Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Sparetime's Belly & Soul Diner Serves Up Memorable Food With a Heaping Side of Love

Christa and Kevin Klein, who run Sparetime's Belly & Soul Diner.

Many are familiar with the iconic 1950s-style diner six miles down the street from Northern Kentucky University. What many may not know is how much it's changed. Once a beloved "boys club-type" country diner (offering classics such as biscuits and gravy), Sparetime's Belly & Soul Diner now offers traditional fare in addition to fun twists on favorites (such as their Root Beer Burger made with house-made root beer glaze, onion straws and blue cheese crumbles, or their Power Crunch Salad with grilled chicken, kale and avocado).

Kevin Klein's "Root Beer Burger," featuring house-made root beer glaze, onion straws and blue cheese crumbles.

But it's not just the food that's different. Or the overhauled decor. Or the fact that they now serve liquor (craft beers, mimosas and Bloody Marys, along with specials such as raspberry martinis for Valentine's Day). It's the overriding theme of service—of giving, sharing and paying it forward, done daily and not vaguely. It's service that connects customers and community, especially via the diner's Pay It Forward window.

The Pay It Forward window promotes acts of kindness within the community.

How does it work?

Customers can buy anything—a burger, a cup of coffee, a piece of pie—for someone else. After telling their server, they grab a Post-it note and on it write who they'd like to receive their gift. Sparetime's window is filled with gifts:

• $5 off to a single mom (along with a note that says, "It will be OK").
• A burger for a firefighter.
• A piece of pie for a little girl with pigtails.
• A free meal for a mimi, from a fellow mimi.
• $5 off to someone who has a loved one who passed away in April, from someone whose husband passed away in April.

While many people will pull a note that fits them off the window, many others are a bit more shy about it. So Kevin Klein, who leases the space and now operates the diner along with his wife, Christa, pays attention. If it becomes clear you're a single mom, Kevin will step away from cooking, pull the matching note off the window and quietly place it in front of you. If he overhears a conversation and learns you're a vet or a teacher or a childcare worker or anything that might fit a note, he'll give it to you.

"Tell her about the cancer one," Christa says to her husband.

"I don't know if I can without tearing up," Kevin says.



But he does. The note was for a cancer survivor. A 12-year-old girl plucked it from the window, ecstatic. Kevin turns his head, tearing up.

Bags of food ready to be given to those who are homeless.

The Kleins' love of service goes far beyond the Pay It Forward window. But first, some background:

Chester Alford opened The Spare Time Grill in 1958. His son, Roy, ran it for 20-plus years and then Roy's son, Tony, ran it for 24 years. (Fun fact: The diner has appeared in two movies, "Fresh Horses" in 1972 and "Carol" in 2014.) For a short period of time the diner served candy and ice cream, but that concept closed in Spring 2016. That same spring, Kevin saw a new "for lease" sign pop up. He immediately pulled into the diner's driveway and called the number. The Kleins met with the Alfords the next day. They shared their vision, their dream. The Alfords gave the Kleins time to remodel, and didn't ask for a dime until the day they opened. Sparetime's Belly & Soul Diner opened August 2016.

This was a new path for the Kleins, a new career—a big change.

Christa, who grew up south of Alexandria, grew up in the restaurant business. Her family owned Ingram's Restaurant, across the street from Campbell County High School. It closed when US 27 was widened. These days she works full-time in sales for Humana, as she's done for 19 years. She travels a lot during the week, but you can find her at the diner most every weekend.

Kevin, who grew up on the West side of Cincinnati, owned a roofing company for 20-plus years. Kevin and Christa married 5-1/2 years ago, and they each have two daughters. When Kevin retired from roofing, he quickly realized he wasn't cut out to be a stay-at-home-dad to four teens. (Today their daughters are 19, 19, 17 and 16.) So he went to culinary school, The Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State, and worked at McHale's Events and Catering, and as a line cook at several places in OTR, including Zula and the Mercer.

The iconic diner has been a local favorite since 1958.

The Kleins weren't actively looking for a restaurant when the diner's "for lease" sign popped up. But they had both always joked about it. "It's such a cool place," Christa says. "We always said if it ever goes up for sale, we would jump on it." 

Now, with a mix of traditional favorites and fare you might find in OTR, the diner caters to a more diverse clientele. Christa and Kevin tell the story of a longtime customer who recently noted that every single stool at the counter was occupied by women—"boys club" no more. Now they have, for example, a group of women who stop by every Friday, after their yoga class, for breakfast and mimosas.

The Kleins employ about 15 people, mostly high schoolers and some college students in need of part-time jobs. They clearly know how to have fun, as is exemplified in their menu and in who they are, always smiling, conversing and being silly with those who stop by.

But they also know the importance of service.

Both Christa and Kevin, members of Crossroads church, have a background in mission work. Christa was working through the church's BRAVE journey, a six-week, small-group, spiritual journey, and lamenting the fact that she was no longer doing mission work. Between work and their four daughters, life was just busy. A friend noted that service doesn't have to be done on mission trips overseas. Rather service can start small, and anywhere.

While not in the diner, the Kleins are often on the streets, passing out meals and goods to those who need them.

So Christa and Kevin came up with the Pay It Forward window. And they developed a nonprofit, Belly & Soul Blessings. Twice a month they pass out 70-plus bagged meals to those who are homeless, meeting them across the river on 3rd street, by the stadium.

Customers frequently bring in items to be passed on to the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky. (They will gladly accept new white socks and gently used blankets, should you like to bring some in the next time you're craving a burger.)

The Kleins also work with Family Promise of Northern Kentucky, a sheltering program specifically designed for families. (Once a month they invite hosted families to Sparetime and feed them for free.)

They also help out Campbell County Middle School, which lost a grant that benefited its after-school program. So working with The Bridge Community Church (which is across the street from Sparetime), the Kleins frequently feed about 45 kids after school.

Thank-you cards from Campbell County Middle School students who participate in the after-school program.

But what's, perhaps, especially poignant about all of this is that it's not just the Kleins who are serving. Rather the Kleins, through Sparetime, have created a community of service that is far-reaching. An example: At Christmas, the Kleins put up a giving tree for the kids in the Campbell County Middle School's after-school program. Initially, Christa worried they would be left with a lot of tags to fulfill, which had a minimum of $25 on each tag. The tags were gone in two days. They had a huge party at The Bridge, providing a meal for 70 to 80 families, and a lot of gifts. For some families, it was the only Christmas they had last year.

While Sparetime is profitable, the Kleins say they aren't in it for the money. Running a restaurant can wear on you quickly, and both Christa and Kevin value time with their family. They're slowly rolling out evening hours, but on an "occasional" basis. And during holidays? They simply close for a week, dedicating that time to family.

So this weekend, forget the chain restaurant. Drive down US 27 for your favorite Kentucky brunch dish, or try something you can't get at a chain, such as the "27 South Hash," featuring goetta hash with two eggs on top, or the new bison burger coming soon. And consider contributing to the Pay It Forward window. Or if you're having a hard time (or happen to have pigtails), enjoy someone else's generosity. (Items are gifted to specific individuals, too: Mr. May, there's a cup of coffee waiting for you. And Kip, there's a "27 South Hash" with your name on it.)

Located at 7807 Alexandria Pike, hours are 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. They're closed on Mondays. Check Facebook for specials and occasional evening hours.

Although some days it may not seem like it, there's a lot of love in this world. You just have to know where to look for it.

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