Emma Chase has decided to retire.
Or, make that Sue Smith – the woman who plays Emma Chase – has decided to retire and close her Emma Chase Cafe in Cottonwood Falls.
“This month I am 70, and I just want a little freedom to jump in the car and go someplace and do something without having to make huge arrangements,” says Smith, whose husband, Monty, does the bookkeeping and is what she calls the “certified janitorial expert.”
“This has been a glorious ride,” Smith says.
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She’ll be vacating the restaurant at 317 Broadway in the city’s small downtown on Nov. 30, and Smith plans to close her Prairie PastTimes art cooperative on Dec. 31. She says there’s a chance others may carry on the co-op, which has 40 Flint Hills artisans.
Cottonwood Falls native Janice Keller-Williams and her husband, Bryan Williams, are hoping to buy the building where the cafe is and open a new restaurant concept there. A deal isn’t expected to close until Jan. 1.
“Cottonwood Falls is a very, very special place to us – to a lot of people,” Bryan Williams says.
Smith agrees that that’s the case.
“We do have a large clientele in the Wichita area,” she says.
Her Friday night jam sessions are especially popular.
“We would love to keep the tradition of the Flint Hills alive that Sue and Monty have committed so much time and effort to,” Williams says.
He hasn’t determined how that may look yet, though.
“I hate to 100 percent commit to anything,” Williams says. He adds, “I also don’t want people to think it’s shutting down and no one will ever come there again.”
Smith says some Cottonwood Falls residents purchased the building where the cafe is in the early 1980s with the intent to rent it to someone who would open a restaurant for the town.
“This was the five-and-dime when I was a child,” she says.
It’s been a few different things over the years, but Smith says a couple of women were the first restaurateurs there and named it Emma Chase Cafe. She says they thought Emma “was a beautiful, old-fashioned name” and that Chase sounded vaguely historical since the cafe is in Chase County.
“She has been a fictional character all of these years,” says Smith, who took over the restaurant in 1998.
“When I took over, a friend suggested I become Emma Chase,” she says. Smith says she decided to play the character “because anything I say or do is absolutely accurate.”
She had a tintype made at Silver Dollar City of herself dressed in old-fashioned attire as Emma Chase.
The music came a year after Smith took over the cafe. She says someone told her, “For 50 cents, I’d hang a note over at the barber shop and see who’d want to come to a jam session.”
“So I gave him 50 cents,” she says. “Twelve musicians showed up to play, followed by 25 family members, which was a huge surprise. We had no clue that people would come to listen.”
They were hungry, too.
“They wanted to know where the food was. We said, ‘Food? Food?’”
For the first few months, Smith says she’d make a pot of soup and say, “Help yourself.”
The jams grew so big, Smith eventually had to move them to the street.
She still has them outside every Friday night or inside at a former municipal building downtown if the weather doesn’t cooperate or if the musicians are playing electrical instruments. It’s a tradition Williams says he’d like to carry on.
“Music’s very important to me,” he says.
Williams lives in Emporia and runs the Emporia Granada Theatre where his charge is to help it become a music venue.
Keller-Williams works at the foundation at Emporia State University. She and her husband both plan to keep their day jobs in addition to being involved in the restaurant.
Williams says local high school students will grow some of the restaurant’s produce and work there as well.
“Almost like a vo-tech program,” he says.
Williams, who used to own La Cocina del Puerco in Overland Park, says he wants to use locally sourced food as much as possible.
Where Emma Chase Cafe has what Williams calls a classic American diner look, he says he plans the atmosphere of a 1920s or ’30s feed store.
“It will have a complete remodel inside.”
His food will be dineresque, though.
“I like to call it – how ’bout a gourmet diner.”
He also plans to get a liquor license, which the cafe does not have.
“It will not be a tavern by any means.”
With the nearby popular Ad Astra Food & Drink, Williams says the area is “definitely … on the upswing.”
“The area means a lot to us,” he says. “The opportunity to own a restaurant there with a lot of history is important to us.”
So is the opportunity for retirement something Smith is looking forward to?
“Honey, I was retired when I started this.”