Published October 28th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
After reading positive reviews on Yelp, Brandon Wells decided to drive 15 minutes out of his way in rush-hour traffic on a Friday to pick up dinner at African Dream Cuisine.
“I said let me see what all the hype is about,” says Wells, a director at the U.S. Protective Services, a uniformed police division under the Department of Homeland Security.
As soon as he entered the doors of Lenexa Public Market, the aromas reminded Wells, who is Congolese, of home.
Husband-wife team Neba Ngwa and Stella Musongong grew up in Cameroon. Together they run African Dream Cuisine, a compact 12-foot stall barely big enough for two to do a culinary dance while prepping an array of traditional menu items.
The stall’s façade is a buffet table with seven trays containing smoked chicken, smoked pork (both types of meat cooked on a smoker outside of the City Center library), Kongla fried rice (named for Musongong’s mother), sauteed cabbage, Banso potatoes, fried sweet plantains, puff-puff (similar to deep-fried doughnut holes) and “dream sauce,” a mild bell pepper sauce with a “flavorful but slow heat” version available on request.
Wells skips the $13.99 one-serving buffet and orders fufu, a starchy ball of savory dough which is typically broken off in pieces and used to scoop up egusi, a tasty soup of pumpkin seeds, spinach and smoked chicken.
“Don’t be afraid to get yourself a little bit messy,” he says with a laugh when asked for tips on the best way to eat fufu.
While Ngwa and Musongong are flattered their cooking is attracting attention from Africans living in Kansas City, they are eager to reach beyond the diaspora.
“We don’t cook for Africans, we cook for people,” says Musongong, a nurse who recently left her job to help Ngwa run the business full-time.
Not long after Wells is on his way out the door, Ngwa gets a thumbs up from first-time diner Odin Smith of Lenexa. Wearing a Chiefs jersey, 10-year-old Odin eagerly spoons tender hunks of pork and fried rice dotted with carrots and peas into a Styrofoam container, later saying he wished he had served himself more rice.
“It was awesome!” says Odin, who headed to African Dream Cuisine after remarking on the savory aromas to his mother, Debbie Smith.
A repeat diner who prefers eating less meat, Debbie says the buffet allows her to choose vegetarian options, while dishes listed on the two electronic menu boards also include dairy-free and gluten-free options.
Lenexa Public Market, 8750 Penrose Lane, is owned and operated by the City of Lenexa. The 11,000-square-foot market is part of City Center, a 200-acre mixed-use district of shopping, restaurants, entertainment venues, offices, apartments, and hotels located along Interstate 435.
Faced with an inability to grow the historic Lenexa downtown due to space constraints, two decades ago city planners began designing a new gathering place by incorporating civic, recreational, retail and higher education in a walkable neighborhood.
Lenexa Public Market opened five years ago at the height of a national food hall craze. To distinguish food hall fare from mall food courts, developers created a modern space attractive to those seeking memorable local food experiences. The market was the first food hall to open in Kansas City and has proven to be an important economic driver.
“The public market concept has overachieved beyond our wildest expectations. It’s created a little microcosm of what the world should be,” says Lenexa Mayor Mike Boehm, who recently received a statewide award for excellence in government from the League of Kansas Municipalities.
Current tenants include Sohaila’s Kitchen (Indian and Pakistani), Red Kitchen KC (Mexican), The Tasting Room (wine), Cosmo Burger, Butterfield’s Bakery & Market, Topp’d Pizza + Salads and Mr. D’s Coffee.
The mix of tenants at the market and the surrounding City Center offers a “very unique flavor profile of competing and complementary food choices,” Boehm adds.
The biggest success story to come out of Lenexa Public Market to date is Chewology, an Asian noodle and dumpling concept. After more than four years at the market, owner/chef Katie Liu-Sung made the leap to a full-service restaurant in Westport.
Lenexa Public Market offers spaces at an affordable rate, providing first-time entrepreneurs eager to test their concept of affordable incubator space. Merchants apply for permanent stalls, short-term stalls or pop-ups in the mezzanine-level kitchen overlooking the market floor. Monthly rents are calculated on a percentage of monthly sales.
“The cool thing for first-time business owners is that you can literally start with a warming tray and give folks a chance to try new flavors to see if they enjoy your food,” Boehm says. “They can wade into the shallow end and go into the deep end as far as they want. If a concept doesn’t work, they haven’t bet their life on it.”
First-time business owners also benefit from the market manager’s expertise, starting with pop-up events then moving to a few days a week as they learn business basics, such as how to file the appropriate licenses, pay taxes, handle personnel issues and refine their marketing strategies.
“What I had starting out was just an idea on paper, and I could talk about it. I explained the vision and (the market manager) got it. She (was) good at getting a vision and moving it to the next stage,” says Ngwa, a passionate salesman for his brand, which may one day include African fashion, jewelry, antiques and handicrafts.
During summer visits to her grandmother’s village, Musongong recalls her frustration when her brothers were allowed to play outside but she was expected to work in the kitchen.
Despite her protestations, Musongong’s grandmother simply smiled and replied, “One day you’re going to tell me thank you.”
Musongong recalls trips to the market, learning to make a traditional three-stone cooking fire, roasting ears of corn and talking for hours. And how to make her grandmother’s favorite dish — fufu with okra.
“Neba would always say, ‘This is so good, this is so good, I think we can market this,’” says Musongong, who met her husband in high school.
African Dream Cuisine got its start with pop-ups in the public kitchen space in 2019. By 2021, the concept was ready to move into a permanent stall.
But there’s always more to learn.
Ngwa and Musongong initially considered closing their stall on Sunday and Monday but instead chose to close Tuesday and Wednesday after realizing Monday is their most profitable day of the week.
The couple is currently advertising to hire their first employee as their hours and menu have expanded to include unique breakfast items – spaghegg (fried eggs with spaghetti) or sweet and savory krepegg, a fried egg wrap with, of course, their signature dream sauce.
“We’re grateful to America to live this dream,” Musongong says of their entrepreneurial journey. “There’s no other place this could happen. And the people of Lenexa are great people. To own your own business, this is the dream. I am a homeowner, a business owner. What else do I want?”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. In the past, she has consulted with Chewology and Red Kitchen KC. You can follow Silva at @jillsilvafood.