Eatery's specialty not on menu

Sunday, August 16, 1998

BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON -- Three clocks hang on the wall at K&K Restaurant. I'm not sure why. Nobody looks at them.

Around here, people know what time it is by the rumbling in their stomachs. They know because Bernie has just walked in, or because Janice has asked "Coffee, anybody?" for the eighth time instead of the seventh.

At the K&K, time doesn't so much pass as join the regulars in the back of the room. It's a pleasant presence -- and one so familiar that there's hardly any need to greet it.

"Coffee, anybody?" Janice asks, for the ninth time. She bends toward an elderly gentleman. "More coffee, Bill?"

Bill Cappel is plowing through a plate of eggs and potatoes. He doesn't seem to hear the question, but Janice must have gotten a signal somehow, because she fills his cup.

Their usual seats

Her last name is Sexton. She arrives here, at the corner of 10th and Madison streets, at 3 a.m. every day. She's not supposed to open til 6, but by 5 a.m., the first shift of regulars is waiting outside. She lets them in and locks the door.

They settle into their usual seats. Some fetch their personal coffee cups, which are monogrammed with their names. When they're finished eating, they often carry their own plates into the kitchen. "Carl and John and all of them, they just automatically wake up that early and come up here to eat," Ms. Sexton says.

"You know how older people just get up early. They don't have nowhere to go," explains Pete Perry, one of the regulars.

He's been coming in nearly every day for 20 years. "My table" is what he calls the last booth in the back, although he's quite willing to share it.

"Coffee, anybody?" Ms. Sexton asks.

She doesn't charge for refills. This is a real coffee shop -- the kind where you can sit for hours without running out of change.

"We come in here, everybody sits around, talks about what was on the news last night, sports, whatever's happening around town," Mr. Perry says.

The K&K opened in 1938 with two tables and three seats at a counter. It was owned by Ken and Katherine Newhouse, and their initials remain on the sign outside, even though Ms. Sexton's sister, Jean, bought the place years ago.

The regulars include Lee McElfresh, who's been coming in since 1950; Charlie Hicks, the only Republican in the bunch; Bernie Bloemer, who helps clean tables; and Ray Evans, the reader who called me about the place.

"You don't want to leave out Annie that works here," Mr. Perry says of Ann Mullins, 70. "Annie's been here more than 50 years. For a woman her age -- she waits these tables every day -- she's something." "Second family," Dave Baker says.

"You tell her about Annie being here," says Ms. Sexton, passing through with her coffee pot. "She's been here 52 years. I've been here 48."

Down-home topics

A third waitress, Nancy Vermillion, lacks a few decades: She's been at the K&K just 24 years.

The group fills me in on Ms. Mullins, who's recuperating from cancer surgery. She can't wait to get back to work, Ms. Sexton says. Other topics include fishing, tomato growing, kids killing kids. Also the Reds, the "Beanie Bag" craze, Ricky Nelson's plane crash, the new Elmo doll from Avon.

They try not to bring up Bill Clinton.

"Some of us think he should be smacked on the hand and forget about it," Mr. Perry says. "Charlie here doesn't agree."

"Knocked in the head with a bulldozer, that's what it should be," Mr. Hicks says.

A destination

He's the one who grows the tomatoes. Usually, he brings them to the K&K in a bag, and Ms. Sexton hands him a knife.

From his usual table, a man named Emmett passes out hard candies. Nobody seems to know his last name. They think of Emmett as The Candy Man.

He's sitting with Mr. Cappel, the elderly gentleman.

"You OK, Bill?" he asks. "You're not too cold, are you?" Before I can get the rest of his name, Emmett slips out the door. Mr. Cappel follows. They're neighbors in Covington, and they arrive together every day.

Emmett's wife died some time ago, Ms. Sexton says. "Since she passed away, why, him and Bill, they just go here, there and everywhere." That's how the K&K fits in. It gives people a destination.

In the back of the room, a woman sees one of her pals standing up. "Don't leave me," she teases. Her voice, worn by cigarettes and conversation, sounds like tires on gravel.

"Well, he ain't going nowhere," Ms. Sexton says. "He ain't ate yet."

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at ksamples@enquirer.com

SAMPLES ARCHIVE