The Dish With Ann – Thelma’s Kitchen
The guiding principles of Thelma’s Kitchen are dignity, community, and advocacy, according to Kyle Smith, social innovations and marketing director. It is a non profit and was inspired by Thelma Gardner. She met her husband, David Altschul, who, at the time, was selling insurance and bringing food and assisting families at LaSalle Apartments, where Thelma lived. When they first married, they fed and housed 20 people. Together, Thelma and David bought a building at 31st and Troost and founded Reconciliation Ministries in 1987. David became an Eastern Orthodox priest, inspired by “the Scriptural command to love and serve the poor” and eventually changed his name to Father Alexii Altschul.
They also started Grace’s Kitchen, which provided hot meals to address food needs and scarcity. (Thelma’s fried chicken and corn cakes were renowned.) The goal, according to Father Alexii, was “to touch people through their stomachs with comfort food.”
In 2005, Reconciliation Ministries transitioned into Reconciliation Services, a non-profit agency, which provides social and mental health services for those in need. Its mission is “to cultivate a community seeking reconciliation, transform Troost from a dividing line into a gathering place, and reveal the strength of all.”
After Thelma passed away in 2012, Father Alexii started a monastery in Weatherby, Missouri. Father Justin Mathews, also an Eastern Orthodox priest, has been the executive director of Reconciliation Services for the last seven years.
Two years ago, Reconciliation Services started Thelma’s Kitchen in the same building. It is a partnership with Health Forward Foundation and Village Presbyterian Church, in coordination with the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, to honor the work and memory of Thelma Altschul. Proceeds help run the restaurant, provide a salary for the three paid employees, and funds for Reconciliation Services. “One of the goals of this community cafe is to seek racial and economic equity and to bring people together on Troost,” said Kyle.
When Thelma’s Kitchen first opened, it was a buffet-style restaurant providing affordable, healthy lunches, such as soups, salads, sandwiches, and hot lunch options. It also included gluten free and vegan dishes. Drinks that come with the meals are tea and water. The pricing model is to donate what you can. The recommended amount to pay is $11.00 but can be as low as $3.00. “We are fine with people scraping together change,” said Kyle. For those without the means to pay, they are able to volunteer for 30 minutes at Thelma’s Kitchen for a free meal.
Said Randi Hobbs, program manager: “This restaurant is truly the promise and spirit of Thelma. Food brings people together, it’s a place of gathering and belonging. It’s a community, and if people need some help and TLC, a case worker would be available to sit down with them from Reconciliation Services and start that conversation.”
When the pandemic hit Kansas City, Thelma’s Kitchen closed down in March. “In April and May, we provided 5,000 free to-go meals each month. We tried to be as helpful as we could,” said Kyle. In August, Thelma’s Kitchen reinvented itself into Thelma’s Box Lunch. Customers can order a box lunch online or can simply walk up to the window and order lunch. Businesses and non profits alike have ordered 10 to 80 box lunches at a time. Five volunteers come in the morning, make the sandwiches and sides, and put the boxes together. “We are so grateful for these group orders,” said Kyle. “We have seen a decrease in what individuals can pay and an increase in need for social and mental health services.”
The majority of the food for Thelma’s Kitchen is bought from vendors, and, occasionally, a distributor will donate something, such as a case of avocados. Some of the food comes from Kanbe’s Market, a non profit which provides fresh food in convenience stores to help eliminate urban food deserts. The bread is provided by the Goodcents Foundation, which also donated an oven so that fresh bread can be baked on the premises. The delicious cookies and marbled rye bread, that are used for some of the sandwiches, are sourced locally.
Artis Grigsby, who cooks the meals, had a passion for food at the age of seven and started his culinary career at The Salvation Army. He served in the Navy for 10 years, and one of his stints was clearing the beaches for landings in Iraq and Jordan. He also had a cooking apprenticeship through the military and worked in Italy, Spain, and France. In 2010, Artis got a job at Cornerstones of Care, cooking three meals a day, and was employed there for six years. “I was working at Jack Stack BBQ while doing security work and saw the job opening for Thelma’s Kitchen on the Internet in 2019. It’s a great experience because I can use all of my skills, and I have so much freedom to create my own menu. I don’t have to use someone else’s recipes. It’s my own kitchen, and almost all of the ingredients I use are fresh, including the fruit, the bread, and the pasta salad. I had to perfect the white rolls that I bake for the sandwiches, and it took me several attempts to get them just right.”
Photographer Bailey Pianalto and I were excited to share our box lunches with our husbands. We both raved about the chicken, bacon, and avocado sandwich, with lettuce, tomato, and red onion with a honey mustard sauce, served on the delicious marbled rye bread. The Italian sub was a satisfying, meaty sandwich, which included salami, capicola, pepperoni, provolone cheese, fresh basil, and red peppers. We especially loved the parmesan tuna salad sandwich tossed in mayonnaise and sour cream with shredded parmesan, and red, green, and yellow bell peppers. The tuna was creamy without being overloaded with mayonnaise. The pasta salad was especially tasty, and the side of fruit provided a satisfying finish. And those cookies? Well, let’s just say my husband and I were fighting over those.
Here’s how you can make our city a better place. Support Thelma’s Kitchen. Enjoy the delicious fare. Eat well. Do good.
Also featured in the October 17, 2020 issue of The Independent
Photo credit: Bailey Pianalto Photography
By Ann Slegman
3101 Troost Avenue
Kansas City, MO 64109
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