Kansas City may some day look back on a round of buyouts at Sprint in 2005 as one of the key moments in the culinary development of the city. Venus Van Horn, a 20-year veteran of the telecommunications industry, came into work every day and sat in a cubicle just three rows over from Craig Adcock, the chef behind Belly Up BBQ and Jude’s Rum Cakes. And six years ago, Van Horn decided it was time to turn her passion for cooking into a career.
“I’m an early riser and I was usually at Sprint by 5:30 a.m. When the buyout notice came, I was probably the first in the whole company to respond,” Van Horn says.
The co-owner of the Magical Meatball Tour, a food truck that began rolling earlier this year, had her first paying gig at the age of 8. Her second cousin asked her to cater a dinner party, which left Van Horn flipping through her Betty Crocker cookbook to design a menu.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 8 years old. Partly because I’m a picky eater and partly because my mom was a creative cook, but her palate wasn’t as refined as her creativity,” Van Horn says.
Growing up in south Kansas City, her paternal grandmother, Florine Crosby, taught her the art of slow cooking. Her family of farmers taught her respect for what it takes to grow food and care for livestock. And it was a middle-school home-economics teacher who taught her that presentation matters as much as what you make.
“She told me, ‘When you start to smell it, you know it’s done.’ And ever since then, I’ve been a chef by nose,” Van Horn says.
She might have only been a home cook — a great home cook — the kind that makes your favorite meal and keeps a circle of friends together through dinner parties. After high school, Van Horn married and had three boys. Those were the years of pork roasts and homemade apple pies, the crusts pressed down by fork tines in the same way her grandmother made them.
When her kids went to school, she began working in the telecommunications industry. She started in a call center at AT&T before being promoted into workforce management with T-Mobile and Sprint.
“It was 55 hours a week of sitting in a cubicle. I hated it. I wasn’t making people smile,” Van Horn says.
As a kid, Van Horn always thought she would be a minister. But when it came time for what she calls her “midlife transition,” she wondered if she couldn’t reach people through food. After taking the buyout offer at Sprint, she took classes and obtained a license from the United States Personal Chef Association. She envisioned bringing the personal-chef concept to middle-income families, making sure they were eating right just as she had cooked from scratch for her own family. The reality was that her clients were wealthy families who paid well but with whom she didn’t have a lot of interaction.
“I just got the security code to a house. For a year and a half, I didn’t really see anyone,” Van Horn says.
She was working at a trade show when Succotash owner Beth Barden came to talk to her about a potential client. Van Horn mentioned to Barden that being a personal chef wasn’t fulfilling. Barden needed an operations manager for the new restaurant that she’d opened in the Dutch Hill neighborhood. Van Horn fit the bill and was delighted for the chance to work in the service industry despite her lack of experience.
“My feet hurt. My back hurt. I lost 40 pounds. My bank account was bad, and I thought, Oh my God, this is where I want to be,” Van Horn says.
She started as the catering manager but ended up spending most of her time on the line alongside a chef there, Ceaser Reyes. And while both loved cooking, they didn’t love watching their bank accounts dwindle on a cook’s salary.
“We had the same ideas about food and we both dreamed of owning a restaurant,” Van Horn says.
They would look at restaurant properties the way young couples dream of buying their first home. But it was a truck in the alley behind Christopher Elbow’s chocolate shop that ultimately had the right price tag. So for $900, the Magical Meatball Tour was launched.
Van Horn discovered that meatballs were trending on both coasts, and the duo hit upon a quirky carnival theme for their rolling kitchen. A campaign on Kickstarter, the micro-lending site, raised $10,190 in April. Friends pitched in, helping to rewire and paint the truck. Their meatball barker, Mat “Slimm” Atkins provides his services for free because he’s attempting to overcome a fear of public speaking. And last month, the Magical Meatball Tour got its license from the city.
“The support from the community has been overwhelming. We didn’t have a dime to our names. We still don’t. [Laughs.] But the smiles that the truck generates has made it all worthwhile,” Van Horn says.