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Lathrop Corner Caf: One-time popular landmark
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Frank Mendes, a retired Manteca-Lathrop farmer, remembers the good old days at the now-long-gone Lathrop Corner Café. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

LATHROP – Once upon a time, there was a Lathrop Corner Café. Patricia Terry Richichi remembers it well, and so does Frank Mendes. Longtime Lathrop residents Bennie and Joyce Gatto also have a lot of memories of the building complex that housed a restaurant, a store, and a bar that was also a dance hall at least once a week.

The story of the now-defunct Lathrop Corner Café was intertwined with the history of the Lincoln Highway, also known as Highway 50. Both have gone the way of many historic places that have been engulfed and buried by growth and expansion. The Lincoln Highway is now Harlan Road. The Corner Café was once on the southeast corner of the old Highway 50 at Lathrop Road. But the business establishment, which was ‘like a Lathrop landmark,’ to use Richichi’s description of the place, was crunched into a million bits of debris by a bulldozer to make way for the building of the Interstate 5 section in Lathrop.

Mendes remembers that part of Lathrop’s history very well. He was part of the construction crew that built the freeway which now bisects the 21-year-old incorporated city of Lathrop.

In fact, Mendes remembers when the Lathrop Corner Café was built in the late 1940s.

“Johnny Williams had it built,” he said of the man who was one of the pillars and early movers and shakers of the then unincorporated town of Lathrop about 40 years ago.

“He built it but he really couldn’t make a go of it,” so his brother-in-law, Louis Richichi, took over the business, Mendes recalled.

Williams ran the business for about three years before handing it over to his brother-in-law.

Richichi was “one of those who saved his money,” Mendes said.

Mendes also recalled that a friend of his told him Williams was going to build the Corner Café building for $10,000.

Lathrop Corner Café was ‘quite a bit of business then,’ Mendes said. ‘Louis ran the bar; his wife ran the restaurant.’

He described Richichi as a “nice guy, a quiet guy, and a hard worker” who made the business pay off.

For a while, they also had a service station in the business compound, “but that didn’t last long,” Mendes said.

“Then the bar disappeared; it was all restaurant at the end,” said Mendes.

The restaurant had to be torn down when they built the freeway. “It was getting pretty old by then, and other businesses have come up around it like Tokyo Joe’s (now Joe’s Travel Plaza). There was not enough for everybody. And Louis was getting old,” Mendes said.

Richichi confirmed that saying, “Grandma and Grandpa were getting so old,” which was the big reason they decided not to rebuild or re-open another restaurant.

“They ran it themselves; they didn’t get help. And Grandma didn’t raise her prices – she served 25-cent hamburgers. This was back in the 1960s.

She’d make spaghetti or soup and served those too with the hamburgers. You just got whatever she made,” Richichi recalled with a laugh.

‘The Lathrop Corner Café was a landmark in Lathrop. All the farmers hung out there — Duke Dutra and Charlie Roberts. I’ll never forget the time the new principal of Lathrop School was coming to town and happened to walk in the café. Grandma was so excited she thought God walked in,’ Richichi said still laughing.

She also has many fond memories of her grandma Rose. Like many young children at the time, they helped their parents and grandparents either in the fields, the dairies or, in the case of the Richichis, in the family business. She recalled how her grandmother would scatter coins on the floor of the restaurant and then told them to “pick them up because she said she’s getting too old to do that; then she’d let us keep the money.”

Actually, it was their grandmother’s way of letting the grandkids “earn their money,” Richichi said.

While there was only the restaurant standing in the end, Richichi remembers the “big dance hall in the back (of the café) where they had dances about once a week.’

Richichi is the daughter of Barbara Terry who sold the 365-acre family ranch which makes up the northeast corner of today’s River Islands Parkway and McKee Boulevard. Richichi now lives in Brookings, Oregon, with husband Steve and their family but still catches up with the local news on the Internet. She said her mother passed away not too long ago.

Richichi said she enjoys reading the stories about old Lathrop, but has often wondered why none has been written about the Lathrop Corner Café.

“The restaurant was really popular,” said the Gattos who are lifelong Lathrop residents save for the few years that former mayor Bennie Gatto served in the U.S. Navy in the 1950s.