A Fresh Start 

Whittington's Cafe owners on going beyond Buntyn.

Lori and Kenneth Whittington aren't thinking about the past, only the present and their presence on the Memphis restaurant scene. The couple, who were part-owners of Buntyn Cafe on Park Avenue, have opened Whittington's Café in Bartlett.

"We're proud of the fact that we had the Buntyn," says Lori. "It was a part of our lives, but we do things differently. We're trying to make a name for ourselves. We want to be known for Whittington's. We want people to say, 'They have great food, great service, and they make you feel at home,' not 'They used to own Buntyn's.'"

Although the Whittingtons are making a fresh start, Buntyn's customers may recognize the same down-home cooking, staff, photos, and even the coffee counter from the old restaurant, which closed in February after losing its lease.

"Some people come in and see we have the same cooks, the same waitresses, but there are people from out here [in Bartlett] who've never heard of Buntyn," Lori says. "With them, we'll start a new legacy, but Buntyn will always be a part of us. Kenneth and I met there. Our children grew up there."

Kenneth was the manager of Buntyn Cafe when Lori began working there in 1999. Lori knew the owner at the time, Mike Wiggins, who baptized her at the Fairview Baptist Church in Indianola, Mississippi, when she was 13 years old.

Buntyn Cafe was originally opened in 1927 on Southern Avenue by the Tull family. Then Wiggins' parents, Betty and Milton, purchased the restaurant and ran it for many years. Kenneth joined the family when his sister Debbie married Mike Wiggins.

In 1999, Buntyn Cafe was forced to move from its location on Southern after the Memphis Country Club purchased the property. But the restaurant never regained its steady clientele after it relocated to Park Avenue, and the owners faced higher overhead costs. During the same period, three more Buntyn locations -- in Collierville, Cordova, and Millington -- opened and closed.

For the Whittingtons, the Park Avenue location was the beginning of their lives together. They married in 2001 and now have three children: Lanie, 5; Whitt, 4; and Braxton, 11 months.

"We're not looking just 10 years down the road. We're hoping to be here a long time," Lori says. "Maybe one of our children will have a passion for the restaurant like we do. You have to have a passion for the restaurant business to succeed."

Initially, the Whittingtons weren't sure they even wanted to continue in the restaurant business after the Buntyn Cafe on Park Avenue closed, even though they had been looking at a location in the Chiles Shopping Center at Appling and Stage roads. The space had been home to Anna's Steak House and later Dauphine's. When Dauphine's closed, the Whittingtons took it as a sign to jump back into business.

The couple opened Whittington's Cafe in May. The restaurant seats about 100 people and has warm, green and red booths and an open, inviting atmosphere. The menu still reflects a home-style approach, which is easy with Whittington's dedicated staff.

"Erma Daniels makes the pies. Diane Evans and Joe Jackson are awesome cooks, and Joe still makes the dressing," Lori says. "A lot of people recognize [waitress] Barbara Grisham -- she was with Buntyn for almost 30 years. We wouldn't be alive if it weren't for them. They know how to make dressing; I don't."

Turkey and dressing still appears on the lunch menu Tuesday and Friday as it did at the Buntyn Cafe, though that restaurant's famous yeast rolls do not. The Whittingtons, however, are putting more emphasis on fresh ingredients.

"We hand-patty our hamburger steaks, hamburgers, and cheeseburgers," she says. "That's one of the things that we wanted to be different," Lori says. "We use real mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables."

Lori recounts an exchange she had with one of the original owners of Buntyn, Mildred Tull: "[I told her], 'We make our mashed potatoes from scratch now just like you used to,' and Miss Mildred said, 'Honey, our mashed potatoes were never real.'"

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