Mama Tio’s — a place where customers ‘grew up’ — to close in south Kansas City

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Here’s a look at what’s happening in the Kansas City-area restaurant scene in April. Most opening dates are tentative and can be pushed by delays in construction, licensing and other issues.
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Here’s a look at what’s happening in the Kansas City-area restaurant scene in April. Most opening dates are tentative and can be pushed by delays in construction, licensing and other issues.

They’ve been coming in all week, some in tears, since the news broke.

Mama Tio’s, a Marlborough mainstay for four decades, is closing.

For its loyal patrons, some in the fifth generation, this south Kansas City Mexican restaurant is much more than a place to eat. It’s a place where they met their girlfriend or boyfriend, had their first date, wedding reception or just weekly dinner at “their” table.

It’s a place where employees and even other customers knew their name. Some regulars said they “grew up” in the restaurant.

“It’s been so crazy. Last night there was a two hour wait. All week it has been goodbye,” said current owner Michael McCoy, son of the founder, on Wednesday. “A lot of tears shed by customers. It means a lot to us, but it really means a lot to them.”

Mike McCoy opened the restaurant in May 1979. And there it has remained, with two of its original cooks — Henry Cutchlow and William Carter — serving up such favorites as sancho supreme, enchiladas and the 3-pound burrito known as the Conquistador.

He had been in restaurant industry since he was a teenager, starting at the bottom washing dishes and bussing tables. He was only 18 years old when he briefly moved to Oklahoma City to manage an IHOP and returned to Kansas City to open one of his own.

Then came the idea for Mama Tio’s at a time when Mexican cuisine wasn’t so easy to find in Kansas City. His cooks came up with the recipes.

“He loved being around people and he wanted to open his own restaurant, using his own ideas,” Michael McCoy said. “This was his life, he was here every day. This was everything to him.”

Customers dubbed him the “the mayor of Marlborough.”

April Fools’ jokes were his specialty. He once moved a friend’s new car out of the parking lot and around the corner, leaving only broken glass in its parking spot. He got a gas station owner to print out a fake $1 million Powerball ticket — but with the words April Fools on the backside — and gave it to a server. She called nearly everyone she knew to let them know of her windfall before he let her in on the joke. Customers were mad at Mike McCoy but felt so sorry for the server they were extra generous with their tips that day.

In the mid-1980s, Mama Tio’s got on the wrong side of the “Coke police.” When a customer ordered a Coke, the server poured her a cold Red Rock cola instead. But this was no ordinary customer, it was trademark research examiner. She sent a sample of the drink off to Atlanta. Courts had said if customers ask for a Coke, the server must ask if they would take another brand of cola instead.

Mama Tio’s vowed never to serve the brand. Now customers can order Pepsi.

Customers eagerly looked for a Mama Tio’s promotional mailings — spin the roulette wheel for 10% to 100% off their order.

“They would love to watch my dad squirm when it got to 100%. But he always enjoyed that,” Michael McCoy said. “They were family.”

When two women had a commitment ceremony, before same-sex marriage was legal, they held their reception at Mama Tio’s. As a thank you, one of the women created a mosaic Mama Tio’s mural. It still hangs over what was once the serve-yourself chip bar — no longer offered because of health department rules.

tio’s mural.JPG
This mosaic was a gift from a customer who held her wedding reception at Mama Tio’s. Joyce Smith

Murals line the north wall of the dining room with scenes of the Country Club Plaza, Union Station and Mama Tio’s. A customer has already bought one as a souvenir.

In the 1980s, place mats featured photos of regulars. They were the forerunners of its current tabletops, each one with a different theme and held in place under epoxy. One features the Kansas City Royals 1985 World Series win, while another features happy diners, some who have since passed.

Mama Tio’s is “making memories” for their customers, one diner said this week.

Another fan posted on the Mama Tio’s Facebook page: “As Maya Angelou said, people will forget what you said, and what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Mama Tio’s — you made all of us feel very special. Thank you and we will miss you.”

Dennis Hammontree’s plumbing shop was down the street and he would stop by for tacos and beer at lunch. He relocated to northeast Kansas City in 1984, but still makes the drive for dinner a couple of nights a week with his wife. He remembers when the boys — Michael and his brother Mark — played T-Ball and still calls Michael McCoy “Mikey.”

Over the years Hammontree became “good close friends” with their father, even bowling in the same leagues and taking a few trips when the patriarch felt like “all his i’s were dotted and t’s crossed.”

“And he was on call. If there were any problems they would call him immediately,” Hammontree said.

Before the casinos came to town Mama Tio’s would often fill up “wall to wall, you had to take a number.”

“It’s not what you would call a top of the line place. It’s a hole in the wall. But it’s a homey place,” he said. “I love the tacos, the wings, the tenderloins. They pretty much have something to keep you happy. I’m going to be really sorry to see it close.”

Michael McCoy beams when he tells someone how the restaurant is often a trivia question on area radio shows: “What’s the only restaurant on the Paseo?”

He was born just a few months before the restaurant opened at 8026 Paseo (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.) Michael and his younger brother often helped out when someone called in sick.

Michael later earned degrees in history and economics, then worked as a financial adviser in Indiana before returning to the Kansas City in 2002. His father talked him into helping out “for a bit.” He’s been there ever since.

His brother Mark opened a Mama Tio’s downtown in 2011, but their father passed away from liver cancer that year, just shortly after he was diagnosed. The Town Pavilion location will remain open.

Michael McCoy, who never planned a restaurant career, has a staff of seven good employees including two original chefs Henry Cutchlow and William Carter , but he needs more than twice that.

“I can’t find enough good employees. It’s tough when you care so much for something and other people don’t,” he said.

Customers dine below murals of famous Kansas City sites — from the Plaza to Mama Tio’s. Joyce Smith

Mama Tio’s will close Friday night. On Saturday McCoy will sell its wares starting at 8 a.m. McCoy said the new owner said it will not be a restaurant.

He plans to help his wife in their Excelsior Springs K-9 Clips pet grooming business.

“I enjoyed working with my dad. We were super close and that’s why I stayed,” he said. “That was my dream job to work with my father every day.“

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Joyce Smith has covered restaurant and retail news for The Star since 1989 under the brand Cityscape. She appreciates news tips.