After more than 50 years, the Downtowner Cafe closed its doors Dec. 17. But Jina Houston, who along with her husband owned the restaurant for more than 18 years, hopes the shut down is temporary.
An investor purchased the restaurant and Jina hopes it will be leased to a new owner as a turn-key operation.
“Our intent was to keep it as is,” she said.
The Houstons sold the restaurant in part to take care of ailing family, but Jina said they were selective about choosing to sell.
In the past few years, she said the pair turned down offers from people who wanted to turn the restaurant into a Mexican or Japanese Steakhouse. The Houstons planned to keep the business for several more years. In the last year, they remodeled the café.
They upgraded the menu, but kept prices the same. And of course, popular breakfasts named after loyal customers stayed on the menu.
Brandy Elliott washed tables and waited on the diner’s final customer on Dec. 17. The cafe boasted a staff of two – Elliott and Jina — in its waning days. The last customer said he was very sad the restaurant was closing.
“It’s the best food in Gardner,” he said as he paid his bill.
Elliott said most of the Downtowner’s customers were regulars – many of them retirees who started their mornings drinking coffee and discussing events of the day.
“They b.s. and joke around,” Elliott said.
Though the restaurant changed hands, the customers remained largely unchanged. It was uncommon not to find the former Chief of Police Ken Francis sharing coffee with regulars each morning with people like Dude Cordell. Dude was a daily fan of Dude’s Breakfast, a popular menu item.
Neldor Hart opened the Downtowner Caféeon Mother’s Day in 1957. Originally, it was located where Ken’s Swap N Shop, at 140 E. Main Street, is today. She moved the diner to its present location, at 108 S. Elm Street, shortly thereafter, and ran the restaurant for more than 25 years.
“That’s what the old timers told me,” Jina explained.
When Hart sold it, the diner went through a series of owners. The owner of an Olathe Bed and Breakfast purchased the café, and his daughter, Cathy Cordell ran the restaurant for another nine years.
Eventually, Jina’s brother-in-law, Bob Houston, purchased the restaurant. Jina and her husband Jim purchased the restaurant from Bob on Nov. 23, 1996.
Jina and Jim are the second-longest owners of the restaurant. Hart owned it for more than 25 years. The Houstons clock in at more than 18.
The diner showcases Gardner history. Newspaper clippings and old photographs dot the walls of the café. Some of the articles feature the Downtowner, other clippings feature editorials about things like gun control and letters to the editor praising Downtowner regulars.
One wall has what looks almost like a class composite. Several photos of individuals are lined up and sit in a number of different frames.
Jina said Dr. Thomen Reece took the photos of customers and business owners in downtown Gardner in 1962.
“And they’ve been here ever since,” Jina said.
For now, Jina will leave everything on the walls, with the hopes that whoever leases the restaurant will want to keep them there.
“The pictures, I am responsible for until someone leases them,” she said. “If (the leaser) doesn’t want them, I will make sure whose names are the back of the pictures, gets them.”
Many of the home-made foods will continue to be available, as Jina plans to do some catering. She’s hopeful the regulars will eventually be able to drink coffee and share a meal at the Downtowner Cafe again.
“I did my best to see to it that that happens,” she said. “We really appreciate all the regular customers and I just can’t thank them enough. The last two days have been very hard.”