Old Mill Tasty Shop’s long life in Wichita is divided into two chapters.
The first one started on March 1, 1932, when German immigrant Otto Woermke and his wife, Erna, opened a little soda fountain specializing in ice cream and simple inexpensive soups and sandwiches. The restaurant survived the Great Depression and downtown Wichita’s decline, always staffed by the congenial white butcher apron-clad Otto until he died in 1981.
The second chapter started in 1982, when then-35-year-old Cheney farm wife and mother of two Mary Wright somewhat reluctantly bought the shut-down restaurant at 604 E. Douglas, partially because she couldn’t stand the thought of its marble soda fountain being ripped out and sold. Chapter two includes an updated menu, an upgraded downtown and new generations of Wichitans discovering the treats produced behind the marble soda fountain.
Old Mill, Wichita’s oldest downtown restaurant, turns 80 on Thursday. The birthday is a milestone that Wright said she wouldn’t have guessed she’d reach 30 years ago.
“I really needed something in my life,” she said. “I didn’t know it was going to take over my life, but I’m glad it did. I’m very glad because I do love it.”
Wright said she first discovered Old Mill when she used to swim at the downtown YMCA with her father. When they finished, they’d always stop in for a bowl of Otto’s famous chili. (Wright is currently on the hunt for the original recipe.)
She had some restaurant experience in her past. Wright’s mother, Doris Shirack, was the longtime manager of the Wall’s Deli at Lincoln and Woodlawn. Wright had opened her own taco restaurant in Augusta, but it lasted a year before her landlord sold the spot to Taco Tico.
When she found out that a real estate friend had access to the shut-down Old Mill in the early 1980s, Wright asked to take a look — just because she was curious. But she had no interest in re-entering the restaurant business, she insisted.
That conviction lasted only until she learned the planned fate of the marble soda fountain.
“Well, that was it,” she said. “I couldn’t stand it. That would have driven me crazy.”
Wright revamped the menu with more updated offerings, including several Southwestern dishes, her specialty. When she opened the doors, she assumed she’d have some time to get things in order before the big crowds started to come. But they were there the first day.
Mary immediately employed the help of her teenage children, Don and Shannon. Though Shannon eventually moved out of state, Don became Mary’s partner in running the restaurant. She jokes that he is the CFO — he handles all the books and money while she focuses on the kitchen. One of the two is always at the restaurant.
Don’s other job at the restaurant is that of unofficial Old Mill historian, a job he gave himself.
For years, he’s been carrying around an old leather case, filled with black-and-white photos, newspaper clippings and aging menus. The contents of the case tell the story of the restaurant’s long life.
A photo of young Otto Woermke, standing outside the shop,1930s-era Chevys waiting at a stoplight in the background. Otto and his wife, Erna, posing behind the marble soda fountain that’s been the restaurant’s centerpiece for eight decades. An old menu that offers 60-cent peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches and 20-cent cups of Sanka.
Copies of the old photos decorate the walls and tables of Old Mill, revealing that it still looks today much like it did in the 1930s — same layout, same tile floor, same stools, same ice cream parlor chairs.
Though many people still fondly remember the Woermkes and their version of the Old Mill, the Wrights have made it their own. The restaurant is now best-known for Mary’s chicken salad, a recipe she inherited from her mother, and for her green chili. Only two of the original menu items remain — liverwurst and a peanut butter banana sandwich.
People feel such a connection to the restaurant that, when the city was considering building the new arena on the block where the Old Mill sits, customers threatened to chain themselves to the building. (Ironically, this year the Wrights were able to add weekend evening hours, thanks to traffic brought downtown by the arena.)
Even after 80 years, lunchtime customers often must crowd into the entrance to wait for a table to free up.
Mary and Don Wright both say that keeping the restaurant going has felt like a duty, but one they’ve been honored to perform.
“We know after 30 years that if we did not do it, someone else will do it,” Mary Wright said. “People are crazy about the Old Mill.”