© 2022 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

'Gale-Force Wind': Longtime Old Mill Tasty Shop Waitress Is A Wichita Institution

gale portrait.JPG
Hugo Phan
Gale Cowan has waitressed at Old Mill Tasty Shop for almost 40 years, and is the restaurant's ambassador and unofficial spokeswoman.

Old Mill Tasty Shop has been a fixture in downtown Wichita since 1932. And inside is another Wichita institution: a dynamo who’s been waiting tables at Old Mill for more than 37 years.

The red awning at 604 E. Douglas is a downtown Wichita landmark. It advertises Old Mill Tasty Shop’s famous soda fountain and deli sandwiches.

Inside is another Wichita institution: Gale Cowan has been waiting tables at Old Mill for more than 37 years.

She greets customers with her signature smile and the daily special.

“It’s a Monterrey day! Deep-fried flour tortilla topped with beans, pork, lettuce, tomato, cheese and sour cream… Mmmm, so good!”

Cowan is a waitress, but she’s more than that. She’s the restaurant’s ambassador and unofficial spokeswoman.

If you’ve never tried the green chili, she’ll bring you a sample. If you wonder about the peanut butter and banana sandwich, she’ll tell you about the fluffy bread and the touch of honey, “just like your mama used to make.”

old mill awning photo.jpg
Suzanne Perez
Old Mill Tasty Shop has been a fixture in downtown Wichita since 1932.

Old Mill Tasty Shop has operated in Wichita since 1932. Don and Mary Wright purchased the restaurant in 1984. Two years later, Cowan joined the staff.

Her resume reads like a trip through Wichita’s beloved restaurants-gone-by. She worked at Doctor Redbird’s Medicinal Inn at Boulevard Plaza and at a Peter Pan ice cream store, where she learned to make old-fashioned malts and shakes.

“There are still some people who only want me to fix their stuff because I know how they like it,” she said.

Old Mill is a popular lunch spot. Gale usually handles the tables near the door — and farthest from the kitchen — leaving the easier stations for her teenaged colleagues.

She moves at a jog — taking orders, filling water cups, delivering plates.

A “Gale-force wind,” Don Wright likes to say.

“From the time she walks in the door ‘til the time she leaves, you never see her down,” said Wright, who co-owns and manages the restaurant with his mother, Mary.

“She is a whiz-bang. The way she moves around is amazing, her connection to people," Don Wright said. "And she remembers everything that everybody eats.

"She might not remember your name, but she’s going to remember everything that you eat.”

gale order.JPG
Hugo Phan
Cowan takes an order during lunch at Old Mill.

Several years ago, Gale broke her leg and was gone for a few months. Customers kept asking when the owner would be back. In 2009, Old Mill organized a surprise party to mark Gale’s 25th anniversary on the job.

She’s the “best waitress in Kansas,” according to a plaque she got from a longtime customer years ago. Another certificate heralds her as “the happiest waitress in Wichita.”

Brent Barkley recently returned to Wichita after living for 20 years in California. He brought his business partner, Robert Feeney, to Old Mill for lunch and sat at one of Cowan’s tables.

Feeney was instantly impressed.

“Fantastic,” he said, smiling. “Can everyone in Wichita be like you?”

If only.

Over nearly four decades at the restaurant, Cowan had watched customers grow up, then served their kids and grandkids. And she’s always gaining new fans, like Susan Burford of Wichita.

“Last week she was our waitress," Burford said. "I had never had the chicken salad before and she ran and got me a sample. … Last week was my first time, and now it’s like my favorite lunch place.”

Cowan is 67 — about the age some people would be thinking about retirement.

But not her. Not yet.

How long will she keep at it?

“‘Til I don’t feel like it," she said, laughing, "or they kick me out."

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.