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Cathy Jenkins offers tips for restaurant survival in a pandemic

Soul food restaurant Cathy’s Kitchen is an often-mentioned mainstay of St. Louis dining
Credit: SLBJ
Cathy Jenkins is owner of Cathy’s Kitchen.

ST. LOUIS — Soul food restaurant Cathy’s Kitchen started not in the Ferguson building it now calls home, but in Cathy Jenkins’ own home.

A longtime “domestic engineer,” as she puts it, Jenkins wanted something that was “about me.” Her husband, Jerome, had long run a chemical company.

Spurred by Facebook postings advertising the food, friends — and then strangers — scooped up dishes such as seafood gumbo, a buffalo sandwich and oatmeal cookies. 

The restaurant, which opened in 2013 in a Florissant Road location, is now an often-mentioned mainstay of St. Louis dining. Jenkins has withstood damage in the wake of social unrest — first during 2014 protests, then again this year — and now a pandemic that has closed dining rooms across the world.

How has Cathy’s continued to operate? We’re doing takeout and delivery only. I couldn’t do it without my husband, who’s constantly doing advertising through billboards, social media, Google ads and videos. That’s a full-time job in itself, but you need someone who can constantly post and share information. Realize that people are still eating out. Restaurants need to make people know that they are on all these delivery services.

What are the biggest challenges? Those delivery services take up to 30%. And food has become so expensive since the pandemic. My case of chicken wings used to cost $70. Now it’s $105. A case of gloves went from $45 to $91. I haven’t raised prices, but I’ll have to. We’ve got to do it in a smart way, letting people know what we’re going through, perhaps through a video. I’ve also got 13 employees. The waitresses aren’t getting as many tips. So we try to give them more cash so they can stay.

What’s next for the industry? What is happening is going to cause the industry to be more automated. People aren’t going to be able to pay all these workers. You may see more ordering from counters. To get through this, restaurant owners have to be creative to make people remember you. 

Tell us about your friendship with singer Melissa Etheridge. A while back she came in the restaurant. I wasn’t there but she signed an album and left it. I left a message on my Facebook page asking if anyone knew Melissa Etheridge to tell her I’m so sad I missed her and to contact me. She responded, and I couldn’t believe it.  

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