The middle-of-nowhere cafe that brought life to Arcola

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Ken Stewart, owner of Ken’s Kafe, sits inside his restaurant.

ARCOLA – Ken Stewart never intended to help save his small hometown’s spot on the map. In fact, as a teenager, there’s a chance he would’ve preferred to erase it altogether.

After all, Stewart’s parents moved him from Kansas City to the tiny Dade County town of Arcola, which back then was around 135 people. The fallout and associated culture shock were so drastic that he quit high school.

“Whenever I came down here, everyone had crew cuts, short hair, and here I was with long, blonde hair and bell-bottoms,” says Stewart, who’s in his late 50s now. “I hated this place. I could not get out of Arcola fast enough.”

But Stewart’s life is one of contrasts. Three years ago, he moved back to Arcola and became the community’s greatest proponent: He opened Ken’s Kafe, the town’s only business in operation today.

“There’s nothing here,” says Stewart. “That’s why I thought I was out of my mind, too (to open the cafe).”

Although it’s located on a quiet stretch of Highway 39 between Greenfield and Stockton, the cafe’s next-to-nowhere location hasn’t kept the people away. In some ways, perhaps it’s propelled its success. “We’re doing around 180 to 300 (customers each day),” says Stewart.

It’s a number between six and 12 times the town’s present population of 55 people — and so large that it caused the cafe to relocate to a bigger building in December 2017.

Abandoned buildings remain from Arcola’s former life.

On a recent Saturday morning, the cafe’s new space is pleasantly full. Ballcap-and-blue jean clad folks enjoy hearty breakfasts and chatter leisurely with friends.

Some are from right down the road, while others make it a destination.

“Greenfield, Stockton, Everton,” lists Stewart. “I get to-go orders from Lamar. We get a lot of Springfield people. … They come from all over. It’s really weird. I wasn’t expecting it.”

They’re friends Stewart never planned to meet. When he moved from Arcola decades ago, he didn’t think he’d return. His career was spent in a variety of industries, until he was unceremoniously released from a position in the motorcycle business where he’d worked for nearly a decade.

“I walked in one morning, and they terminated me,” says Stewart. “And I said, ‘Why?’ and in Missouri, they said they didn’t need a reason to terminate. Come to find out, they put their son in my position.

“My brother asked me what I was going to do, and I said I was never going to have a job where I could walk in and get fired for no reason.”

Stewart spent some time brainstorming what his best option was.

“Well, I thought about having a liquor store, but I thought I’d drink myself out of profit,” says Stewart with a laugh. “Then I thought about a mortuary, because we’re all going to die. I tell you, this is funny but it wasn’t meant to be funny.”

Eventually — after time spent operating a food truck, and even debating a move to Thailand to run a rubber plantation — the idea came about to open a restaurant in Arcola.

Somehow, the idea stuck — and the idea of moving back to Arcola didn’t seem so bad.

“I think you grow up a little bit,” says Stewart. “You start realizing…I don’t know. The city just wasn’t for me.”

He moved back, rented a former gas station and made himself head chef of the new restaurant. However, faced with skepticism — including his own — the bar for success wasn’t set terribly high.

“Larry Wheeler, the local pastor, came over and prayed for us,” says Stewart of the cafe’s start. “I had him pray for 32 people a day. Me as a cook, and one waitress.”

Hours were limited, too. “We were open Tuesday through Saturday until 2 p.m.,” says Stewart.

The prayer was answered — and then some.

“That lasted, I don’t know, maybe three weeks,” says Stewart. “Now we’re open seven days a week and 364 days a year.”

That one day off is Christmas, when all employees are home celebrating. Currently, that number is 16.

“We really don’t know what happened,” says Stewart of the restaurant’s growth. “It’s just food my momma cooked. That’s all it is.”

For breakfast, that includes standard fare like eggs, hash brows, ham steaks, biscuits and gravy and dinner-plate-sized pancakes.

As the day progresses, other staples take the stage. Some offerings include fried fish, chicken-fried steaks, hot ham and cheese sandwiches, barbecue short ribs, burgers and copious helpings of tater tots, french fries, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy.

Ken’s serves up a variety of homemade dishes made according to his mother’s recipes.

“And everything is homemade,” says Stewart. “The only thing that’s been frozen are the chicken fried steaks the we serve.”

And after the main meal, there is pie. Sweet, delicious pie, made by 89-year-old Nancy Brown, who lives a few miles down the road and comes in nearly every day to make some more.

“I made 550 pies in 2015,” says Brown of the cafe’s first full year. Today, Brown says, “I make between 35 and 50 (a week) when it gets really, really busy.”

Fruit treats are her specialty, including the likes of cherry, blackberry, strawberry rhubarb and Dutch apple.

“In the summer, when the crops are good, I’ll do peach and blackberry cobbler,” she adds — and word about her work is getting out.

“People come out of the city,” says Brown. “I don’t know how many blackberry pies I’ve made for them to take home.”

A sign stands next to Highway 39, telling that the cafe is open in its new location.

Outside the restaurant, falling-down buildings point to Arcola’s past. Stewart remembers different days; times when Arcola was more town than ghost.

“Where my old restaurant was was a gas station,” says Stewart. “This was a grocery store with a little Dairy Queen on the end of it. The feed mill was over there. The drug store was over there in the old school.”

Today, none of those businesses remain. But the former Arcola hater has become its savior by creating a greater community than any town’s boundaries could define.

After all, Stewart’s favorite part of the business is something that would likely surprise his teenage self.

“The people,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always liked. The people.”

Want to eat?

Ken’s Kafe (978 N. State Highway 39, Arcola) is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. For more information, call (417) 424-3300 or connect via Facebook.