PAOLA — Congregation members at Friendship Faith Ministries in Paola have been enjoying Essie McConico’s cooking for the past 37 years, and now the rest of the community can get a taste of her homestyle southern favorites.
Essie and her husband, Leroy, who are the pastors at Friendship Faith Ministries, recently opened Southern Eats at 705 N. Pearl St. in Paola.
Local residents may remember the building as the original location of The BBQ Shack, but it has been vacant for more than a decade.
Leroy said he and Essie would often go out to eat up in the city to satisfy their cravings for home-cooked, southern dishes, but they eventually decided to start a restaurant closer to home to serve local community members.
“Every time we drove by this location, I said that would be a great spot for a restaurant,” Leroy said.
The McConicos decided to go for it, even though they realized the building needed a lot of work.
The renovation work began in April, and Essie said it was slowed due to all of the rock that crews ran into while working to install plumbing. Essie said nearly everything is new besides the sturdy interior concrete block walls that remained.
That includes new foundation, water, electric, plumbing and a taller entryway they call “the tower.”
The project has been a true family effort, with Leroy and Essie getting help from their daughters, Kim and Courtney.
There are only about 25 seats inside the restaurant, but Essie said the plan is to have a patio for additional seating outside. There also is a drive-through pickup window, so customers can call in orders ahead of time and come pick them up.
Those calls started coming in Monday, Nov. 18, during a soft opening, but the official grand opening is Dec. 2.
The menu has been released on the Southern Eats Facebook page, and Essie said it features many of her favorites that she learned from her mother while growing up in Arkansas.
There are a variety of sandwiches, as well as fish, chicken and shrimp dinners. Some of Essie’s favorites are in the side dishes category, including red beans and rice, fried green tomatoes, corn on the cob, collard greens, fried okra, sweet potatoes, corn bread and more.
Bread pudding, carrot cake and peach cobbler are a few of the highlights on the dessert menu.
Essie said she also plans to offer daily specials, including things like ham and beans and meat loaf.
The McConicos plan to create a welcoming environment inside the restaurant with Christian music and friendly service. Essie said she’d also like to decorate the wall with pictures of the building over the years to preserve its history.
The McConicos said they'd be happy to share a prayer with a customer, like they’ve done with some of the contractors, or simply enjoy some small-town conversation.
The family has no shortage of stories to share. Leroy won a car from Bob Barker on the Price is Right back in 2000, and two years ago the McConico family appeared on Family Feud with Steve Harvey.
Southern Eats is scheduled to be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The McConicos said it was important for them to be closed on Sunday so their employees can attend worship services.