Lunch with Marjorie: Charm and sophistication meet casual elegance

“This is our brand-new fall-winter menu,” said Kiki Benson, owner of Kiki B’s restaurant in the Edgebrook Center.

Perusing Kiki B’s gourmet fare, it was no sacrifice to lunch at her place.

“We have a lot of very regular, loyal customers. I think they like it when you add a few new things.” She sounds casual, always warmly greeting patron-guests, but there’s nothing casual about this successful, savvy entrepreneur.

“I remember your Florentine ravioli,” I told her. “I don’t usually like ravioli. Even when it’s not canned, some restaurants seem to achieve that horrid Chef Boyardee taste. And I love your calamari, the cranberry turkey wrap. …” I was effusive, but remembered Kiki B’s sister restaurant, A Moveable Feast, offering me respite 10 years ago when I arrived, a California transplant with California tastes.

“I want something light,” I said.

“You could do that triple spinach and artichoke dip and get a little garden salad,” she helped.

I opted for hummus and pita.

“I don’t know about your personal life,” I said.

“Well, I’m happily married, and have been…for a long time…let’s see, 16 years,” she began. “Paul is my husband.”

“Where did you meet?”

“At Augustana in the Quad Cities.”

“You’re Lutheran?”

“Yes. Augustana is where nice Lutheran parents send their Lutheran children to meet other nice Lutheran parents’ children,” she smiled winsomely.

She majored in art history.

“It’s very interesting how many people who are in the food business, specifically the fancy food business—gourmet catering, that sort of thing—how many have an art history background, specifically art history,” she said.

“Paul’s the practical one?” I asked.

“He got an MBA. He’s the business part of our business,” she said.

“You work together?” I asked.

“We do,” she said. “We have very separate rules. He handles the business…the books…the accountant. I do the creative…front of the house, menus, meeting new clients.”

Kiki B’s is 2 years old. They moved across Alpine to house the new full-service restaurant, Kiki B’s, and A Moveable Feast’s café and catering business, into the 7,000-square-foot space, formerly the Atrium.

“Is this working?” I asked.

“It is,” she said. “Catering has grown; in-store sales have grown. It’s been a good move for us. We do a brunch on Sunday morning.”

“Which is fabulous,” I said.

“Good, good,” she’s pleased, knowing I’m sincere.

“What’s hardest in the food business?” I asked.

“You work a lot of hours,” she said. “I think you have to be completely passionate about it. If you figured out the hours you work versus the pay, you would sort of question your motives.”

Our food arrived.

“That looks awfully light,” she said. “I can share some of my salad.”

That reminded me of Martha asking her Apprentice candidate to share a sugar bun at brunch.

“What do you think of Martha Stewart?” I asked.

“I….had…enormous respect for her…before…that tawdry stock scheme,” she said.

“You lost respect?” I asked.

“I did. I canceled my subscription.”

“You had had an affinity before that?”

“Uh-huh, I loved her…her show, her magazine, her ideas…disappointing…but she’s come back,” she said.

“Does that annoy you?” I asked.

“No. I think we’re a forgiving society. That’s a good thing,” she said.

I’m not sure she knew she had spoken a “Martha.”

“Do you have MSLO ambition?” I asked.

“The quick answer is no,” she said. “I think it would be enormously difficult to balance having a happy home life and raising children with that kind of business trajectory.”

“I don’t think she did balance it,” I said.

“No, I don’t think she did, either,” she said.

“How did you get so much light in here?” I asked, admiring the airy ambience of the large room that used to be dark.

Kiki describes herself as a crazy food person.

“I’ve got subscriptions to Gourmet and Bon Appetite… all the different entertaining magazines,” she said. “I love to read about menus…think about menus. I love people, that interaction part of it—that’s really fun for me.”

But she says she’s tailored the menu offerings to the market.

“For instance, we had 10 different kinds of olive oil,” she said. “It didn’t sell at all. Rockford doesn’t need 10 different kinds of olive oils. We have two now…that’s perfectly fine. And, we have potato salad year-round. You have to listen to your customers and tailor your menus to them.”

“Do you cook at home?” I asked.

“Yes…most of the time,” she said. “Well, no, I shouldn’t say most of the time. I bring food home. I cooked Wednesday…risotto. It’s so important to take time with your family, with your children, and to enjoy your dinner. So many people, especially people my age with young kids, they’re just on the go—all the activities and not eating dinner together. You have to spend that time. My girls are getting to the age where they have the funniest stories. It’s just entertaining to sit there for an hour. They have the best stories.”

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years.

From the March 1-7, 2006, issue

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