Family tells story behind Mimi’s Pantry
Lillian Curtin never would have guessed what she dished up for patrons of two Northland eateries where she worked decades ago would inspire her family to feed future generations. But Lillian was an apt role model for generosity and her son, Dennis, was watching.
During the 1960s, Lillian owned a restaurant, Mark’s Café, and was fond of waiving the check for customers she knew to be struggling.
“It was a small community,” Dennis Curtin said of the restaurant’s location at 72nd and North Oak Trafficway. “She knew the back story of those who came in,” he said.
Lillian later managed a deli inside Richard’s United Super at 61st and Antioch, where she continued her generous displays by finding someone to use food left over at the end of each day. Dennis recently decided to act on those memories when he founded a Riverside food pantry.
In his mother’s honor, Dennis named it “Mimi’s,” a nickname assigned by her oldest grandchild, Kelly Catterson.
“They (others) were always welcome at her table,” Catterson said of the many family stories about her grandmother’s penchant for giving.
Dennis, 70, a regional director for a real estate firm, was reminiscing recently about his mother’s efforts and wondered if food insecurity continued to be an issue in the area. While conducting research, he discovered Platte and Clay counties, despite their reputation as financially stable, have residents with food insecurity whose needs were not always met. He launched the pantry June 1, 2019 and later learned the date was significant–it was his parents’ wedding anniversary.
The pantry idea was not surprising, Catterson said of her father.
“He’s probably one of the most giving people I’ve ever known,” she said. “There are millions of stories about him” (giving to others.)
Curtin said there was little question who should manage the pantry.
“I knew she had the skill set,” he said of his decision to name daughter Kelley executive director.
The pantry is operated out of a building originally purchased as storage for remodeling and renovation supplies used at Dennis’s properties. In fact, a portion of the basement, at 2255 NW Vivion Road in Riverside, still is used to store building supplies while the other half stores pantry staples. The building’s main level serves as the pantry shopping area.
When he purchased the building several years ago, he could not shake the feeling that it should serve a higher purpose.
“He knew there was a vision for the upstairs,” Catterson, who lives in Smithville, said he even refused several offers from those who wanted to rent the building. “He’s a visionary,” she said.
Before opening, the upstairs where guests “shop,” needed remodeling to accommodate shelves for storing and displaying products and refrigerated and freezer cases to store frozen and fresh produce, which was a huge goal of her father’s.
“Just because you’re in a position to be food insecure doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have these items,” she said.
A lot of pantries in the area struggle to find enough space and financing to purchase freezers and refrigerators to store perishable items, said Catterson, who spent several weeks meeting with area pantry operators to learn about the industry.
Catterson said she works hard to keep requirements of guests at a minimum and the only prerequisite now is that guests live in Clay or Platte counties, which they prove by showing a utility bill or government issued mail.
“We just did not want people to have to jump through a lot of hoops in their time of need,” she said.
Guests can shop twice each month, and leave with “quite a lot of food,” she said.
Tax-free donations can be made by visiting the pantry’s website, mimispantrykc.org. and food donations can be dropped off during the pantry’s business hours. The pantry is opened for shopping from 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays, 10 a.m. to noon Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to noon the first and third Saturdays.
Before she became the pantry director, Catterson, 46, like her father, also worked in real estate. While she enjoyed her job, she liked the idea of having a position in which she could serve others. She trained by observing two other local pantries in operation. Most of the pantry’s food–both fresh produce and non-perishable goods–is supplied by Harvester’s Community Food Network, which sells to area pantries at a discounted rate.
While business has been brisk since opening, Catterson said she already is seeing an uptick due to COVID-19 and expects the trend to continue.
Catterson said although she requires little knowledge of what causes guests to need their services, some volunteer their stories. Some guests have volunteered that they have never needed help before but that changed after losing a job or being furloughed due to the pandemic.
One guest recently told Catterson she would no longer need the help because her husband’s chemotherapy visits, which necessitated long commutes and required a lot of gas money, had ended.
“And I haven’t seen her since,” she said, adding “they’re so excited when they get their lives back on track.” In addition, Catterson said she has received dozens of emails and letters of thanks from guests. She posts the thank you notes on a wall at the pantry as a reminder to herself and volunteers of why their work is important.
The family giving tradition even has spread to the next generation as Catterson’s 11-year-old son, Evan, is the pantry’s youngest of the approximately 50 volunteers.
“He always wants to go,” Catterson said of her son, a fifth grader Oak Hill Day School in Gladstone.
“I like to help people who can’t really get food by themselves,” he said.
Initially, Kelley wondered how the pantry’s guests would feel about an 11-year-old serving them in their time of need, but soon realized she need not have worried. “He loves it and they love him. He enjoys going and putting food on the shelves and it’s a great way to show him, at 11 years old, what it’s like to give back.”
Catterson said she has only one regret–that her grandmother, who died in 1989, did not live to see the pantry’s opening.
“If she was here and able, she’d be working and love having her hand in it,” she said.
Catterson added that the pantry means her grandmother’s story “has come full circle. She added, “She would be incredibly proud.”