For Pizza and Insults, Kevin's Place Has Cherokee Street Covered 

Kevin McGinn.

PHOTO BY SARA BANNOURA

Kevin McGinn.

When Kevin McGinn insults customers, it's primarily through the phone. They call Kevin's Place, his pizzeria on Cherokee Street's Antique Row, and he greets them with a blast of anxiety: "Hellothisiskevinspeaking." McGinn himself always answers. After all, he's the sole employee: the order-taker, cook and the driver.

(Yes, that means he sometimes hustles out on deliveries while pizzas are baking; yes, while his front door is propped open; yes, while guests are dining in and unsure of his whereabouts. He just leaves. Then he comes back.)

Although McGinn is calm and witty during most transactions, he expects customers to be ready with their exact order during a rush. If they dither on the phone, he may grow impatient, curse, and hang up. Below is a sampling of things he has uttered at such moments, according to various customers and McGinn's own memory:

"Look, I can't help you right now, I'm busy!" [Click.]

"If you say 'um' one more time, my head is going to explode."

"I run this business, not the city." [Click.]

"Dumb bitch, go back to school and get an education."

"My customers are geniuses."

One disgruntled reviewer complained on Zomato, an online restaurant-review site, that McGinn lost his temper and labeled all city residents "tattooed drug addicts." (The restaurateur denies this, insisting his actual words were "tattooed dog-loving freaks.")

It is a miracle of American commerce that Kevin's Place is still open — and in fact, just celebrated its tenth anniversary last month. For one thing, fewer than half of all restaurants make it that far, a 2014 study suggested. For another thing, the radical honesty of Kevin McGinn defies every norm of customer service. Yet somehow, it's working.

McGinn, 60, is by no means the first restaurant owner to vent frustration at customers. Recall Ali Yeganeh, the authoritarian soup vendor in Manhattan who inspired "the Soup Nazi" character on Seinfeld. Consider, too, the national restaurant chain Dick's Last Resort, which boasts of its "outrageous, surly" servers. Here in the Midwest, Chicago is home to both Ed Debevic's, an old-school diner offering a "side order of sass," and the Wieners Circle, a hot dog stand where the staff berates the late-night crowd.

Yet in most of these cases, the whole thing is schtick and spectacle. It's a gleeful trampling over the maxim that The Customer Is Always Right. And everybody's in on the joke.

Not so at Kevin's Place. If McGinn sounds hot-tempered, that's because he is. He doesn't filter his feelings. He knows that it costs him some revenue, and occasionally he apologizes. But he's always himself.

"All I'm doing is saying the things you'd like to say but aren't allowed to," he explains. "My customers either love me or hate me, and I don't care which it is. I do the best I can."

His rawness sets him apart from the artists and creatives who dwell on Cherokee Street. Practically everyone in the neighborhood would qualify as eccentric by the standards of mainstream culture. The younger crowd tends to be self-consciously so; they value expression, originality and weirdness. McGinn isn't aiming for weird. That's just a label he earned accidentally by delivering pizzas on a giant tricycle, talking to his adopted cat and hanging out shirtless in a dining room that's adorned with multiple portraits of Marilyn Monroe.

Nearby merchant Cherri Elder, co-owner of Elder's Antiques, suggests that his quirks don't even matter.

"It's Cuckooville down here, honey," she says, "and he's the full cuckoo package. It's never a normal experience. Good pizza, though."

And that's objectively, scientifically true: His pizza is a treasure. It's done St. Louis-style: thin crust, tangy provel mix, baked in a brick oven, then sliced square-wise. Its fragrance fills the entire block. He takes pride in it. But to get a taste, you need to be prepared for all kinds of emotional weather.

"He's temperamental, like a cat with rabies, but lovable," says Jennifer Smith, a candlemaker who sells her wares across the street at the Heirloom Room. While McGinn does get embroiled in shouting matches with neighbors, she says, he can also be quite charming. She recalls his demeanor during the solar eclipse last August when many Antique Row merchants spilled onto the street to peer up at the sky.

"He was like a different person that day," recalls Smith. "He was joking, he was smiling. He was wearing shoes."

These days, McGinn has his sights set on a whole new neighborhood: He has rented a commercial space in Northampton, adjacent to a building where he lived briefly as a kid. His plan is to open a second Kevin's Place there. But he's reluctant to hire another employee, so he vows to work 90 hours a week and run both restaurants himself.

Can he pull it off? Various friends, neighbors and customers believe he can.

As one Yelp reviewer wrote: "Kevin is like Superman, if Superman was kind of awkward and drove a Corolla."

click to enlarge The decor in Kevin's Place includes Antique Row merch and portraits of Marilyn Monroe (who reminds him of an ex-girlfriend). - PHOTO BY SARA BANNOURA
  • PHOTO BY SARA BANNOURA
  • The decor in Kevin's Place includes Antique Row merch and portraits of Marilyn Monroe (who reminds him of an ex-girlfriend).

Over the summer, McGinn appeared in a major motion picture that played in cinemas across the country.

His cameo comes exactly an hour into Kidnap, starring Halle Berry. Berry's character has a young son who gets abducted into a car by a shady couple. The couple speeds away, but Berry the mother-heroine chases them, all the way out to their remote home. Berry creeps into the house and glances at some framed photographs atop the mantel. McGinn is in one of those photos.

How? The actress who played the shady female kidnapper is Chris McGinn, Kevin's sister. The production staff asked the St. Louis-born thespian to bring in her old family pictures to use for that scene, so she dug up a shot from years ago of her and her brother.

(When Kevin found out, he pleaded to be introduced to Berry; Chris laughed and said, "Sure." The meeting is still pending.)

Chris remembers all the injuries her brother suffered while they were growing up in St. Mary Magdalen parish in south city: That time he broke his shoulder playing hockey. The time his buddy stabbed him in the neck with a knife (which may not have been an accident). Or the time the siblings got into a skirmish and Chris poked him in the eye with a pencil. (Its graphite tip is still lodged in his eyelid, and still visible, to this day.)

Most vividly, though, she recalls his entrepreneurial fire: By age nine, he was hawking copies of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on South Kingshighway at Chippewa. A few years later and two and a half miles north, he got a job at Pagliacci's pizzeria by lying about his age. (When they discovered he was twelve, not fourteen, they fired him.)

He later found work at Rugerri's on the Hill, where the legendary Stan Kann was still playing the organ, and then at Steak 'n' Shake. Once he earned his driver's license, he delivered for Imo's. He was so focused on his cash income, he would even wash and iron the bills.

"He was always very ambitious, very driven, just trying to be self-sufficient," says Chris.

In 1979, when Kevin McGinn was 22, he and a friend launched their first brick-and-mortar venture, Bugsy's Pizza, at 2810 Chippewa. They did well enough to add a second location, but the partners had a falling out and split up the business. McGinn renamed his wing of it Circus Pizza, which grew to four locations.

But he swore he'd be out of the pizza racket by his 30th birthday, and made good on that promise: In 1987, he sold Circus Pizza and became a cab driver. (McGinn credits his stint as a cabbie with enough knowledge of city streets to obviate any need for a map or GPS while on deliveries.) He started buying cars and leasing them out to other cab drivers. Then he moved full time into car rental.

But his destiny smelled like pizza. One summer Sunday in 2007, he ate brunch at the Mud House cafe on Antique Row, the eastern half of Cherokee Street. He was scheduled to start a new job the next day as a sales rep for a construction firm.

After brunch, he strolled west up the block and noticed an empty storefront. A century before it had been a cigar shop. He wondered if he could rent the space for cheap. While standing there, he called the owner to inquire and learned the rent was even lower than expected. He reserved the space, without even stepping inside, and opened Kevin's Place in October 2007.

"My friends said, 'You're doing a really good job avoiding getting a real job,'" he recalls.

McGinn threw himself back into the pizza world. A lifelong bachelor, he says, "I don't have kids; my business is my kids." He furnished the dining room with various wood pieces from Antique Row. He also hung up pictures of Marilyn Monroe, who reminded him of a sweetheart he had while at Bugsy's in his early twenties.

"I thought it'd be a good karma thing," he says. "And Marilyn's not so bad-looking."

Online reviews soon trickled in. Customers raved about his pizza, which explains in large part why he's still in business: He's good at it.

McGinn mixes his own sauce and tops his pies with your choice of either mozzarella or a blend of provel and five other cheeses that he grinds himself. (He declines to divulge his trade secrets by getting more specific.) He bakes everything in his brick oven by feel; he refuses to set timers. Then he cuts the pizzas in squares, as all self-respecting St. Louisans do.

Of course, he wasn't pleasing everyone at first.

"If you like provel, check it out," wrote one customer on Zomato in May 2009. "Otherwise, I would go somewhere else. Plus, it didn't help my confidence in the place when I walked in on a Friday night and found the owner/cook laying down on a couch watching TV."

click to enlarge McGinn refuses to set timers on his ovens. - PHOTO BY SARA BANNOURA
  • PHOTO BY SARA BANNOURA
  • McGinn refuses to set timers on his ovens.

For several weeks in 2011, McGinn fielded phone orders from a hospital bed. He told everyone he couldn't make any food. He was recovering from abdominal surgery.

Like many sexagenarians, McGinn endures a host of health problems. He soldiers on while wearing knee braces, ankle wraps and wrist bandages. He sometimes shrieks in pain if he makes a wrong movement or burns himself. A couple years ago, he thought he felt symptoms of a stroke, so he shuffled a block east to LeMay Furs, where proprietor Shirley DeMay gave him cayenne powder to drink. (He later told a physician he got it from his "witchy doctor.")

Despite such ailments, he keeps long hours. Kevin's Place is open every single day. Up until the last Fourth of July, he was claiming — probably with some hyperbole — that he hadn't taken a day off in more than six years. (That would've implied a streak of 2,200 plus days at the grindstone, including six straight Christmases.) The largest component of his business is carry-out, which gets a boost from Slice, an app that lets people order online from mom-and-pop pizzerias.

He has hired a few helpers over the years, but his most constant companion is his cat, Venus, a.k.a. LL Cool Cat. He took her in after the tenants living above his space moved out and abandoned her. Some diners have complained about her presence and other hygienic issues, such as McGinn's fondness for going barefoot. (The eatery's most recent health rating with the city was a "B," but it has been "A" for six out of eight ratings since 2012.)

Because he's a one-man show, he rarely sits still. He used to deliver food on a large tricycle fitted with a plywood rack on its rear. However, thieves broke the chain lock and stole it.

That wasn't the first instance of theft. On February 7, 2010, while he was hauling out the garbage, a man snuck into the dining room, grabbed a flatscreen TV and dashed away with it. (Police interviewed a suspect but did not charge him.) In July 2015, burglars broke in through a window and stole some keys. He says they also went into his cooler, gobbled down his strawberries and took some chicken wings. ("I mean, I know my wings are good," says McGinn, "but they're not that good.")

Throughout his pizza career, McGinn says, he has been mugged a half-dozen times. Most recently, on a February night in 2012, he drove two extra-large pizzas to a house in Gravois Park. It looked vacant, but McGinn walked up on the porch anyway. A man appeared from the alley and pointed a shotgun at him, ordering, "Give it up." McGinn handed over the food and $54 cash. According to the police report, it was the fourth robbery of a pizza deliveryman on that block in a short time.

These kinds of crimes, plus the stress of running his own business all alone, leave McGinn a bit on edge.

"He has good days and bad days, just like the rest of us," says a nearby merchant on Antique Row who asked that his name not be published. "Only on Kevin's bad days, it sounds like he's going to fire a grenade launcher at someone."

Regular customers know this, and support him all the same.

Wrote one Zomato reviewer in 2012: "He's not superficial. Take 'im or leave 'im. I'll bet the main folks talkin' the crap are steady ordering!!"

Wrote another reviewer on Google three years ago: "I know and love Kevin — and he offends me every time I call.... You have to realize that you're buying great food from a Don Rickles (without the cheerfulness). It's part of the fun."

Two winters ago, McGinn got a call from Thaddeus Brija, a financial advisor who lives nearby. Brija started to talk, but McGinn said the call sounded odd and asked if they were on speakerphone. Brija had to admit the answer was yes; he figured there might be yelling, and at that moment, he had friends over who were huddled around to hear the interaction first-hand.

Brija is a loyal patron who counsels patience for first-time customers.

"As long as you know how to order," Brija says, "the man makes a hell of a pie!"

McGinn knows he has an abrasive reputation, and plays off of it. His recent flier depicts a picture of an angry gargoyle and the message: "We're running a business, we just happen to sell pizzas and do a pretty good job of it. So get with the program. —Kevin the Pizza Nazi."

His ad in a recent Saint Louis City Edition proclaimed, "If you're not eating Kevin's pizza, you're probably eating crap!"

"I throw weird stuff out there," he explains, "and it's amazing what you get back."

Sometimes, he pushes too far. Take customer Dick Pointer, who lives across from the Lemp Mansion and is a well-known personality and storyteller in Benton Park. Pointer and McGinn became friends and one night went for a drink at the Venice Cafe, where Pointer soon had a small audience wrapped up in one of his tales about a former St. Louis Blues hockey player. Right at the climax, McGinn interrupted him. So Pointer tried to build up the narrative again — and again, McGinn interrupted.

Annoyed, Pointer gave up. McGinn urged him to continue, but Pointer replied he wasn't some kind of "circus monkey" who entertained for coins. So McGinn reached into his pocket and started tossing quarters at him. Pointer was not amused. A tense silence ensued. McGinn left, and they've barely spoken since.

Still, Pointer says, he appreciates odd souls, and counts McGinn among his favorites.

"There's not another person like Kevin," says Pointer. "Not American, not Russian, not Chinese. Nope."

Almost every neighbor of Kevin's Place has a "Kevin Story." Kaylen Wissinger, founder of Whisk bakeshop a half-block away, has three.

Story No. 1: In November 2012, Wissinger and a colleague were trying to fit their convection oven through the front doorway. McGinn pedaled by on his tricycle. He awkwardly parked it and, without introducing himself, helped them muscle the oven inside. Then he left.

"I don't think he even said goodbye," she says.

Story No. 2: McGinn still rents out about 30 cars through his second business, Custom Car Rental. Occasionally, he parks one or two on Cherokee Street proper, which then blocks customer parking. This practice has become a bone of contention between him and certain neighbors, confirms Xena Colby, co-owner of South City Art Supply and president of the Cherokee Antique Row Merchants Association.

At one point, McGinn heard through the grapevine that Wissinger had bad-mouthed his parking habits at an association meeting. (She denies this.) He came into her shop and confronted her. She protested that he had his facts wrong. He left.

Story No. 3: A long time after that episode, she called McGinn to order a large pepperoni. He said, "Well, that's boring!" and hung up on her. She wasn't sure if he was kidding, so she walked down fifteen minutes later. The pizza was ready, and his vibe was friendly. They were back on good terms.

In sum, she says: "I appreciate him...I guess?"

click to enlarge The pizzeria, at 2111 Cherokee Street, was a cigar shop in the early 1900s. - PHOTO BY SARA BANNOURA
  • PHOTO BY SARA BANNOURA
  • The pizzeria, at 2111 Cherokee Street, was a cigar shop in the early 1900s.

On the northwest corner of Mardel Avenue and Hereford Street in Northampton, a new pizzeria is waiting to be born. The storefront is connected to a set of apartments where McGinn lived as a kid (he remembers sleeping out on the balcony during hot summer nights). He hasn't opened yet, but a plastic "Kevin's Place" sign gleams in the window. All he needs now is the right paperwork at City Hall.

He does not, however, think that he needs another employee.

"I'm not anti-people," he says. "I just haven't found anyone I'm comfortable with."

To run a second location, he'll need to close the Antique Row store at certain times and alternate between the two. This would require working 90 hours a week, he estimates, but he's willing to do it.

When he talks about the new eatery, it's clear he's delighted to be back in his old neighborhood. He may have dabbled in cab-driving and lived in various places around the St. Louis area, but McGinn is a south city pizzaman, through and through.

Nothing stops him — not weather, not holidays, not even reminders of his own mortality. One of McGinn's schoolmates back at St. Mary Magdalen was Donald J. Hoffman. Hoffman grew up to be the founder of Elicia's Pizza, which now has five locations, one of them just a mile from Kevin's Place. McGinn always considered Hoffman a competitor, and admired his work ethic.

In July 2010, Hoffman died. McGinn donned a suit and tie and headed to the funeral.

Looking back on it, he says, the ceremony was "rough."

He also mentions, in passing, that on the way to the funeral, he delivered a pizza.

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