COLUMBIA — The smell in Miss Lous’ Restaurant at 11:15 a.m. Friday is deep, potent, almost heady. The rice, beans, fried chicken and seafood merge in the air with the cleaning products sprayed all over by a hyperactive Willie Smith.
“This feels like game day preparation: When the pressure’s on, I’m always at my best," says Smith, a former MU basketball player. "This is so much fun."
Smith, who was drafted by the Chicago Bulls after a stunning season that brought him All-American honors in 1976, is still a team player. His new team consists of his wife and daughter, who are together on a new adventure — the restaurant they opened Friday at 4515 Range Line St. in northern Columbia.
“We are helping each other,” Margarit Smith, Willie's wife, says.
Surrounded by pans, smoking pots, jars full of olives, carrot bags and fryers, Willie Smith bubbles over with energy and charisma. He’s not the star this time, though — nor does he want to be.
“She’s the boss,” he says, pointing at his daughter, Tiffiny, 33, who shrugs and acts like she doesn't hear.
“This is my daughter's dream," Willie Smith says.
His wife formerly owned a dry-cleaning business; now, all of the family’s effort is directed to achieve Tiffiny’s goal.
She's a little more modest than her father, saying opening a restaurant has been something the whole family has long wanted to do.
“We’ve been working on this for probably the past three months,” she says.
Though her expression conveys an underlying insecurity about the new project, her face and body language reflect a stronger sense of ambition and pride.
Tiffiny’s father, however, is confident in his daughter's abilities.
“She's got all the skills,” Smith says. “I know there are other places in town and I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I think we are the real thing.”
The activity in the kitchen is frenetic. Sentences, shouts and commands intersect, making it difficult to keep a conversation.
“Do you want some sauce with that?”
“Is that rice cooked already?”
“Where did you put the dressing?"
However, the atmosphere is not tense — it's filled with expectations.
Customers, mostly all friends of the Smith family, keep coming in. A charismatic and warm Willie Smith greets and thanks every single one of them, with a pan in one hand and cleaning spray in the other.
Bill Kassmann and his grandson were the first ones to show up, right after 11:30 a.m., about 30 minutes before Miss Lous’ officially opened. Kassmann has known the Smiths since before he can remember.
“They told me they were opening a restaurant. You could say that I was surprised. And here I am,” Kassmann says.
As he finishes a plate of red beans and rice from the buffet, Kassmann, who has never eaten the Smiths' cooking before Friday, pronounces the food “good, so far.” His shy and curious grandson, whom Smith coached in basketball, nods and puts another spoonful in his mouth.
Willie Smith is aware of the tradition of the venue, the site of the historical Old Haden, also known as Haden House. “When I played (basketball at MU), we had some of our pre-game meals here,” says Smith, who remembers it as one of the most highly regarded restaurants in Columbia in the 1970s.
The old kitchen door remains open as former basketball players, friends and hungry customers taste the day's specialties. While the smell of boiling coffee fights its way through the cloud of spices and lemon juice, Tiffiny Smith, confined to the kitchen, can hear her father ask everyone if they’ve tried “the best fried chicken in town.”
Smith, who says his economic situation hasn’t been ideal lately, says he owes a great deal to Karon Rowe, who owns the property. Rowe and Willie Smith met through their accountant. It was, as he puts it, “like one of those date-matching things."
“I give her all the praise and credit," Smith says of Rowe. "She don’t need us. We need her.”
The Smiths hope to show Rowe, a “philanthropist” in Smith’s mind, that she was not wrong in trusting them to open a restaurant at the same place where the Old Haden once was located.
“Our goal is to bring back that reputation, and that’s going to be a challenge. But you know, so what?” Willie Smith says.
"This may or may not work, but it's an opportunity for us," he says. "If you believe in destiny, this is it."