Frannies Fix & Go Lunchroom in Yates Center, Kan., comes about as close as youll get to a free lunch. Every meal costs $1.
Thats been the price since 1986 when Frannie Ward Milner, desperate for a way to pay her late husbands medical bills, opened her upstairs cafe in this southeast Kansas town of 1,850.
I dont need the money so much now, but I dont dare stop or up the prices, says the 69-year-old grandmother. Ive had people tell me time and time again, Frannie, I could never eat out if it werent for you. But more than the price, a lot of people just need someone to talk to, and I ask the Lord every morning to make me a good listener.
Before the towns noon whistle blows, some 150 customers clamber up two flights of stairs in the century-old Light Hardware Store building to lunch at Frannies.
Every time the lunchroom door swings open, Frannie calls out a cheery greeting.
Hi, David. How are you, honey? Frannie asks David Waddell. Waddell, a regular, lines up at the counter for the Friday special, a heaping platter of taco salad.
Frannies guests usually include some out-of-towners whove driven off the beaten path to take advantage of the old-fashioned prices and witness the wholesome atmosphere of a hometown diner.
Most brag about the dozen or so varieties of homemade pies. A hefty slice costsyou guessed it$1. Diners figure their own change from the cash register drawer, which is propped open with a clothespin and operates on the honor system.
Chuck Sievers balances a slab of cherry pie in one hand and a taco salad and drink in the other as he makes his way to an oak table near the cast-iron parlor stove.
Im here every day, rain or shine, Sievers declares. But I dont know how she can survive with these prices.
The secret, says Frannie, is in selective buying and using every tidbit she buys. I dont throw anything away, she adds.
For example, when tea bags go on sale for 69 cents for 100 bags, Frannie buys a caseful. That way I can make tea all week for 69 cents, she says.
Frannies delivers to dinersfor the same pricewho cant negotiate the steps. They call in their orders to the Woodson County Chamber of Commerce. Frannies doesnt have a telephone or any other frills for that matter. Diners eat from mismatched plates, bus their own tables, and share tables. When the cafe fills up, diners sit in the hallway or on the wooden steps and eat.
Regulars know Frannies daily specials by heart, but for newcomers, the unpretentious menu is handwritten on notebook paper and pinned to a bulletin board at the foot of the 31 stairs. The fare never changes for Monday (chili cheese dog, salad, corn); Wednesday (ham, potato, green beans); or Friday (taco salad). Whats dished up Tuesday and Thursday depends on what bargains Frannie finds. Sandwiches are always available, and coffee and tea are included in the $1 deal.
Frannie opened the business on a shoestring after her late husband suffered a stroke and medical bills gobbled their savings. When the cafe space became available for $150 a month, she snapped it up. After buying her business license, though, Frannie didnt have any money for groceries.
I borrowed $5 from my 9-year-old granddaughter, she recalls. I knew that Id be paid for what I delivered that day. I bought groceries on a daily basis.
Frannies roster of volunteer dishwashers and servers includes a faithful 70-year-old potato peeler, Pete Milner. The couple married three years ago after meeting and courting at the cafe.
The food was exceptional and Frannie acted like I was a human being, Milner says and chuckles. So I just kept showing up.
The same could be said of the rest of the lunch bunch, too.