Melissa Atkinson officially began carrying on a family tradition Wednesday.
The great granddaughter of Andy Livingston, who opened Wichita’s first Livingston’s Cafe in 1910 at 310 N. Emporia, now owns Jeanne’s Cafe at Lincoln Heights Village and is renaming it Livingston’s Cafe.
“That means so much to me,” Atkinson says of the name.
“Nothing’s going to change but the name on the sign,” she says. “It’s just important for me to carry on the family Livingston tradition, and it’s what my dad wanted.”
Bob Livingston died in 2012. His wife, Jeanne Shaft, continued to run Jeanne’s Cafe at Douglas and Oliver and Livingston’s Diner on Webb Road just north of Central.
“It’s been difficult running two without Bob here,” Shaft says. “And Melissa’s interested and ready.”
Shaft will continue to own and operate Livingston’s Diner, but she says she’s happy Atkinson is taking the other restaurant.
“It’s time to pass the baton to the next generation,” Shaft says. “I am so glad it’s staying in the family.”
Atkinson has been managing Jeanne’s for a couple of years. Her first day of ownership was Wednesday.
Shaft reminded her to save the first dollar she made.
There was also a semi-official portrait of Atkinson in the kitchen.
“Out of tradition I had to go back there by the grill,” she says.
Customers celebrated with her, too.
“I’ve waited a long time for this day,” says Jon Gillilan.
Gillilan used to see Atkinson at her family’s restaurants as she was growing up.
“She came in with her little Cessna softball uniform,” he says.
Atkinson began working as a dishwasher at age 7.
“But it was more like a fun thing,” she says. She says she and one of her sisters “would go to bed the night before ready for work.”
They would do their hair and sometimes even wear their work clothes to bed so they could get up and go. For a time, they had to stand on crates to reach the dishwashers.
Atkinson graduated to busing tables and, eventually, waitressing.
Now, she’s having to learn the kitchen and grill, too.
Wednesday, she made goulash.
Then there’s the famous Livingston chili this fall.
“I haven’t tackled that venture yet,” Atkinson says.
“Without dad here, it’s even more of a challenge,” she says of the business in general. “I’m trying to figure it all out.”
Atkinson says her father always hoped she’d go into the business, and they discussed it as he was dying.
“He wanted it really bad.”
Livingston never gave his daughter advice on the restaurant business, though.
“I just learned a lot by watching him,” Atkinson says.
She says she saw how kind her father was.
“It’s really important to treat people fairly and nice.”
Atkinson says she saw that in her father’s interactions with employees and customers.
“He helped a lot of people out,” Atkinson says. “He would give them chances, too.”
Gillilan, who has been the Livingston family’s veterinarian, says the family has been like his family. He says he can still hear Bob Livingston whistling.
“You knew he was in the building if you heard him whistling,” Gillilan says.
“When he was whistling you knew he was in a good mood,” Atkinson says.
The two joked about her grandfather, Gene Livingston, and what he would think of the price of eggs today.
“He would freak out,” Gillilan says, adding, “Your grandpa would be proud of you, too.”
There’s a small corner of family photographs in the restaurant, and Atkinson hopes to have more soon, including some of the vintage photos that Shaft has at her restaurant.
Though she doesn’t plan other changes, one customer told Atkinson that she needs to bring back the smiley face that Livingston used to have on his sign out front.
“I think the smiley face should be on the sign.”
He gently teased Atkinson, too.
“You young folks don’t have the appreciation.”
Atkinson says, however, she does have an appreciation for how hard the restaurant business is.
“It never stops. It’s constant.”
Though her father is no longer here, Atkinson has help in the kitchen from Tim Gibbs, who has worked for the family’s restaurant for more than 30 years.
He used to make Atkinson and her sisters their school lunches, which they would phone in to order.
Gibbs says he never expected Atkinson to one day be running the place.
She says she did, though.
“I was always going to do it.”