosts but I never ran across any."
At some point, someone decided that the station's 120-person staff should have ethnic potluck dinners together once a month. "It just so happened that the first was a soul-food dinner, and I cooked up a mess of food," Cargo says. "It went so well that we had people come in from the outside wanting to buy our food." After that, he cooked for the station's Christmas parties. "I did turkeys, baked ham, ribs, and made a large peach cobbler, which is a specialty of the house."
So Cargo caught Udris' attention. Over the past couple of years, the two have basically been waiting for the money it'll take to redo the space that station renovators so stupidly turned into a food court. With the board's February 24 approval, the plans are now final, and Udris hopes the new Harvey House will be open by midsummer.
It will be run by Eddie Adel, who manages all of Union Station's restaurants for the food-service contractor Treat America. Adel, who has spent 27 years in the restaurant business, including 17 at the Westin before coming to Union Station last summer, has been helping refine Cargo's menu ideas. "His big thing is about making fresh, homemade pies, and he says he has several different really good pie recipes. So that's going to be on the menu. He's got three or four that he really wants to make himself."
The thing is, Cargo has this other talent. He can sing. Before he left Memphis in the mid-'70s, Cargo says, he sang backup vocals on records put out by Memphis' legendary Stax label. He says he sang on recordings by Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, Al Green, the Chi-Lites and the Temptations. He wants to sing at the new Harvey House, too. Every 20 or 30 minutes, maybe, during lunch, he and some guys would come out and do a 1940s or 1950s number for the diners.
So we don't know yet exactly what Richard Cargo will be doing at the new Harvey House. Adel and Udris admit that a song-and-dance routine in the diner has the potential to turn cheesy. They swear they're going to keep an eye on things to make sure that doesn't happen.
I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for two reasons.
One: Cargo fixed me lunch last week.
He set a table with a white tablecloth in an empty banquet room (the site of the failed Fritz's Bottling Company restaurant on the station's lower level). It began with an artful relish tray of hard-boiled eggs atop tomato slices, with long green onions and orange curls. Then came tender meatball-sized Salisbury steaks covered with creamy brown gravy. Then there was light, juicy fried chicken. Peppery baked "butter potatoes" and bacony green beans. Hot water cornbread, crisp-fried brown patties with fluffy white insides Lula Rogers' recipe. And his specialty, peach cobbler, sweet and syrupy with a cinnamon pastry crust.
If the food at the Harvey House is anything like that, I'll put up with a rendition of "You Send Me" in the middle of lunch.
A couple of years ago, you'd go to Union Station in the middle of the day and find an empty cavern great for gazing at the gorgeous ceiling but depressing in its very expensive deadness. Go to Union Station in the middle of the day now and you'll still see yellow buses full of schoolchildren who have been kidnapped and hauled to Science City. There's a good chance you might also see a crowd. People doing business at the post office. Old guys in overalls and railroad caps train enthusiasts who volunteer at the museum eating at the Union Café. Business types in expensive suits heading to power lunches at the high-end Pierpont's. Shoppers at the station's gift store, buying T-shirts and books and other reminders of the days when Union Station really was the heart of America and travelers from all over the country flowed through its arteries.
Go there on a snowy Saturday before Christmas, and you'll see families swarming a model train display that fills one end of the station's Grand Hall a living postcard of a holiday ritual that we all thought was long gone. And over in one corner, the choir from an inner-city high school singing Christmas carols will make you weep.
Union Station's getting better. I'm not talking about the numbers, because the place may never pay for itself. (Its utility bills alone are a million bucks a year.) After the station's restoration, consultants wrecked the place with their lame ideas and inflated numbers. Everyone knew it just needed an infusion of genuine Kansas City spirit from regular Kansas City folks.
That's the other reason I'm willing to believe in Richard Cargo.