After five decades of operation, Tehachapi's oldest eatery, Kelcy's Restaurant, will close its doors July 21.
Although the news of the restaurant's impending closure was heard rippling throughout town, it comes as no surprise as owner Kathy Bassler publicly announced in February she was seeking a new owner.
As it would turn out, Bassler needed to look no further than next door for a potential buyer.
Former handyman Billy Lee, husband to her current tenant, Virginia Sheridan, who already leases two adjoining retail spaces to house Sheridan's Boutique Home Consignment, has agreed to lease the restaurant as well, Bassler said.
After the restaurant closes next week, Bassler said, Lee will work toward renovating the restaurant and bringing it up to code so the restaurant can be sold and operated under current requirements as mandated by the Kern County Health Department.
"At a later date, once that's done, if he (Lee) finds it's profitable for him to keep going, then we will finalize the sale. In the meantime, it will be temporarily closed until he does the remodeling," Bassler said.
According to Bassler, Lee will keep many of the restaurant's features which both local residents and tourists alike have come to know and love, such as the restaurant's name, outdoor marquee and historical memorabilia found adorning the inside walls.
"He (Lee) used to work hand-in-hand with Kelcy," Bassler said of her father, who passed away in 2008, and the restaurant's namesake.
As for how long the restaurant will remain closed, Bassler said she has no idea.
"It all depends on the health department and what the city requires," she said.
Bassler, who has been working in the restaurant since she was 16, said she also has no idea what she will do with her time once she hands it over.
"This has been all my life," she said, waving her hand at the rows of nearby tables, many of which are occupied at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. "I really don't know what to expect. It's going to be quite the chore to wake up in the morning and not come in and see everybody. It's gonna be hard."
However hard it might be for Bassler to serve herself instead of her beloved customers, whom she calls "her friends," it's something she says she is ready to embrace at this point in her life.
Said Bassler, "Just for my own well-being, I have to do this. It's time."
Bassler's future is not the only one that hangs in the balance with the closure of the restaurant. Many of her employees have been with her for years, decades even, such as her cook, Shelly Madueno.
"Oh my God, you don't know how sad this is," Madueno said, her voice breaking. "It's a family here. I spent more time here than in my house. All our customers know our families, too."
Madueno, who has been serving some of Tehachapi's finest "comfort" foods for the past 24 years, said she plans to relax for awhile after the restaurant closes, but hopes she can strike a new deal with the new owners when the time comes.
Said Madueno, "We know everybody by their name, because they come in every day. These are our friends, and I will miss them."
Working her way up the ranks since she was 17 is Christina Lara, who has been with Kelcy's for the past 20-some years. Starting as a dishwasher, Lara has spent her final years helping Bassler manage the restaurant.
"Kathy has known me since I was 2-years-old," Lara said. "I am going to miss the families and our customers. I'm also going to miss the hometown food, like the biscuits and gravy and the pie that we are known for."
Lara said she, too, hopes to continue working at the restaurant should the new owners offer her job back.
"If he (Lee) called me and asked me to come aboard, I would not have a problem," Lara said. "This is home for me."
Lara said it was with a heavy heart that she had to inform the many club and civic organizations that meet regularly of the restaurant's pending closure.
"I feel for them. Especially my Republican Women. I wait on them the second Monday of every month, and I have about 45 to 50 of them," she said. "They are a great group of women, and I have been waiting on them for years, plus all of our other groups."
Whether they came alone for a cup of coffee every morning, or in large groups for organized meetings once a month, local residents are also left scratching their heads, wondering "What now?"
"The Tehachapi Republican Women, Federated will miss Kathy and her gracious staff as they close the doors of their historical restaurant," said LaNelle Thompson, a longtime member. "They have tolerated changes over the years of our astute group in everything from numbers to diet needs to delicate temperaments."
Thompson said that a recent TRWF guest speaker commented on the efficiency of the staff, the service and the location, asking if it is always "this way."
Said Thompson, "I quickly assured him that Kathy and her crew could be said to be a part of our success as a group. He said he planned to mention it to an organization to which he belongs in a larger city."
Thompson said the women's group has met at other restaurants over the years, but have always returned to Kelcy's, where they have met for the last 20 years.
Said Thompson, "Thanks Kathy, for all you have done for us and our beloved TRWF and community."
In the words of William Shakespeare, "Parting is such sweet sorrow." As far as Bassler is concerned, that means PIE!
"We are going to be here on the 21st, serving pie and coffee as long as it lasts," Bassler said through a curtain of tears. "People can come in, have a piece of pie and say goodbye."