If you lived in this small agricultural town 14 years ago and were willing to trek up two flights of stairs to a new restaurant called Frannie's, you could have bought a full meal--a hot entree, a vegetable, a side salad, bread and iced tea--for only $1.06. And on the way out, you would have been asked to make change for yourself at the cash register--on the honor system. Today, if you were to visit Frannie's in Yates Center--and you wouldn't be alone, because more than 100 tourists a week do it--you could get the same meal for exactly the same price. And yes, you'd still be on the honor system to pay your buck to Frannie and your six cents to the state treasury on the way out. Sure, the cost of living is low in Kansas--but not that low. Somehow, Frances (Frannie) Ward makes a living out of selling dinner--that's what they call lunch here--for $1.06. And because she does, time continues to stand still in Yates Center.

"I'm not bragging, but I don't owe anyone anything," Ward says, pausing as she prepares a Monday lunch of chili dogs and hominy. "If I don't have money to buy something, I don't. But I've been profitable consistently."

Indeed, even though Ward acknowledges that inflation has cut into her margins, she says she's not going to be raising her price any time soon. "Now that NBC has been here, and CBS, ABC, AP and Women's Day, and they all quote it as $1.06, you're kind of locked in, aren't ya?" she says. "Anyway," she concludes, "it works fine the way it is."

How It Got Started

Frannie's, like so many long-lasting institutions, was born by accident. More than that, it was born of tragedy.

In the 1980s, Ward's first husband suffered a severe stroke. Eventually, his medicines came to cost about $300 a month, and his disability payments weren't keeping up. Around that time, a local sewing factory called Ward out of the blue to see if she would be willing to prepare and then deliver lunches to their employees.

"They said their morning productivity was real good, but by noon, after the employees had eaten their pop and chips, productivity went down," Ward recalls. "They kept calling me from March to July. Finally I realized I needed the money, so I said okay."

That persistent price tag arose because the factory asked Ward to prepare lunches that would cost about what the employees were already paying for their pop and chips. After Ward started supplying the sewing factory, other local businesses, one by one, asked if she could deliver to them too. "Before I knew it," she says, "I had a complete route."

At that point, Ward approached the man who ran the local drug store--"he was a good friend because we bought so much medicine from him"--to see if he could help find a location where she could serve customers. They settled upon a vacant, high-ceilinged loft on the town square, just across from Yates Center's Victorian-style courthouse. By the time Ward had paid her first month's rent and shelled out for a state license, she had no money left. So she borrowed five dollars from her granddaughter Lisa, who was 9 at the time, to deposit in the cash register. Ward also accepted the volunteer assistance of her pastor and his wife, who took over over duties while she delivered the lunches. Initially, Frannie's ran out of food often. Now she cooks more--just enough to supply her customers. The Friday before I visited, Frannie's served 225 people. (It was Frannies' weekly taco salad day--a big hit among regulars.) That turnout was a little higher than normal, Ward says, but not by much.

These days, a little less than half of Frannie's patrons are visitors who are passing through town because they've heard about the phenomenon and wanted to see it for themselves. (Ward doesn't advertise, but antique stores are good at spreading the word, she says.) Most of the rest of her patrons are regulars--guys in sweat-stained work shirts, mothers with toddlers and senior citizens. Frannie knows them all as if they were family. Chuck Sievers of the NAPA Auto Parts store and Jim Straughn from the bowling alley downstairs say they usually just pop in for a takeout meal. Others, like Loyd and Doris Walters (a brother and sister) and Margarete and Oliver Henkle plan their schedules around a twice-weekly sit-down lunch at Frannies. They trade off driving duties--a 20-mile round trip from Iola--each time. Even Washington attorney Karen J. Krueger--a Yates Center native--goes back for lunch whenever she's in town.

Frannie's has a cheerily wallpapered dining room that offers a spectacular view of the courthouse. If that room fills up, Ward sets up tables in the hallway, just across from a long-abandoned opera house. Some customers have less scenic views: The town's jailers ask Frannie's to supply their inmates. (Some inmates, Ward says proudly, have subsequently become customers.) What the customers get, of course, changes every day, and there isn't much flexibility--there's only the daily special. But the basic plan is rock solid: Entree, vegetable, salad, bread and iced tea (or coffee, or Kool-Aid for the kids). Friday is always taco salad day, Wednesday features baked ham and green beans, and the day before major holidays such as Thanksgiving calls for turkey with the trimmings. Everything else varies according to what's on sale, from meatloaf to cole slaw to peas. If a customer doesn't like that day's special, Ward also keeps a supply of sandwich meats--roast beef salad, ham and cheese, ham salad, breast of turkey--and basics like apple sauce and cottage cheese. An alternative meal costs exactly the same as a special--$1.06. Then there's Frannie's pies, which cost an additional $1.06 a slice.That's where she really goes wild. The day I visited, Ward offered an entire counter of pies, all made from scratch: strawberry, lemon meringue, chocolate, blueberry, apple, rhubarb, pecan, raisin, custard, cherry and blackberry (my favorite). When the spirit and the supermarket sales move her, Ward also makes gooseberry, pineapple, peach and apricot pies.

On the prior taco-salad Friday, Ward baked 20 pies and sold every one of them. "We could have sold five more," she says.

How Does She Do It?

So the obvious question: How does she make a living out of this?

First, she buys in bulk. (Some of the shelves in her charmingly disorganized storage room sag from the weight.) She buys whatever happens to be cheap that week. (Ward typically uses suppliers in town, since they'll carry the bags upstairs for her as long as she pays them in cash.) She reuses all leftovers in one form or another. (The ever-frugal Ward even saves inedibles for her friends--apple peelings for their horses, lettuce for their rabbits, egg shells for their compost piles.)

And then, of course, there's the labor costs, which Ward keeps low. The only year-round paid employee at Frannie's is Tammy Modlin, who's been on staff for six years. Kelci Adams, a high school student, spent her past six summers working at Frannie's, but during the school year she's usually not around.

The rest of the help is free. Ward's second husband, Pete Milner, lends a hand; he was a regular customer before he and Frannie tied the knot. And Lisa Shea, Ward's granddaughter--and one time creditor, now long paid-off--helps out during her vacations from teaching school.

Frannie's small-town clientele is also a key factor in her success. To be sure, some locals resent her fame, apparently irked that her unusual little business has taken away attention from everything else in town. But the majority seem to be glad Frannie's is around--and the small-scale community of regulars serves as an effective policing force.

Ward says she's caught only one or two light-fingered customers at the till in 14 years. For one of them, she still welcomes his business--she just asks him to pay her the $1.06 personally. Much more common are patrons who voluntarily pay more than the posted price. She'd never ask them to do it, but as it happens, they probably help keep the business afloat.

Ward, 68, gets letters from all over asking how other people can do what she did. Except for correspondents who profess a religious impulse ("I'm a deep-seated Christian--the Lord is the one that carries me over," she says) Ward usually doesn't write back.

"How do you tell people it takes hard work and determination, conservative buying and using what you have?" she asks. "People want to hear the easy route."

Louis Jacobson is staff correspondent at National Journal.