© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Alongside chicken and waffles, this Kansas City restaurant serves a greater purpose

Tameisha-Martin-Love-is-Key-lede.jpg
Startland News
Tameisha Martin cofounded Love is Key with her husband, Cameron Martin, as a pilot program in fall 2020.

The food at Love is Key comes from family recipes handed down three generations, but Tameisha Martin hopes her business can have a deeper impact.

Tameisha Martin was tired of watching dreams go to the grave, she shared.

“Ever since I could remember, my mother and my grandmother talked about wanting to open their own restaurant. They loved cooking for church and community events. … Unfortunately, my grandmother is gone now, so she didn’t get to see this dream come to life. But my mother is still here, and every day we are grateful that the doors opened for us,” said Martin, who co-founded Love is Key alongside her husband, Cameron.

The Martins’ waffle concept restaurant, Love is Key, celebrated its grand opening in August on the first floor of the Wonder Shops and Flats development on 30th Street and Troost Avenue. Love is Key specializes in waffle sandwiches and cake waffles, a family recipe passed down from Martin’s mother, Tangela Winters, and grandmother, Daisy Henderson.

Love-is-Key-06.jpg
Startland News
The waffle sandwiches and cake waffles at Love is Key come from Martin family recipes.

“We put a lot of thought into our menu,” Martin noted. “From using my mother and grandmother’s recipes for the dishes and desserts, to using local vendors and local food, our food quality is phenomenal. We are very conscious about the seasoning we use, and we even have our own in-house, caramelized syrup that no one is using. It is our specialized ingredient.”

Click here to check out the menu at Love is Key.

Humble beginnings

Love is Key originally began as a dessert catering company in 2018.

“My mother has been a nurse all her life, but she got sick and stopped working,” Martin recalled. “One day I came home, and she had the entire counter lined up with caramel cake. I was like, ‘Who’s going to eat all of this cake?’ and she said that they were orders. That’s when I knew we were going to turn this into a business.”

The Martins and her mother began booking weddings, community events and grand openings, she said. The business was steadily scaling when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

After a short hiatus, a small pop-up space in the parking lot of Ruby Jeans Kitchen and Juicery, catty-corner to Wonder Shops and Flats, became available and Love is Key launched its pilot program in Fall 2020.

“For about a year, we opened up Tuesday through Saturday to see if we could sustain a physical location,” Martin said. “We broke even, which is really unheard of for restaurants. Most restaurants don’t make a profit for three to five years, so that gave us the confidence to go for it. We are believers in Christ and God, so we prayed about this. And we’ve been blessed.”

When Martin got the call that a storefront right across from her pop-up shop opened up in the Wonder Shops and Flats — the former Soulcentricitea location — she immediately knew that she wanted to be a part of it, she shared.

“We are all for economic development within our own community,” Martin said. “Having more businesses in this area will create more jobs and lower crime. It also gives people an opportunity to work in their own community versus going outside.”

Love is Key has been a self-funded venture, Martin said, adding that she and her husband are in search of additional funds to keep the business growing.

“We’ve had incredible mentors like David and Samantha Park, who really taught us about financial literacy and business,” Martin said. “They helped us with budgeting so we could self-fund the entire launch. Self-funding the start was a hard journey. We dropped our expenses extremely low, so we could save money — but we believe in entrepreneurship. We know it is the answer to resolve economic issues within our community.”

Scale-Deep-Grant-Porter-House-Love-is-Key.jpg
Startland News
Tameisha and Cameron Martin were awarded a $15,000 grant in November from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, in partnership with the Porter House KC.

‘A social worker at heart’

Before her journey with Love is Key, Martin received a master’s degree in social work and worked as a licensed medical social worker. Although she is passionate about entrepreneurship, she carries with her the lessons she learned as a social worker, she shared.

“I use my people skills every day,” Martin said. “When you’re in the service industry, you’re going to have people from all walks of life come into your space. If they don’t feel welcome, they won’t come back.”

The key to making others feel welcome: listening.

Tameisha-Martin-Love-is-Key-02.jpg
Startland News
Martin has a master’s degree in social work and has worked as a licensed medical social worker.

“It’s about listening and understanding what the market wants, and then providing that,” she said. “I needed to listen to my clients to help them get back on track. With both (an entrepreneurial and social worker) mindset, you need to be resilient. When things get hard, you have to know how to persevere and get through it.”

“Cater with love” is one of Martin’s slogans, she said, noting that she partners with organizations that benefit underserved communities.

“I am still a social worker at heart; through Love is Key, I can still help those populations that I was helping when I was a social worker,” Martin said. “We’ve worked with the Ronald McDonald House and various school districts. We partner with Truman Employment Services that brings in employees who are having mental health issues or physical issues, and are wanting to get put back into the workforce. We help get them adjusted.”

Love is Key is also partnering with Amethyst Place down the street to hire mothers who are struggling with substance abuse, mental health or other disabilities.

Scaling deep

Making an impact within their community is crucial for Martin, she said. Rather than focusing on expanding her business to multiple locations, she is currently committed to scaling deep.

“We focus on scaling deep, which means we want to make a social and economic impact in our own community,” Martin said. “So we’re focusing on being a staple here in Kansas City, so that we can continue to hire people in our own community and continue with the revitalization of this area. We love the urban core. We live in this area, and it just makes sense to help be here.”

The Martins are working to get more foot traffic through the door, as catering is still the bulk of their business, Martin said, pointing to more than 100 box lunches she was preparing for the next day.

Love-is-Key-04.jpg
Startland News
“Cater with love” is one of Martin’s slogans. Her business partners with organizations that benefit underserved communities.

To scale deeper and get more of the community involved, Martin enjoys partnering with other local businesses when possible. The coffee served at Love is Key is Black Drip Coffee — a Black-owned coffee company in Kansas City.

The name Love is Key is a direct reflection of Martin’s mother and grandmother, she shared.

“They used to say that if you do things with love and with the right heart posture, it’ll come back to you,” Martin recalled. “I wanted to highlight that because whether it’s catering or cooking, anything that we do, we always want to operate in excellence.”

Love is Key is open 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

This story was originally published on Startland News, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.