On a Sunday afternoon in Letty’s dining room, a wheelchair rolls past a high chair. The silver-haired, decaf-drinking church crowd commands a center table, while the bleary-eyed, ripped-jeans-and-tattooed set nurses Bloody Marys in a back corner.
Letty Ketner slips easily from table to table, hugging older friends, joking with the “hangovers” and stooping to listen patiently to a toddler’s take on her pancakes.
“Thanks for bringing your momma in,” she says to a middle-aged guy as she kisses his cane-toting mother on the cheek.
Moving constantly, she seems unhurried.
For after 40 years of working in other people’s restaurants, Ketner now commands her own. Letty’s Place on Shamrock marks its first anniversary this week, and Ketner envisions a lasting relationship with this east Charlotte corner.
So do her many fans.
They span from patrons of the now-closed Hotel Charlotte, who knew her as a warm, wisecracking waitress in the 1980s, to artists, musicians, blue-collar workers and professionals from nearby neighborhoods.
Young or old, childless or pushing strollers, they go for the honey pecan fried chicken and the broccoli casserole and for scrambled eggs one regular describes as the most perfectly cooked in Charlotte.
They go for Letty.
“I’m coming into this really late; this is a younger man’s game,” Ketner said. “But it’s mine. I want folks to come and feel like we’re friends the first time they walk in the door.”
Ketner, 58, comes from a family of take-charge women. Her mother, Mina Price, was a Red Cross director for six S.C. counties. Her grandmother ran a dining hall in Baltimore during World War II.
Growing up in Greenwood, S.C., she was never “the eyelash-batting Southern belle,” Price said. “She has no patience for stupidity or for people who put on airs.”
“She knows how to have fun with things, but she’s a hard worker, and she’ll make a go of it,” said Price, 84. “She knows the way she wants it, and she wants it her way.”
As a waitress during high school and college, Ketner considered careers in banking, politics and teaching. She worked at a bank for a few years but realized she liked restaurants more. She came to Charlotte in 1985 to visit her sister and planned to move to Charleston.
After a few stints as a cocktail waitress, she landed a job at Hotel Charlotte, then a busy restaurant where servers’ jobs were coveted. She loved it and moved up to create and run the restaurant’s catering service.
Two decades later, the recession of 2008 forced her hand.
‘Let’s do this’
The catering business lost its biggest clients, and Ketner knew she needed a new path. She found it heading dining services at Aldersgate, a retirement community in east Charlotte, where she quickly became a hit with residents.
“Everybody loved Letty. Sometimes it was difficult for her to get her work done because everybody wanted to visit with her,” said Aldersgate resident Janet Poole, who also knew Ketner from Hotel Charlotte. “She’s a hard-working girl. And she’s a fun person.”
Last year, Ketner learned that Foskoskies restaurant, which shared a strip center with Pike’s Pharmacy, was closing.
Was this her moment?
She talked with her husband, Ron, another Charlotte restaurant veteran. Yes, they’d work long, hard, crazy hours. Yes, it might fail. But if she wanted this, he’d help.
She talked to her mother.
“I assumed she’d say, ‘Stay with your safe job,’” Ketner said. “But instead, she said, ‘When can I help you move out of your office? Let’s do this.’
“If I had not, I would have always wondered, what if?”
Her restaurant offers a comfortable dose of soups, sandwiches and entrees, with daily specials that give chef Jon Ferrell a chance to test new flavors. (Ferrell started as a line cook at Pike’s soda shop, then for 10 years with Ketner at Hotel Charlotte, and later at Foskoskies.)
Ketner, in comfortable black pants, casual blouse and running shoes “with some fine clothes in my closet that I never get to wear,” jokes that if your husband tries to bring you here for your anniversary, find a new husband.
“It’s not a destination restaurant; it’s a place to grab a burger and beer. … I have a real appreciation for basic, well-made, easily identifiable food.”
While people in nearby neighborhoods such as Plaza Midwood, NoDa and Country Club Heights feel comfortable there, some from other areas consider it sketchy.
Once solidly working and middle-class, residents saw crime rise and home values fall in past decades. Today, young professionals who want to live close to uptown are renovating old homes, building new ones, and watching property values surge.
“I love it, and I love her,” said Maeve O’Connor, a Charlotte physician and Letty’s newcomer, who came with her husband and young son for brunch, then returned two weeks later. “It feels like everybody is welcome.”
Jimmy King, a musician and former restaurant owner whose ventures include the Penguin and Diamond, discovered Letty’s driving home one day. He stopped in for a drink, spent hours talking with Ketner and now waits tables on Sundays.
“This is old-school for me, like when I first started out,” King said. “The bottom line is, it’s fun.”
“She’s a very strong-willed and a very sweet lady,” King said. “Hell, yeah, I want her to succeed.”
Ketner is thankful for her loyal friends who drive across town and for the ones who ride over on the retirement home bus. And for the neighbors who walk there and the moms who meet for girls’ night out.
“There are days when I get up and say, ‘What was I thinking?’ But there’s a certain sense of freedom in being your own boss,” she said.
It comforts her to look into her dining room and see a happy, chattering multigenerational melting pot.
“I like having the entire spectrum of humankind here.”
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