Dining With Denise Neil

Want a sweeter, slower life in the Flint Hills? She has a deal for you

Wanted:

A millennial from California who dreams of a simpler life and would be happy running a bakery and Pioneer Woman-esque market in a tiny town in Kansas’ scenic Flint Hills.

Or maybe a family who wants to get the kids out of the city and would be interested in slowing things down and opening a destination barbecue joint or steak house.

Rent: Negotiable.

Housing: Available.

Potential: Endless.

Judy Mills, who has spent her entire adult life in the Flint Hills, says she’s ready to retire. She wants to spend her days in her renovated stone house on her Marion County ranch with her husband, Randy.

She loves her Flint Hills Market & Bakery, the quaint business she opened on Main Street in Florence – a town of about 425 people that sits 53 miles northeast of Wichita – a year and a half ago in the town’s historic opera house.

But she can’t run it any more. Her main baker is moving on, and she doesn’t have the desire to search for another one.

Judy also recognizes what she’s not: A social media expert who can get the business, which people from across the region drive miles and miles to visit, the kind of recognition it deserves.

“I’m not afraid of work,” she said. “That’s not the issue. If I were 25 or 30 years younger, I wouldn’t consider throwing in the towel. I could find someone to train and we could make this place to where buses were pulling up in front.”

But Judy is 72, and she’s done.

So at the end of business on Saturday, Judy will close the doors on the three-story beauty that she and her husband spent four years renovating.

That doesn’t mean she’s given up on it, though. Judy is still hoping for a miracle in the form of a baker, barbecue master or steak aficionado who wants to run a business in a beautiful building in a tiny town in the Flint Hills.

“My husband has been saying for quite a while, ‘Honey, pull the shades and lock the doors,” she said. “But I have not wanted to do it. I keep thinking there’s potential here.”

Preserving Main Street

Judy is the only child of F.W. Strait, an El Dorado oilman who in the 1950s started a 6,000 acre ranch in Marion County as a hobby and a weekend retreat.

She married Randy Mills – an executive with Radio Corporation of America – and moved to Indiana. But in 1969, the couple moved back to Kansas to learn the ranch business. Judy inherited the property when her father died.

“The ranch began to grow, and we made a full-time business of it,” she said.

They bought and remodeled the historic limestone house built in 1882 by Marion County’s original settler, Patrick Doyle, and eventually decided to rename the property the Doyle Creek Land & Cattle Company. Today, it is encompasses three ranches in Butler, Marion and Chase counties.

In 2005, Judy opened a gift shop, Doyle Creek Mercantile, on Main Street in Florence, a straight shot from her house. The couple also set up the ranch business offices in the building. They added a massive party room to the back of the shop, and occasionally, they’d open up for popular “steak nights.”

The limestone opera house, the gem of Florence, always sat catty corner to Judy’s gift shop, and she loved it. She loved the story about its history – about how the 800-seat upstairs theater had opened in 1884 with a production of a play called “We’re All Teetotalers,” attracting women dressed in fine French gowns. She loved the dramatic staircase that led upstairs and the original sign perched on the top of the building that read “Opera.”

In its more recent life, a little town grocery store operated on the bottom floor. But in 2008, the owner decided to close the store and approached Judy and Randy to see if they’d like to buy the building.

“He felt like we would be the only ones who would preserve the building and maybe bring some life back to it,” she said. “We really didn’t know what we were going to do with it.”

They launched a four-year renovation project that included adding a new facade, a paint job that highlighted the opera sign and a total gutting of the interior. Judy, who has a retail marketing and interior design degree from Kansas State University, decorated the store with antiques she’d collected over the years, including vintage stoves, pie safes and carts. She filled the floor with shelving she’d salvaged from a school in El Dorado and re-purposed massive windmill blades from the ranch into dramatic ceiling fans.

Judy said her husband thought the town really needed a grocery store, so they settled on the market/bakery/cafe concept. Judy found a young woman who wanted to run it and helped her get started. The new business opened in August 2015.

But the partnership went sour, and the Flint Hills Market & Bakery closed in March 2016. Judy reopened it six weeks later, moving her gift shop merchandise over and stocking the shelves with the type of name brand organic groceries you’d find at Wichita health food stores. She hired some employees to help her out, including Sherri Austin and Calib Mallory.

Most important, she said, she hired Rachel Koehn of Burns Cafe fame to fill the bakery. Koehn had run the popular cafe in nearby Burns for 20 years before closing the doors. But her pies and cinnamon rolls were already Kansas legend. For the past year, she and her daughter, Samantha, have worked for Judy baking their famous pies, whose crusts feature a perfect sugar crunch, as well as giant cookies and quick breads. (They can’t keep the rhubarb bread on the shelves). They’ve also served sandwiches on homemade bread and pizzas and bierocks made with their own dough.

Customers would fill the mismatched antique tables and chairs in the dining area at lunchtime, and people would drive from El Dorado, Emporia, Manhattan, Cottonwood Falls and Peabody to pick up baked goods and browse the gifts. The shop also has been providing the pies served at nearby Ad Astra, a popular restaurant in Strong City.

Things were moving along pretty smoothly. Then, Sami Koehn got a call from Michigan.

Sami, 20, bakes in the restaurant four or five days a week and serves as the cafe’s manager. Her mother, Rachel, bakes one one or two days a week. But Sami applied two years ago for a volunteer service spot, which is an important rite of passage in a young Mennonite’s life. She finally heard from a hospital in Michigan that she would be needed on May 1.

Rachel told Judy she’d happily continue baking one day a week, but she couldn’t take over all the shifts.

Judy said she took it as a sign.

If Sami’s last day was coming, so was hers. So was the bakery’s.

The search for the right person

Judy is sure she has to close the store. But some days, she has second thoughts.

One of those days was Good Friday. Judy had closed the store for the holiday, but a woman called wanting pies for Easter. Judy met her at the store for pickup. The woman, who told Judy she’d driven the 30 miles from Newton, said she loved the store’s baked goods and nothing else would do. “Please don’t ever close,” the woman said.

“I thought, ‘She’s not driving here because she can shop at Wal-Mart while she’s here or can shop at the hardware store while she’s here,’ ” Judy said. “ ‘Someone’s driving here just specifically to get pies and cinnamon rolls.’ And I thought, ‘That’s an example of how, if this place is really good, people will come. A destination store would work if more people knew about us.’”

Judy and her husband want to keep the building. But their hope is that someone qualified will appear at the door, wanting to run the place.

If that person appears, Judy said, he or she can turn the business into anything they want. It doesn’t have to be a grocery store and deli. Another type of restaurant or shop could work, too, she said.

The perfect candidate would have some cash to get started, and maybe a vision for renovating the upstairs opera house into a banquet room or destination party space they could rent for weddings.

If that person had real drive, they could turn one or both of the top two floors into their home. Even Judy’s original gift shop across the street has an apartment attached, she said.

She’s willing to negotiate with the right person, who must be someone who can appreciate the simplicity of living in a small town where their only fellow businesses are a flower shop, a gas station and a semi truck repair business.

Ideally, they’d have some business sense, value a hard day’s work, understand how to use social media and be able to appreciate the quiet beauty of the Flint Hills’ sunsets and bluestem pastures.

What will she do if she can’t find that person?

“I don’t know,” Judy said. “I’ll cry a lot. These little towns are dying.”

Flint Hills Market & Bakery

Where: 423 Main St., Florence

Contact : 620-878-4567

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