From dance to food, Ki Holcomb found path to restaurateur
Ki Holcomb used to enjoy pampering her regular customers at Ki’s Restaurant by remembering their preferences and adding extra avocado for this one, a little more cheese for that one. She loved her customers, calling them her “regs,” and tried to get to know everyone, including even occasional diners and newcomers.
“A lot of people thought of her as a second mom,” said her daughter-in-law, and manager of Ki’s, Lorraine Harland.
So, for many, it was especially sad when Ki Boylan Holcomb died on March 18, just a few hours after Saint Patrick’s Day. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years before she died of natural causes. But her legacy of caring by creating delicious and healthy food in an entertaining atmosphere carries on.
Born in 1925, Holcomb, who was one of six children and whose name was actually Katherine, got her nickname from her sister Betty. The girls were called “Irish twins” because they were only nine months apart in age. Betty was unable to pronounce Katherine, so she called her Kiki, which was shorted to Ki and rhymes with hi.
Holcomb was a “depression baby” and only 3 years old when her father discovered she could sing. Before long, she was performing in restaurants and bars. Her father died when she was 12 and her mother soon followed, passing away when Holcomb was 15 years old. She continued to help support the family by singing.
As a young woman, she became a dance instructor at Arthur Murray. When she met a handsome young man named Jim on the subway, she suggested he take lessons. It wasn’t long before he mastered the steps and joined her as an instructor. They married after a whirlwind six-week romance on Valentine’s Day, 1947.
Professionally, they were moving up the ladder in Arthur Murray, going on the road to set up new dance studios and training managers and instructors. By then, the couple had four children. They decided to settle down in Columbus, Ohio, where Jim started a business and Ki stayed home to raise their children. Their house became the go-to spot for all the kids in the neighborhood, especially at dinnertime.
The family moved to Del Mar in the 1970s, when Jim was completing his doctorate in clinical psychology. The kids were grown and Ki found she was ready for a new endeavor. After finishing college at San Diego State, she became intrigued by the California lifestyle. It sparked her interest in healthy eating. After a stint of working at Henry’s in Solana Beach, she decided to open her own shop, creating Ki’s Juice Bar when she was 55 years old.
She was the only employee, carrying organic produce and vitamins. But her smoothies turned out to be a big hit and that one menu item snowballed into sandwiches, then the 13 veggie stew, which she made on a hotplate. Produce bins soon had to make way for tables as customers clamored for her dishes, and when her son Barry Holcomb built a kitchen in the back of the store, Ki’s really took off.
But for some reason, people always thought Ki’s was a vegetarian restaurant. Harland said it was because back in the 1980s, when whole-foods eating was still relatively new, people didn’t understand it and just called it vegetarian, although the restaurant has always had meat on the menu. In fact, Ki Holcomb was a pioneer of the “farm to table” concept, as the restaurant only uses ingredients which are organically raised through practices that are ecologically sound and humane.
This love of food brought together Barry and Lorraine, who met through food service and married. Subsequently, they joined the family business, which moved to the current location on Coast Highway 101 in Cardiff on October 1, 1994.
Lorraine said she remembers the date because “it was the day our daughter was born.”
Barry started to assume many of the responsibilities of the restaurant in the new location as Ki’s interests were expanding and her life was thriving. She began teaching dance again, this time to seniors. She also performed in local musicals. Husband Jim took a big band class at MiraCosta College, where he connected with likeminded musicians and formed a band called Ki’s Guys. Ki began singing at the restaurant on Monday nights to their accompaniment. The group released a CD in 2003.
Around that time, Ki’s health began to decline. Her dementia started to become evident, although she was still able to work and greet her beloved customers. She stopped working around five years ago. She was able to stay at home until 2012, when she moved to a full-time care facility before she died. She is survived by her husband, Jim Holcomb, to whom she was married for 66 years, and their four children, Phil, Janet, Tim and Barry, as well as several grandchildren.
Helen Hawes is a North County freelance writer