Cathy’s Kitchen owner Cathy Jenkins on feeding Ferguson through the pandemic and George Floyd protests

Located steps away from the Ferguson Police Department, Cathy’s Kitchen became a gathering place for journalists and protesters of police violence after Michael Brown, an African American 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a white Ferguson police officer in 2014. Not that location is the only reason, of course. “I’m going to say too, I serve great food,” said owner Cathy Jenkins. Her eclectic menu has now been served through protests, riots and a global pandemic. Last Saturday night, May 30, the windows of Cathy’s Kitchen were broken by vandalizers following a protest sparked by George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. We talked to Jenkins about navigating a family business through the upheaval of the past week, how she has fought to keep her family and staff safe from the coronavirus and the overwhelming support she has received from the Ferguson community. Here is her experience in her own words. – Heather Hughes Huff   

“I left work probably around 6, 7 o'clock and it was very peaceful. On my way home, I blew my horn to [support] the protesters. In hindsight, I wish I would have just sent everyone home early, told my daughter to come over, but nothing about it looked like it was going to escalate how it did that evening. In 2014, the authorities came down to Cathy’s Kitchen earlier that day, letting us know that there could possibly be unrest and if we wanted to close our doors early we should leave. So we had preparations. This time we didn't have that. … It was terrifying. My daughter lives in the apartment above Cathy's Kitchen and we couldn't get her out. She was in the tub [hiding from] bullets, scared to death. We couldn’t get down the street because of the blockades, we were trying to figure out a way we could walk and meet her, and the National Guard wasn’t allowing anyone to leave the building. She was trying to put towels around her windowsill so the tear gas couldn’t get into her apartment.”

“My windows were broken. There's a video out there: You've got the Ferguson Police Department, and they're actually protecting Cathy's Kitchen, allowing no one to get through. The protesters walk up and they say to them, ‘Hey we've got this place, you can go and help someone else.’ And the protesters replace the police officers to protect the building. I suffered some of my windows being broken, but the same situation that happened in 2014 happened in 2020 – people did not allow vandalizers to come in and destroy the entire building. Just broken windows. I can live with that.”

“The next day was my son's graduation. I didn't want to tarnish or take away anything from his moment – he had already lost his entire school year. He's the returning state high jump champion from 2019 and the track season was totally canceled. No prom – they didn’t get to do any of those things. The night before his graduation they vandalized our building. People really stepped in to help the next day so I was able to be with my son. As a family, we got to enjoy his special day. We had a celebration. You know, he's a young Black male about to enter this world that really doesn’t accept him all the way. It's been a tough few days.”

“The stress of it all has been insurmountable, at least for me. I didn't realize how tired I was. You're trying to run a business with the pandemic happening. You're trying to be safe and then, you know, you’ve got this whole reopening happening. I'm not sure if I want to reopen my dining-in. We don't have enough information and the information that we have is conflicting. So you've got this constant, everyday stress of the pandemic, and then now you throw this in. I'm just totally, completely worn out. I'm not going to reopen again until next week.” 

“We had a lot of people helping and giving donations. Someone put up a Cash App for us. I'm gonna take that money for my employees, so they can all have this week off. I have a lot of teenagers that work as servers and parents are not going to want them to come immediately back to work, you know because they are unsure of the safety of their children. I have 17 employees and none of them can afford to take a week off with no pay – who can? … We’ve got those teenages, but we’ve also got men and women trying to take care of their families. ... So yeah, I'm going to get those windows fixed and the repairs done, but I am also going to pay my employees for the time that I am closed. It was important to me during this time that they can still take care of their families too.”

“I'm working – I don't have time to be outside in the protests, but I definitely stand and believe this police brutality has to come to an end. I'm so thankful that the whole world has kind of gotten in on this, to see what's happening over here in our country and stand with the African Americans in saying, ‘Hey this is out of hand, we need to do something about this.’ I stand with Black Lives Matter.” 

“We've been doing free soup and hot dogs since the COVID-19 pandemic happened because I was a free lunch kid growing up. I knew it was going to be difficult for families to eat – we don't realize how many impoverished people’s meals are coming from schools. So since the pandemic started, I've been doing free hot dogs and soup for whoever comes up to get it. I'm aware because of my own past that people need help.”

“I never closed. My restaurant was already set up for carryout. Before this even happened, I already used Grubhub, Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates. The only thing I had to do was create guidelines for people not to come into the restaurant.”

“Everything at Cathy’s Kitchen is carryout. I'm trying to do everything possible to keep myself safe, I don't wanna get my children sick, I don't want to get my employees sick. Everything that we do is about keeping everybody healthy. We don't take any cash at all in the restaurant – you can’t give us cash and you can’t give us your credit card. Even if you walk up, you have to call from your cell phone. Some people don't like that. I always tell them, you know, you can be upset about that. But unless you want to scream your credit card number from outside…”

“We are in the middle of a lot. But, in that one day, people did so much. I had fraternities, sororities, I had people calling me and sending me messages that if I needed them, they would stand out front and just stand there to protect the building. That is some real love right there. Of course, don't put your life on the line for me – it's just food, it’s just a building. But the gesture, gosh it makes you feel so good on the inside that people care and love you in that type of way, that they're willing to stand out for you. I was overwhelmed by all of that.” 

Donations for Cathy’s Kitchen can be made to $Cathyskitchen on Cash App.