On Vine Street, a Kansas City chef is building a new food community
Along one of Kansas City’s most storied avenues, a new mission is taking shape in a 140-year-old stone structure, where Chef Shanita McAfee-Bryant is working to create a new, food-based solution to urban hunger and unemployment.
Chef Shanita McAfee-Bryant has a direct connection to the legacy at Kansas City’s 18th and Vine District. Her dad, Mark McAfee, used to own a business in the area, called Riteway Magic Janitorial Supplies and Service.
“This a place that, growing up, going to work there, I used to drive by this all the time,” McAfee-Bryant said.
If the 41-year-old has her way, she too will have an important role to play here — “kind of like full circle,” she said.
Inside some of the city’s oldest buildings, at 2000 Vine Street, McAfee-Bryant is working to create a new, food-based solution to urban hunger and unemployment. For the moment, all she can do is envision what will be.
“Grocer, market over there, bakery in the window,” she said on a recent walk-through of the two-level site. “It looks small when you’re up top, but then when you get underneath it you’re like, ‘this is massive!’”
All that exists of building’s the main floor right now is a grid of metal beams — some originals, some new — and the network of posts holding them up. Tucked into the northeast corner, McAfee-Bryant will open her training kitchen, The Prospect KC, this fall.
Her vision emerged after years in food service and hospitality. McAfee-Bryant also competed on Johnson County Community College’s culinary team and, in 2014, she was on the Food Network TV show “Cutthroat Kitchen.”
In a peculiar twist of the show, McAfee-Bryant had to hold an exotic fruit in her dominant hand for much of the competition. Still, she beat three other chefs and won $20,000.
“I never expected them to call me (to be on the show), let alone go on there and win it,” she said. “I was just doing it to prove to myself, to see if I still could do it.”
But being Black and a woman in the food industry isn’t easy, McAfee-Bryant said. She’s dealt with racism, sexism and toxic work environments.
At a certain point, she looked around the industry for role models and realized, if she was going to get where she wanted in her career, she’d have to chart her own path.
“As a woman, they're like, ‘you go make the dessert,’ or, ‘you go do the salad,’” she remembered. “Nothing against desserts — my mentor is a pastry chef, I actually am really good at dessert — but I don't want to always be relegated to that space.”
In 2018, her dad died and McAfee-Bryant found herself questioning her career choice. On some work trips to Seattle she learned about the FareStart nonprofit teaching kitchen, and Catalyst Kitchens, a nationwide network of 80 nonprofits and businesses training people who might have barriers to employment.
“All of our members are working with very different populations,” said Justin Smith, interim executive director of Catalyst Kitchens. “Some are serving people who might be unsheltered, some are serving people coming out of incarceration. Others serve populations who are dealing with intellectual, physical or developmental disabilities, and still others might be working with immigrants or refugees.”
These kitchens aren’t just teaching people how to julienne vegetables or plan a menu. Smith said many focus on life skills such as resume-writing and how to conduct yourself in a professional environment. Some help students find housing and mental health resources.
“We have members that make lines of dog treats and jams and pickles and truffles and nut butters and all sorts of things,” Smith said. “We're all united around our commitment to food service (and) hospitality (as) an industry that we believe in, that can offer people great first chances, great second chances and fantastic careers.”
For McAfee-Bryant, the idea just clicked: A way to change culinary culture while simultaneously strengthening the fabric of her community.
“When you help someone who grew up in an underserved community, they feel compelled because of their own internal sense of community to give back to that community,” she said. “They shop in that community, they spread the word in that community, and then it creates a really nice ecosystem.”
So, while the construction crew works, McAfee-Bryant plans programs and menus for her operation, which will be just over the bridge from where her dad’s old place was.
“I really remember what it was like watching them build the business, and watching all of the hard work that he put in to making that grow. I have to say that's where my work ethic and my drive comes from, for sure,” she said.
In May, her nonprofit was selected as part of the inaugural cohort in a unique accelerator project from LaunchKC called Social Venture Studio. Last summer, The Prospect KC won a $250,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
With a bit more funding, McAfee-Bryant will be able to provide free job training, coaching and social services for about 25 people at a time. If things go to plan, she’ll start recruiting trainees in August and open to the public this fall.
“I think that once this steel goes in, that’ll really make it real," she said, "and I can probably stop saying, ‘allegedly we’re opening,’ and feel real confident about that date.”
While she bides her time, McAfee-Bryant will host an 18th and Vine District gumbo festival on July 24, which she hopes will become an annual event.
As new buildings go up on both sides of Vine Street, and old ones come back to life, she’s looking for an excuse to get everyone around here in the same pot.