Don Wright and Mary Wright
“I will never do that again.” That’s what Mary Wright told herself back in the early 1980s after a stint running her own taco stand in Augusta. So when she walked into the shuttered Old Mill Tasty Shop on March 1, 1982, buying a restaurant was the farthest thing from her mind. But she toured the space with her friend, developer Jimmy Lytton, just out of curiosity.
Mary’s mother also tagged along, and was all nerves after edging by the bums who’d taken up residence along grody Douglas Avenue. After one peek through the door she blurted out, “I just don’t know what you’re thinking of!” and she fled.
But Mary stayed. “I was just captivated by it.” She brought her husband, John, in for a tour and he caught her vision. “We were called back then ‘urban pioneers.’”
Restored to Cherry Condition
This month the Wrights are celebrating 30 years of malts and shakes, daily blue plate specials, homemade carrot cake, renowned tomato bisque soup and hand-crafted limeades, cherry cokes, banana splits and sundaes made the old-fashioned way behind the original Old Mill Tasty Shop fountain. The whole Wright family — including nieces and nephews — have taken turns as soda jerks, and their son, Don, has made a career as manager and part-time cook.
The original owners, Otto and Erna Woermke (behind fountain) opened the Old Mill in 1932.
In their renovation the Wrights preserved the original marble fountain, the wood-and-glass refrigerator, the wooden booths and the windmill murals, and they sourced black wire chairs and tables for that authentic soda fountain feel.
Although the original Old Mill recipes weren’t included in the sale, Mary assembled her own menu, starting with her mother’s chicken salad, her mother-in-law’s potato salad and Mary’s very own signature green chili. “People here didn’t know what that was so we made it milder…and now it’s one of our number-one things.” The green chili also complements an entire selection of Mexican dishes.
That new streetscape smell
In 2010, when the Intrust Bank Arena debuted, the Wrights extended their hours until 8:00pm on Friday and Saturday evenings, giving Mary an opportunity to experiment with new blue plate specials like hot beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and green beans — the hockey crowd rocks that — and Chicken Marbella with prunes and olives. She’s taken advantage of fresh local produce for years, and the regular Saturday morning “breakfast club” enjoys farm-fresh eggs.
Today the whole St. Francis corridor near the Old Mill is the focus of revitalization — including apartment conversions and new streetscapes — and the district some call Old Town West is finally catching up with the original urban pioneer.
Reminiscing about her first private viewing of the Old Mill Tasty Shop back in 1982 Mary says, “Something just clicked. I’m glad that it did.”
And so is the rest of Wichita.
Do you have Otto’s secret chili recipe?
2012 also marks 80 years since the restaurant first opened in 1932. The original owners, Otto and Erna Woermke, founded the Old Mill Tasty Shop on the corner of Douglas and St. Francis in the space currently occupied by the Value Center, and moved to the present location in 1940. They established Otto’s chili as their signature dish: a rich, meaty concoction based on spices from the Weigand Tea and Coffee Company.
When ownership of the Old Mill transferred to the Wrights, Otto’s chili recipe did not. “Nobody got to watch him make his chili; he was real guarded about his recipe,” Mary explains. Now she wants to bring Otto’s chili home. Do you have it? Do you know someone who might have it? Please give Mary a call so she can share it with a new generation of hungry patrons.
Celebrate the 80th/30th anniversary the week of February 27-March 3 with 80¢ fountain sodas and other select menu items, and a free ice cream cone with every kid’s meal. Party like it’s 1932!