Usually, people standing in line for a bowl of Tanya Tandoc’s tomato bisque are happy and hungry.
Usually, they’re looking around the dining room to see who else they know is there. Usually, before they get to the front of the line, they’re wrapped up in a big hug from Tandoc, thanking them for coming.
On Monday, the first day the popular Tanya’s Soup Kitchen at 1725 E. Douglas reopened after Tandoc’s death, the atmosphere was different. People waiting in line for tomato bisque were quiet, stoic. They had tears in their eyes. They got hugs, but they were from equally tearful restaurant managers Sarah Osborn-Bennett and Kelly Rae Leffel.
Tandoc, 45, was found dead in her home on South Minneapolis late Thursday night. Police have arrested Curtis C. Mitchell, who had been living in Tandoc’s basement, and charged him with suspicion of first degree murder.
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Reeling from the news on Friday, Tandoc’s two top managers, Osborn-Bennett and Leffel, closed the restaurant and kept it closed Saturday, too.
But the duo decided that they should reopen the restaurant on Monday. They had many reasons.
“We just wanted to do what Tanya would have wanted us to do,” Leffel said. “And she would have wanted us to celebrate her life and share food and share laughter and tears. She would want us to dance.
“She wouldn’t want these kids to be without a job. They pay their rent on tips.”
The future of the restaurant isn’t clear yet. Leffel and Osborn-Bennett said that Tandoc’s parents and siblings knew they were planning to reopen and encouraged them to do so. Warren Tandoc, Tanya’s younger brother and owner of Espresso to Go Go coffee shops, said the family was just beginning to sort out Tanya’s affairs. They have been talking with lawyers, he said, and it could be several days before they know how best to proceed with the restaurant.
Leffel and Osborn-Bennett said they want to keep Tanya’s Soup Kitchen going.
“We’re just going to take it one day at a time and keep it going until we’re told we can’t,” Osborn-Bennett said. “And we hope that day never comes.”
Even before the restaurant’s 11 a.m. opening time on Monday, more than a dozen people were lined up outside.
Some were holding flowers. Some were friends of Tandoc’s and her staff. Others were longtime customers.
When the doors opened, Leffel and Osborn-Bennett stood at the entrance, hugging everyone and fighting back tears, at times more successfully than others. They had disassembled a shrine of flowers, cards and mementos that had gathered at the restaurant’s front doors over the weekend.
The flowers were used to decorate each table in the restaurant, and the rest of the mementos were displayed at the entrance.
They invited past cooks and servers to come help at the restaurant Monday to offer support to the staff of 20 the restaurant now employs.
Linda Morgan, near the front of the line waiting to get in, said that she had been a customer at Tanya’s since the first restaurant opened in 1997 at 725 E. Douglas. When it closed in 2004, Morgan said, she was disappointed. She was among the opening-day crowd at the new restaurant when it opened in 2011.
“It was like a big star had died, and when she came back, it was resurrected,” Morgan said. “And now, she won’t be here anymore.”
Local artist Curt Clonts and his wife, Taeko, were longtime friends of both Tandoc and Leffel, who they said was like a daughter. The two were in line for soup early and said they wanted to show their support for Tandoc’s grieving staff.
“Even before this tragedy, this restaurant was a Wichita icon, an institution,” Curt Clonts said. “When she was open the first time and closed, it wrecked everyone. When she opened the next time, it was a godsend.”
Public memorial service
Friends of Wichita chef and personality Tanya Tandoc have organized a public memorial service for her. It will be from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Orpheum Theatre, 200 N. Broadway.
Tandoc, the owner of Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, also was an artist and an active member of the local belly dancing community.
Thursday’s memorial is open to anyone, said her friend and one of the organizers, Stephanie Garcia. It will feature belly dancing and will include remarks from several of her closest friends.
The Orpheum seats 1,281, and organizers are expecting a large crowd. Those interested in attending are encouraged to show up early.