The countdown was Saturday. The 2 millionth meal soon would be served. When the downtown Lord’s Diner opened at 5:30 p.m., the goal was just 342 patrons away.
“We’re getting close. We’re almost there,” staff member Paul Cater said after ending a phone call from the diner’s south Wichita location at 2825 S. Hillside, where greeters were also keeping a customer count.
Just before 6 p.m., the count was at seven. Then four. Then two.
Moment later, 53-year-old Sam Benningfield walked through the door at the downtown location, 520 N. Broadway.
“Two million! This is totally unexpected,” he said, smiling wide as he was ushered before a cheering crowd of fellow diners. “Goodness, this is something. I never expected this.”
Wichita’s Lord’s Diner program marked a milestone Saturday by serving its 2 millionth meal. The downtown branch opened on Feb. 13, 2002.
Diner director Jan Haberly said the program, which has three locations and is preparing to debut a fourth, discovered early last week that the landmark meal would likely be served Saturday, provided the average 1,000 to 2,000 patrons per night continued to file in for a free hot meal.
The celebration came a day shy of the date the diner served its 1 millionth dinner: April 27, 2009. The two diner branches are open 5:30-7:30 p.m. 365 days a year. A food truck stationed at Evergreen Recreation Center, near 26th and Arkansas, is open Monday through Thursday from 4:15 to 6 p.m.
“It is exciting,” Haberly said of Saturday’s celebration. “Everybody is happy to be here – to serve others or to be served.”
There is “a lot of gratitude among the diners,” she said. “They wish us blessings back.”
When the applause died down Saturday evening, Haberly asked Benningfield to choose a seat. It would be reserved in his honor each night for the upcoming month.
He settled on a chair in the center of the building, then tipped his chin up and grinned.
“I got my place right underneath the A/C,” he chuckled. “It’s going to get hotter.”
For Benningfield, like many of the patrons who eat regularly at the diner, good luck has been scarce. He followed his wife to Kansas from Texas about two years ago for the birth of a grandchild, he said. Then “we ran into problems.”
There has been no work or home for him since.
When asked about the downtown diner’s mission to serve the hungry, a few tears welled in Benningfield’s eyes.
“A lot of days, it’s the only meal I get to eat. Literally.”
A tray piled with noodles, fruit, hot soup, a sandwich and a chocolate chip cookie sat waiting before him.
“But it’s here for me,” he said. “And so I’m thankful for it.”