On A 'Very Strange' Easter, This Popular Kansas City Restaurant Serves Soul Food To-Go
On a typical Easter Sunday, Niecie’s Restaurant on 64th and Troost would be slammed. The flat-top grill in the kitchen would be sizzling with smashed potatoes and onions and the kitchen would be churning out orders of chicken and waffles and fried pork chops.
Longtime employee Melody Clemens says the first rush of the day would come in around 8 a.m.
“And then about 10, 11 o’clock, the second service comes in and they be packed — standing outside the door. We have to get names and numbers of how many are in a group. Packed,” Clemens says.
But this year, Easter Sunday will look a lot different. With gatherings of more than 10 people banned in Missouri and Kansas, families will be gathering virtually, church services will be sparse (if they happen at all) and brunch and lunch restaurants like Niecie's that typically count on major after-church crowds will be empty.
Clemens, who’s worked at Niecie’s for 32 years, says she’ll miss the families packing the restaurant dressed in their Sunday finest.
“It’s gonna be very, very, very strange without them here. Little kids coming in, taking pictures with their pretty dresses and the men with their little suits on,” she says.
‘Hanging in there’
These days, the soul-food restaurant is a lot quieter than usual. The music on the radio is only interrupted by the occasional phone call from someone placing a to-go order.
Since they shut down the dining room on March 17, Niecie’s has been getting by on to-go orders. Owner Denise Hayes Ward says she’s had to lay off 90 percent of her staff, keeping shifts down to three people in the restaurant at a time — one in the kitchen, one taking orders and a carhop.
Clemens, who is now answering phone calls and taking orders, says she longs for the days of greeting regular customers by name, cracking jokes and “running my mouth.”
Will Champion, who’s worked at Niecie’s for 20 years, runs food from the restaurant to cars lined up outside the front door.
“I go out there and take their food out there to them and then I get the money, bring it back in, and then when I get through ... I wash the doors off, wipe the door off, sanitize my hands up and everything, making sure that everything is cool and straight so there won’t be no problems,” Champion says.
Owner Ward says she sometimes feels anxious — worrying about the safety of her skeleton crew at the store, and wondering how long the restaurant can go on like this.
“You know, in the 35 years since Niecie’s been in business, I never thought that I would have to go through anything like this,” she says.
Dreaming of a grand re-opening
Ward says while loyal customers are calling in orders almost every day, business has been down and she’s had to make some tough decisions about finances.
“I've cut back on a lot of things. I've deferred some payments on things ... and I'm waiting on cash from the government and just like everybody else going through all this red tape to even get it done,” Ward says.
Ward says applying for federal loans through the COVID-19 emergency relief package passed by Congress has been complicated and difficult.
She’s not alone — across the country, hundreds of small businesses have reported difficulties with the application process and even banks have been unclear about the new federal guidelines. Still, Ward says she’s optimistic they’ll open again.
“You know, we as a family had our little meeting last Sunday. Four of us, we all stood at four different tables and talked about how we were gonna do this,” Ward says.
She said aside from a few peach cobblers, she hadn’t received many pre-orders of Easter meals as of Thursday. She says she just hopes it's enough to continue curbside service.
Ward is already planning a big celebration when she’s able to open up again, hopefully in August. Her restaurant will be celebrating 35 years in business.
She’s thinking about offering specials priced the way they were back in 1985 — a small token to give to the people who have kept them afloat in between.
“But I'm certainly gonna try to give back to the community and help some type of way when we get out of this situation,” Ward says.
Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.