By CRISTINA JANNEY
BUNKER HILL — Eating at the Bunker Hill Cafe isn’t like having a burger and Coke in plastic seats off the interstate. When you come to the cafe, you are taking a seat at Tom and Janet Taggart’s family table, from the hand-breaded catfish to filet mignon sourced off the Kansas prairie.
Tom and Janet Taggart will close the iconic Bunker Hill Cafe on Nov. 4 after more than 43 years in business.
The cafe has been recognized multiple times in national publications. This has included “Roadfood and Goodfood,” which has been through multiple printings since 1986. On occasion, travelers stop in the cafe, eat and ask Tom to autograph copies of the book.
The cafe has been featured in the “Kansas Guidebook for Explorers,” by Merci Penner as well as “Off the Beaten Path: A Travel Guide to More Than 1,000 Scenic and Interesting Places Still Uncrowded and Inviting.”
The Taggarts’ daughter, Lacy, has helped the couple make a splash on social media, which has helped the out-of-the-way cafe connect with locals as well as travelers.
When asked what is the secret of the cafe’s food, Janet point to her husband saying, “The secret to the food is right here. The same guy cooks your food every time you come.”
Tom added it is the consistency of the product.
The cafe has much of what you might think you would find on a traditional Midwest cafe menu, including twice-baked potatoes, homemade sides, homemade dressings, chicken and steaks.
One of Tom’s specialities is catfish, which he said has always fascinated him because of its conversion to protein. The breading is Tom’s own special recipe as is the fish sauce.
Through its history, the cafe has made forays into other dishes, including quail, bison and elk steaks, but Tom said the traditional tried and true offerings remain the best sellers.
The antibiotic-free beef comes from Creekstone Farms in Arkansas City, which Tom touts as being some of the best beef around. It is cut by a local butcher in Wilson. Organic flour for the cafe’s homemade honey raisin bread comes from Heartland Mills in Marienthal. Honey comes Labertew Apiaries in Sylvan Grove.
Tomatoes, which are grown locally, only appear at the cafe in the summer when they are in season. Occasionally during the summer, the cafe can get fresh greens from local residents, but it is hard for local gardeners to keep up with demand, Tom said.
“Are you hungry yet?” Janet joked.
Tom Taggart bought the limestone storefront at Sixth and Elm streets four decades ago because he loved the old stone building and thought it would be well-suited for a cafe. Janet said she just happened to fall in love with a guy who owned a cafe, and so their fledging business and family began.
The cafe building was constructed in 1916. It was originally a drug store with a soda foundation. The druggist lived upstairs. Some of the old wooden cabinets from the original drug store are still in use in the dinning hall of the cafe today. The building also at one time had a dentist and doctor’s office on the second floor and was a pool hall before Tom purchased the building in the ’70s.
“We thought if we had good food, we would do all right,” Tom said. “We didn’t realize how much work it was going to be, but we have maintained our quality over all these years. People appreciate it, so we have been here 43 years now.
“We’re tired. We are ready to call it quits,” he said.
When the Taggarts opened the Bunker Hill Cafe, Bunker Hill, which is located just off of Interstate 70, 37 miles east of Hays, was a thriving community. Today the only two businesses left on the town’s main drag are the cafe and the Smoky Hill Public Television building across the street. As of the 2010 census, there were 95 people living in Bunker Hill.
Much of the cafe’s floor-to-ceiling decorations suggest western Kansas prairies landscape and culture with taxidermied birds that Tom shot himself flying above diners, a bison head from a local ranch (which sometimes frightens children), elk, deer antlers, turkey feathers in full fan, and prints and photographs of other local wildlife.
Also adorning the front lawn of the cafe and other nooks and crannies inside are metal junk sculptures of a fish, dinosaur and hunting dog, created by Johnny Scott, who is from Bunker Hill.
The Taggarts said the best memories they have of the cafe are all the people who they have worked with over the years and all the people who they have fed.
“I think most of my favorite memories involve the people I have gotten to know, and a lot of them have been longtime customers. We have gotten to know them, their children and now their grandchildren. I think that is the thing I will miss the most. We’ve gotten to know a lot of really nice people here.”
People have eaten at the restaurant from both coasts. They have a priest from Boston who likes to stop in when he is in the area and eat a filet with fried rice. A couple of weekends ago, the cafe had a couple from New York who stopped at the cafe for dinner. The couple was on a coast-to-coast trip and had read about the cafe in “Roadfood and Goodfood.”
The cafe crew has as been a family.
Joyce Scott, who works at the cafe, has been with the business for 38 years. The Taggarts’ daughter, Lacy Hammack, is a teacher in Russell and works at the cafe on the weekends. Her daughter, Caitlyn, also worked at the cafe before she headed off to her first year at Wichita State this year.
Employees and the family all eat together when they are done with work in the evening.
Lacy said the cafe has been her second home. The Taggarts started bringing Lacy to the cafe when she was a baby. In kindergarten, the bus picked her up at the cafe.
“Some of my first memories were sitting on a chair in the back while Mom and Dad were working,” she said. “It was just part of my life, you know? All the people who worked here became family, and I had a bunch of moms here.
“It’s been a good thing to grow up here,” she said. “I’ve seen my parents work really hard and build this business. They taught me to work hard.”
Lacy started working out front bussing tables in her early teens and later as hostess and waitress. When she got back from college, she started working at the cafe again and continues to help her parents when they need her.
“I just love it. Just like they said, the people who come in and have been coming in for years and years, I have gotten to know them too. This is the only place I see a lot of those people. It is kind of fun. It doesn’t feel like it’s coming to a job. It’s just a good place to be.”
Many people have asked Lacy if she was going to take the cafe over, but Lacy, who teaches first-grade, said she has a passion for teaching and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Although Janet and Tom said closing the cafe has been a hard decision, Janet said she was happy her daughter has followed her dream to be a teacher, a dream she had since she was a little girl.
The Taggarts have been trying to find a buyer for the cafe, but have not been in luck yet. Tom said it is hard to find someone who is willing to put the work in to run a mom-and-pop store like the cafe anymore.
“It’s one business that fails 80 percent of the time, and there a few noticeable exceptions, and we’ve been one,” Tom said and broke into a smile.
When the cafe closes on Nov. 4, Tom said he thought they will be missed by local residents.
Janet said, “Main Street will be quieter in the evenings.”
Janet and Tom said they have no big plans for retirement but look forward to having Friday and Saturday nights off for the first time in four decades. Tom said he looked forward to going to his grandkids games.
Since the Taggarts announced the cafe’s closing, they have kept a journal, which friends and customers can sign and recount memories. Janet said she looks forward to reading it after the last meals are served.
“It’s been fun since we made public the fact that we were gonna close,” Janet said. “We have heard from so many people, and many of them are making an attempt to get here before we close.”
The cafe will be open 5 to 9 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Saturday, Nov 4. The cafe accepts walk-ins or reservations. If you would like to make a reservation or are interested in buying the cafe, call the cafe at 785-483-6544. You can also connect with the cafe through Facebook.