Back in the late 90s I spent 4 years I’ll never get back working in the catering business. Despite all the similarities to traditional restaurant work, there are some significant differences. Catering is all about facade, from the clip-on bow ties and the fake flower displays to the cream colored table skirts and paper doilies. Caterers create kitchens, dining rooms, bars and buffets wherever they have to, often in the most preposterous of spaces. They have to worry about how something will transport across town and hold up in a chafing dish for two hours. They deal in thousands of dollars per transaction rather than dozens. They deal with preparation time on the scale of weeks and days rather than minutes.
By and large catered food is also a hell of a lot less interesting than restaurant food. Menu items tend to be either bland or safe in order to appeal to mass tastes. It’s not worth the risk of granny thinking it’s weird. When I was catering, I had a boss that knew about food from a business rather than culinary perspective. Once when we were coming up with a new menu, he asked me if I could “fit the word ‘reduction’ in there somewhere” because it sounded “classy.” I’m sure he had no clue what a reduction was. This was a guy who pronounced the T-H in “thyme.”
I could go on and on about this, but I won’t. So I’ll get to the point. Sometimes caterers dabble in the restaurant business and vice versa. Some do it well, others make me suspicious. Cafes and storefronts are often afterthought for caterers used to throwing huge events for 20 or 30 thousand bucks a pop. A few months back, a local service called Executive Catering moved its operation to the corner strip mall locale recently occupied by Cafe Song. They dubbed the place 75, likely because of its proximity to 75th street. Frequent KC Lunch Spots visitor JH brought it to my attention in the comments of the Oak 63 post, and even reported back from his first visit.
JH wasn’t blown away by the experience and I can see where he is coming from. Yet another JoCo sandwich/salad place that tries to squeeze more than $10 out of you at lunch hour. But as much as I hate to admit it, I think 75 is doing a great job with the food.
The menu consists of a small variety of carefully conceived sandwiches and salads. The menu items are not exactly inventive, but it sure as hell ain’t old school deli fare. I have sampled the chipotle pork loin sandwich, the chicken salad sandwich, the cobb salad and the pear and blue cheese salad. The menu treads that fine line between safe and delicious. It is the same territory covered by the Classic Cup, the confusingly similar Classic Cookie, Farm to Market Cafe (under new ownership and much improved) and The Mixx
Most things at 75 run about 8 bucks, but amazingly you can get half a sandwich and salad for basically the same price. I highly recommend this option since the salads can be just as good. The greens and other ingredients are thrown together and dressed in a large bowl much like they do it at The Mixx.
My Cobb had a delicious homemade dressing but alas, way too much of it. I demonstrated my frustration by eating every bit anyway.
Each sandwich comes with a side of delicious homemade potato chips that they call “cafe chips.” Don’t bother with the pasta salad or cole slaw.
There are an assortment of large cupcakes by the register that seem to be very popular with other customers. I meant to try one but I just can’t stomach a slab of cake and frosting after a midday meal. If it was a cookie I’d be all over it. Anyhow, there are a lot of varieties; I bet they are good.
Eating lunch at 75 cafe doesn’t feel like being at a wedding reception or corporate conference thank God, but some elements of catering are clearly evident. For instance all the soda comes in cans and is laid out on a buffet, along with a plastic bowl full of ice and a few rows of glasses. This is a classic catering set-up. Interestingly, when you buy a drink, you can have as many cans as you want, sort of an equivalent of free refills.
I’m not a huge fan of the way the ordering is set-up. You order and pay at the register, then take a number to your table to wait for your food. Fine, but the menu is located on the wall off to the side of the register where the cooks are assembling meals. This gives the impression that you order from the cooks and pay at the register on the end. Not a huge deal unless it’s busy, then the line gets confusing.
Another thing, the text on the menu is way too small. They should put paper menus farther down the counter so people can decide on what they want before getting to the register. For some reason I really dislike menus mounted up on walls like that. It is ubiquitous practice, but I would rather look over a menu in my hand.
The guy who runs this place is a dynamo and a chatterbox. You can hear his voice nonstop from the moment you enter to the time you leave. Add to that the steady diet of smooth jazz that always plays and it sounds like somebody’s getting lunch to go. Strangely, he did not annoy me nearly as much as I expected. He is just very enthusiastic about his business, confident in what he serves and clearly loves dealing with the public. I still dislike smooth jazz, but at least it’s not John Mayer or something.
Each time I visited 75 I was not excited to go. Something about the location and the decor just seems kind of sterile. But once I received and ate my food, I was quite happy. Fortunately, 75 seems to be attracting a good lunchtime crowd which is remarkable considering they have only been open a few months (the owner seems to have a lot of friends who eat there too). Folks who work in the Shawnee/Lenexa/northern OP area should consider putting this place on the lunch rotation. They may be caterers but they haven’t overextended themselves and have managed to put together a very nice little lunch spot.