Departure of baker triggers retirement for Mills
If nearly bare dairy and produce cases didn’t clue them in, a Saturday tour group found out when they reached the bakery in the back of the store: Flint Hills Market and Bakery was closing for good at the end of the day.
Owner Judy Mills and her staff of bakers weren’t taking the day off, either; the air was scented with the mixed aromas of breads, pastries, and pies. While the weather was rainy and gloomy, Mills was quite the opposite. “I’m delighted,” she said. “I feel like I’m having a party.”
It was a party of sorts, a retirement party. With her primary baker, Samantha Koehn of Burns, leaving for Mennonite mission work at a hospital in Michigan, Mills, 72, decided that rather than try to find someone talented enough to take over, she would close.
“When Samantha announced she was going to leave, I wanted her to go,” Mills said. “I didn’t want to have to find somebody new. I’m going across the dike, on the other side of the railroad track, and I’m holing up. I want to do some things with my husband. I feel like I’ve put in my time.”
Along with husband Randy, four granddaughters also will be getting more attention, and Mills said she hopes to travel, too.
“I’ve missed out on some good times with them because I’ve done this,” she said.
Mills has been a fixture in downtown Florence since 2005, when she opened Doyle Creek Mercantile. After a four-year renovation project, Flint Hills Market and Bakery opened in August 2015 in the historic limestone opera house, operated by Jenny Lee.
The pair parted ways in April 2016, and after a six-week hiatus, the market reopened with Mills at the helm and a new staff. She closed the Mercantile and moved its merchandise to the market, adding to the quaint but upscale environment that drew people from near and far to Florence.
“Every time I wait on somebody, I ask where they’re from,” Mills said. “I have people coming from Topeka, Lawrence, Kansas City, El Dorado, Wichita, Junction City, Manhattan, and Council Grove. Some of them are people just driving through who pull into a small town just to see what there is, and other people definitely know about us. It’s been by word of mouth, and they’ve come.”
Tammy Ensey, owner of the Historic Elgin Hotel in Marion, was part of Saturday’s tour group. She summed up her reaction to the market’s closure with one word.
“Tears,” she said. “This is a neat place that we like to mention to guests at the Elgin and send them over here for lunch. We’re all partners, really, all these small businesses. We all have to work together. Hopefully somebody will step up and take the reins and do something with it.”
Mills said she would entertain a variety of options, provided a prospective businessperson came to her with a solid plan that had long-term potential. If not a market or bakery, the venue would lend itself well to a steakhouse or barbecue restaurant, she said.
“The sky is the limit for what somebody could do,” she said. “We want whatever comes in here to be successful.”
A successor would do well to follow the principles Mills did to make the market a destination place.
“The product has to be good; it can’t be just ordinary,” she said. “And it has to be someplace that has some ambience. People like to come where there’s something unusual, something fun.”
She won’t miss the managerial aspects of the business, but one part will be hard to leave behind.
“I’ve enjoyed meeting the people,” she said. “I don’t always remember the names, but the faces are always familiar. It’s been wonderful.”