International Cafe, a delectable favorite among customers new and old, plans to close its doors for good this week after 32 years of service.
No matter the time of day, Venezuelan-Libyan couple Elizabeth Hernandez-Gumati and Mohamed Gumati have welcomed customers to their restaurant for over three decades with the savory smell of their famous gyros and falafels permeating the air.
The classic, barebones look lets people know on first glance: The focus is on the food.
As the co-owners cook and clean in between orders, they look up to see who is entering, asking for the order before either party ever makes it to the register.
They have worked hard to make the cafe the best it could possibly be.
Now, they will enter the long-awaited chapter of retirement.
"It's bittersweet," Elizabeth said. "We had no idea so many people cared."
Elizabeth and Mohamed have owned and operated International Cafe since 1989, serving Middle Eastern cuisine to a large array of customers.
"People have come from all over to say bye," Mohamed said.
Since the announcement Dec. 8 that they will close the restaurant located at 26 S. Ninth St. by the end of 2021, individuals and families from mid-Missouri and out-of-towners from Kansas City and Chicago have come by for one last meal.
One moment that stood out was a couple who came in, both with tears in their eyes.
"They had their first date here," Elizabeth said.
That couple has since married and had children. They decided they had to bring their kids to the restaurant that had kicked off their relationship.
"We don't have to say what makes this place special," said customer Carol Greenspan, who was dining at the cafe on Tuesday. "Our smiles say it all."
Greenspan and longtime friend Jeff Vrotemarkle have been coming to the restaurant about every two weeks since it first opened.
The two typically stick to the same order, a chicken gyro and lentil soup.
"If they don't have lentil, any soup will do," Greenspan said. "I don't eat lima beans, but I will eat their lima bean soup."
Melissa Alpers-Springer and Mark Kelty have been coming to the cafe for at least 20 years, they said. Both are teachers — one in Fulton and the other in Fayette — but try to cross paths at least once a month over their favorite meal and Turkish coffee.
"It makes us sad, but we understand they want to retire," Alpers-Springer said.
Kelty's usual order is a falafel sandwich with lentil soup, in memory of Alpers-Springer's late husband. When her husband was going through chemotherapy, he always wanted the lentil soup from the cafe after his treatments.
Although the co-owners said they do not have a set date for their last day in business, they said it will be sometime during the last week of the year.
The two plan to relax, exercise and travel in their newfound days of retirement, and they will visit their families, Elizabeth said. Taking a vacation together has been difficult in their years operating the restaurant.
"It was either me with the kids or him with them," she said. "One of us always has to be here."
They look forward to spending time with family and friends with "no hurry," they said.
"It's been exhausting but beautiful," Elizabeth said of running the cafe.
The couple continually expressed they were unaware of the impact they had on so many people until after they made their closing announcement.
Since then, they have been met with overwhelming words of support.
"People have been telling me, 'Give me your address so I can come eat at your house,'" she said with a smile.
In their free time in 2022 and beyond, Elizabeth said they plan to continue cooking, but for loved ones and without the stress of day-to-day restaurant operations.
Since the announcement, they have been busier than ever, she said.
The two agreed that their favorite part of their journey with International Cafe has been the lifelong friendships made and the chance to serve food to all kinds of people.
While Mohamed hasn't cried quite yet about the forthcoming end of an era, tears will be shed the day the restaurant closes for good, he said.
"We appreciate everyone for all these years," Elizabeth said. "It's been very emotional."
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: International Cafe in Columbia to close after more than 30 years