The ‘epitome of Black excellence’: friends, mentees, and acquaintances remember KeVen Parker

A viewing was held at The Met for Philadelphia restaurateur KeVen Parker, who died of cancer on Jan. 14 at age 57. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

A viewing was held at The Met for Philadelphia restaurateur KeVen Parker, who died of cancer on Jan. 14 at age 57. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Humanitarian, mentor, visionary, Mr. Philadelphia, the “epitome of Black excellence”: these are just some of the ways that friends, business associates, and acquaintances described KeVen Parker after paying their respects to the venerated entrepreneur and owner of Philadelphia soul-food beacon Ms. Tootsie’s.

Parker died Jan. 15 at 57 due to cancer. In addition to Ms. Tootsie’s, Parker’s business empire includes Keven Parker Soul Food Cafe in the Reading Terminal Market, Cafe 3801 in West Philadelphia, and the private catering company Simply Delicious Caterers.

Parker’s fried chicken was hailed by the Food Network and his restaurant attracted stars like Patti LaBelle and Meek Mill. But ask friends to choose their favorite Parker dish and you’ll hear turkey drums, corn muffins with strawberry butter, mac ‘n’cheese, string beans — the list goes on.

Parker’s public viewing at the Met Monday drew a steady trickle of people. One by one, people shared examples of Parker’s advice, encouragement, and generosity.

“His favorite quote was ‘control your destiny,’” said goddaughter Sessi Adin.

It’s a belief he shared with so many others. From young people trying to get some restaurant experience to aspiring entrepreneurs, Parker always had time to help people manage and expand their fortunes. If he couldn’t, then it’s likely he’d direct you to someone who could.

Robin Robinson arrives at The Met on Broad Street to pay her last respects to Philadelphia restauranteur KeVen Parker. He was ‘Mr. Philadelphia,’ she said. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

“He was Mr. Philadelphia,” said Robin Robinson, who knew Parker through friends. “He helped people get their businesses off the ground, if he had the knowledge and the know-how, he was going to share it.”

“He just told me, ‘Never give up, although people may tell you no every day, you can’t believe that,’” said Jerry Carr who now runs a home health care business. “That was worth more than any amount of money that anybody could put on any given table.”

He wasn’t just generous with his time, Carr said. Parker would try and make a difference in Philly with his food, often going out to West Philadelphia to feed residents in need.

Renee Drayton was a Parker family friend and traveled with KeVen and his mother. She attended the viewing at The Met for the restaurateur, who died of cancer on Jan. 14 at age 57. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Renee Drayton, who used to travel with Parker and his mother, remembers how after hearing eight people couldn’t get into an NAACP luncheon because they hadn’t received invitations, Parker, who was catering, had eight extra seats added and invited the group up to get some food.

“With his success, his disposition never changed,” said Drayton. “He was just KeVen.”

Friends described Parker as someone always looking to celebrate his friends, often acting as the glue and the catalyst for joyous get-togethers.

“He catered every party I had, every party I didn’t want to have,” said longtime friend Wayne Perry. “He would just call me and say, ‘What’re you doing this year for your birthday?’ I would say nothing, it’s not a milestone one.”

Two weeks later, Parker would call Perry to inform him of the feast that would be held in his honor.

Wayne Perry knew KeVen Parker for more than 20 years. Parker was ‘always celebrating his friends’ success,’ Perry said. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Though Parker died on Jan. 15, he was checking in on his friends as recently as late December.

Monique Evans Wescott and her husband got sick with the coronavirus that month. Wescott’s husband was still recovering from long-term effects of the virus when Parker texted her with a message of hope.

“Kevin texted me as late as Dec. 27 to tell me that he loved me, for me to be strong, and that my husband was going to be healed from this.”

Around the same time, Parker reached out to Andrew Wallace, who he’d mentored when Wallace wanted to get into real estate. Wallace would go to Parker’s parties and they’d have conversations about their dogs – they both owned schnauzers.

“We talked about influence, and how important it is that when you die the legacy that you lived on, how many lives you’ve touched,” said Wallace.

At the viewing, clips of Parker talking about his love of food played over his open casket where he rested peacefully. In between clips songs would play, including Beyonce’s “I Was Here.”

One of the lyrics goes, “leave something to remember, so they won’t forget.”

It would appear KeVen Parker can rest easy on that front.

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