If something isn’t on the Firecracker Cafe menu, they’ll do their best to make it at the eclectic Americana-style restaurant featuring home cooking and a small-town atmosphere.
“We offer everything from breakfast, to lunch, to dinner. We have specials every day,” says Sharon Tonini, co-owner of the Firecracker Cafe. “We don’t like anybody to leave hungry.”
The Firecracker Cafe in Wathena, Kansas, opened in May 2016. Husband and wife co-owners Sharon and David Tonini launched the restaurant after years of running the Firecracker Kitchen food wagon, and they pull inspiration from their own cooking for the cafe that attracts visitors off the highway and from far away as Texas and California.
“The chain restaurants, you get the same stuff everywhere. The service isn’t the best,” Sharon says. “When you come in here, we treat you like family. If you want something different, we’ll do our best to make it for you.”
The couple’s restaurant experience stems back 40 years to when David had a restaurant in a bowling alley in California.
They later moved to the Midwest, and launched the Firecracker Kitchen food wagon more than a decade ago. They frequented the Sparks Flea Market in Sparks, Kansas, with their food wagon before driving by the Firecracker Cafe building with a “for sale” sign about a year and a half ago.
“It just kind of happened,” Sharon says. “We saw the restaurant and thought it was awful cute. When the ‘for sale’ sign went up, we stopped and took down the number. We saw inside and fell in love.”
The menu includes a wide variety of home-cooked meals, including a large breakfast menu, hamburgers, tenderloins and desserts. Most items are priced under $10.
“They just pop into our heads,” Sharon says of the recipes. “I make our own cakes and pies, too. You take a normal cake, a chocolate cake, and I’ll do something to it and make it totally different. People come in a couple of times a week and see what kind of cakes I have.”
Their burger challenge, launched with the restaurant’s opening, is still undefeated, David says. The pound and a half burger with all the fixings, a pound of fries and a drink has to be eaten within 20 minutes, and winners receive $25 and a restaurant T-shirt. If they fail, customers must pay the $20 meal price, which goes into a ceramic hamburger on the counter.
“When it’s full, we are going to match it and donate it to the veterans,” Sharon says. “We are about half way now.”
Breakfast is also a specialty, David says. The Soggy Bottom Breakfast takes up two plates and includes hash browns, two eggs, sausage, bacon and a biscuit and gravy.
“We have a couple of truck drivers that will go out of their way just to come here. There are at least four of them that I know. We are 6 miles roughly off the highway,” David says. “They’ll turn off, they’ll come in and I’ll have their breakfast so they can eat it and go back.”
The cafe’s slogan, “Shake your boots off and come on in,” and the small-town hospitality caters to farmers and others looking for a spot to rest or talk, David says. The cafe opens at 6 a.m. daily.
“If we have farmers come in, and all they want to do is sit here for an hour or two hours and drink coffee, we allow that,” he says. “Other restaurants will not allow it. After 15, 20 minutes, it’s time for them to go. We have some customers here for three or four hours.”
The people are the most rewarding part of the business, the couple says. They are at the restaurant most hours it is open, seven days a week.
“When I got here, it just kind of made me feel like this is what I need to be doing,” Sharon says. “Meeting the people is the most rewarding part. They are nice. I love to talk to people, get to know them.”
‘Shake your boots off’
The couple plans to continue the Firecracker Kitchen food wagon and hopes to expand the restaurant in the future. They currently live in a motor home in Wathena, Kansas, and return to their home in Blue Springs, Missouri, periodically.
“I love the people. I love to cook. I love getting up and coming in and knowing it’s mine and don’t belong to somebody else,” David says. “It just keeps me going.”
The Firecracker Cafe, 2212 U.S. Highway 36 in Wathena, is open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Daily specials and updates are posted on the Firecracker Cafe Facebook page.
“Just shake your boots off and come on in,” Sharon says.