‘Just a trailblazer’: Philly mourns the loss of KeVen Parker, Ms. Tootsie’s owner and entrepreneur

Parker leaves memories of delicious soul food and a generous spirit that lifted others, including many young people he mentored and aspiring entrepreneurs.

KeVen Parker (Courtesy of Center City District)

KeVen Parker (Courtesy of Center City District)

Philadelphia entrepreneur and owner of legendary soul food spot Ms. Tootsie’s, KeVen Parker died early Friday morning. He was 57 years old.

Parker, a resident of Overbrook Farms, opened the award-winning restaurant Ms. Tootsie’s on South Street in 1999, creating a popular place to enjoy good food and company in an area that many other entrepreneurs had abandoned at that time. He named the restaurant for his late mother Joyce, who got her nickname from a childhood affection for Tootsie Rolls, and quickly attracted crowds for Southern-style specialties that earned praise from Food Network celebs and locals alike — including Patti LaBelle, a frequent and beloved patron.

Over the last 20 years, the West Philly native expanded his business operations to include the Keven Parker Soul Food Cafe in the Reading Terminal Market, Cafe 3801 in West Philadelphia, and the private catering company Simply Delicious Caterers.

“My life is torn,” said Lynette Saunders, Parker’s sister in a statement to The Philadelphia Tribune. “My brother was [the] most caring person in the world. There was never a time in my life when he was not there for me. My mom raised us well. Now I do not have my mom or my brother. My mom and brother were a team.”

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To many of its customers, Ms. Tootsie’s is known for having the best soul food — fried chicken, ribs, fried catfish and more — in Philadelphia.

But beyond his delicious cooking, it’s the advice and wisdom Parker offered other intrepid Philadelphians trying to make it that many will never forget.

“His business acumen … whoever needed something in the city, he was there,” said David Clements, the social media director for Ms. Tootsie’s and Parker’s other business ventures. “He was a huge inspiration to other entrepreneurs. We called him our mentor, our friend, our sounding board. We can call at any time of day for advice and he will call us back.”

Clements said he’ll always remember appreciatively Parker’s hands-on style of leadership. He was the rare restaurant owner who could be found in the kitchen, bussing tables or carrying food to tables. “That was him,” Clements said.

The social media director, who knew Parker for more than two decades, said he could “be like Gordon Ramsey” — stern and not afraid to tell it like it is. Yet he could do it with an empathy that let him leave an indelible mark on everyone.

Parker was known for running a high school internship program for Philadelphia’s young people. He employed them in secretarial positions, as dishwashers, and wait staff, wherever they could fit in and grow.

“He helped mold and develop a lot of young minds. He did it in such a stern, loving way. I think he got that from his mom,” Clements said. “They knew this was an African American man on South Street with a thriving business. And although he was African American, he didn’t care what your background was, your race, religion, he didn’t care. If you got past his interview, if you were hardworking and dedicated, you were hired.”

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Carla Clarkson, who runs a hair studio in Old City, was one of those young people mentored by Parker.

Prior to opening her business, Clarkson worked at Ms. Tootsie’s as a hostess. She said the advice Parker instilled in her over the two decades that he knew her helped her succeed.

“He always told me, ‘Carla, check on everyone in the restaurant even though you are not the waitress.’ It’s called ‘touching the table’ because you always want the customers to feel like they are included in your process,” Clarkson said. “That always stood out for me even with hair … making sure you are giving them the attention or customer service.”

Clarkson said Parker was generous with other entrepreneurs. He would open his space for networking events and other gatherings. She recalls walking up to the third floor of Ms. Tootsie’s for B.L.I.S.S., a monthly networking event for Philadelphians and beyond working in the hair and beauty world.

Juan Moses, who owns J. Saleem Hair Designs in West Philadelphia, helped run the networking event at Ms. Tootsie’s. Moses said Parker was supportive of the Philly hair industry from soon after they met over 15 years ago. A year after they met, Parker allowed Moses to start leaving business cards for the salon at Ms. Tootsie’s, and a few years later, allowed him to run B.L.I.S.S. from the restaurant for free.

And like so many others, Parker offered Moses unforgettable mentorship and advice for taking risks in business.

“He taught me to have integrity and to not let anyone tell you how to run your business,” Moses said. “You run your business the way you want it to run and always be strong … and that you always treat people as you would like to be treated.”

Beyond Parker’s wise words, Moses feels lucky enough to have been part of his “family.”

“He had a table in his living room, and had pictures of everybody that he called his friends, and he had a picture of me on his table,” Moses said. “He was a real friend to me too.”

Both Clarkson and Moses said they’ll remember Parker the most for his humor, his unforgettable commentary on current events, and for throwing the best parties.

Philadelphia’s social media universe lit up Friday as people all across the region remembered a friend and consummate host.

Clements said although there are not any memorials planned yet, Ms. Tootsie’s hopes to do something COVID-safe in the near future to remember Parker.

“He was just a trailblazer, innovative business mind,” Clements said. “If he could have taught a class, if he could have done a video, how to, that would have been great for any entrepreneur.”

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