Comfort food cafe owner turns spatula over to new owner

Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

Portia’s Cafe at 3840 Truman Road is a staple of early morning breakfasts and weekday lunches in Kansas City, and Portia Kilburn is hoping that doesn’t change after her retirement last week.

“I’m scared, excited, and everything in the middle,” Portia told the Northeast News on her last day, Friday, March 3.

She’s run her restaurant on Truman Road for 37 years. But she started her first restaurant in 1980 on Independence Avenue and Benton Boulevard.

Portia has been in the restaurant business her whole life. Before her, her grandma and her mother each had restaurants in the area.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try one.’ So that was it,” Portia said.

Forty-three years later, she’s met many good friends and made regular customers.

“I’ll miss that, a lot, but I’ll be in and out,” Portia said. “I’ll come visit and stuff like that.”

Portia’s Cafe serves typical diner food – classic breakfasts, chicken fried steak, burgers, and so much more. After decades of service, she’s reflecting on the highs and the lows of owning a small business.

“I think I’m on my third generation, yeah. How about that?” Portia said. “Oh, a highlight? Oh, God, just, pretty much just the people. I really liked the people.”

Portia sold the restaurant to a new owner, who said he will keep the staff and keep everything the same.

“He seems to be a really nice man, but outside of that, that’s about all I know about him,” Portia said.

For Portia, there was no big countdown to retirement and no big plans for her now-free days. As for what made her want to retire now, she’s unsure.

“I don’t know, just a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Portia explained. “I mean, I don’t know. I just – there was no really deciding factor – just one day I just said, ‘Okay, that’s it.’”

She’s going to take a few days to settle into retirement and decide how she wants to spend her time. Portia rises at 2 a.m. to open the diner by six, Monday through Friday.

“I probably still will because I’m in the habit of waking up that early,” Portia said.

For someone who doesn’t like to talk about herself, Portia had many visitors in her last few days – once the word got out that she was going to retire.

She lives in the house behind the restaurant, and although she’ll be moving soon, she plans to stay in the neighborhood.

Portia acts like it’s no big deal that she’s retiring, and she doesn’t want anything to have to change.
“I tell them all, ‘Just act like I’m here, but I’m back in the kitchen.’”

She’s confident in her staff, many who have been with her for decades.

“They’re the best,” Portia said. “My sister, Trish, is still out there. She knows everybody that comes in, their names, their kids’ names, what they’re going to eat before they do. Lisa’s been on the grill since she was 19. She knows how they like their food, and if somebody forgets a little something on a ticket, she’s got it. She knows what they eat, how they eat it.”

Trish plans to stick around for a while, along with the other staff.

“There’ll be a lot of help for the guy coming in, absolutely, and he seems like he’s really interested and excited, so that’s good,” Portia said.

Charlie Aiello, known around the neighborhood as Walkin’ Charlie, is a daily visitor to Portia’s. They even have his photo and an article written about him in the Northeast News framed on the wall.

“When he comes in, he looks around, he looks at his picture, then he walks into the dining room and sees who’s all here and makes sure everybody’s where they’re supposed to be,” Portia said. “If there’s any chairs that haven’t been pushed back under the table, he does that.”

“I go up there for food, chicken on Thursday, sometimes she’ll have manager special on Tuesday and it’s a different choice,” Aiello said. “It’s real good up there. The spot was highly recommended, and still is to this day.”

Over the 15 years he’s been a regular at Portia’s, his favorites are the pork chops, lasagna, hamburger steak. spaghetti and meatballs, or Philly cheesesteak sandwiches.

“I think she deserves to retire, she’s been running the restaurant for a long time,” Aiello said. “The ladies and she have been real good to me, and not to not just to me, but to everybody that walks through that door up there, Trisha, Lisa, Kenna, Portia, Danielle, and the dishwasher, the Mexican lady – I don’t know her name – They’re all so nice up there.”

For now, Walkin’ Charlie will remain a loyal customer.

Portia started working in her families’ restaurants over summers and on weekends by age 12.

“My grandma, she started off on Hospital Hill before Truman Hospital was down at the bottom, so that’s back in the mid-to-late 60s,” Portia said. “Then she moved over to Truman Road and Holmes, then when they tore that down, she moved to 18th Street. My mom started on Independence Avenue and Benton Boulevard, then she moved to Prospect for a long time, and then she moved out to Lake Lotawana… That’s always been kind of just what we do.”

Food connects people at Portia’s counter.

“They like to eat, but mostly, how they sit together, a conversation will start up, and this one will start, and that one will start, that person, and before you know it, it’s just happened, they’re friends,” Portia explained, gesturing around the room. “Sometimes they’re as different as day and night that turn out to be.”

Portia used to get a lot of semi truck traffic, but with the bike lanes down Truman Road complicating parking for the big rigs, many have stopped coming. However, business is still steady and that wasn’t a factor in her decision to retire.

“They’re going to take the bike lanes out on the north side, but that’s still not going to help those guys on the south side of the road,” Portia said. “That was poorly planned.”

Portia sees Northeast as a small town within Kansas City, and she’s looked forward to seeing familiar faces every day.

“Oh, it’s great. You run into them while out and you’re like, ‘Okay, I know who that is,’” Portia said. “Just stuff like that all the time, if you’re at the grocery store, you know, it’s just like a small town. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody that comes in here just about knows everybody. So that all works out really great.”

Decades of regular customers from all generations, backgrounds and professions have taken a seat at Portia’s counter. Now, she’s reminiscing on all the good times as she prepares for retirement.

“Anyways, yeah, it’s been fun. It’s been a lot of fun, actually,” Portia said. “Just meeting great people, that’s really been a big deal. The people are all really great, they really have. It is a lot of great memories, it really is. It’s been really nice.”

Portia’s is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, but now her friends can find her on the other side of the counter.

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