Manny Lopez, the longtime Kansas City restaurant owner and West Side icon known for his charisma, work ethic and community support, died Friday night at his home, surrounded by family. He was 77.
He had not been in good health for a while, said his oldest daughter, Kathy Lopez-Ritz.
“Manny had an incredible spirit,” she said of the father of five who had been married to his wife, Vivian, for 42 years. “He was a very giving and caring man.”
A Facebook posting on the Manny’s Mexican Restaurant website spread the news Saturday morning.
“We are very saddened by the loss of our Dad, Manny Lopez,” it said. “Manny fought an honest fight all the way until the end, and we would expect nothing less. … He was the foundation of our family and loved us, his grandchildren, and his wife, Vivian, beyond words. He also considered many people who worked at his restaurant to be his family too! He loved Kansas City and what it offered him.”
When Lopez opened Manny’s at 207 Southwest Blvd. in the summer of 1980, many told him he would fail.
The area was too dangerous for families, they said. And getting a loan proved difficult — and costly, at an interest rate of 22.5 percent.
But Lopez refused to wilt, his daughter said.
“If he wanted something, he never gave up,” she said.
He already had immersed himself in the restaurant world, starting with the summer he spent at age 14 in the 1950s preparing salads at the Hotel President. He soon learned all he could about being a bartender but had to wait to tackle that job, as Hispanics could not tend bar in those days.
Later, he toiled 12 years as manager of the Westport One Restaurant, working his way down the ladder to learn every part of the operation, he recounted to The Star in 1989.
“It was like going to college but getting paid for it,” he said at the time. “I wanted to learn everything there is to know about being a restaurateur; I thrive on the word professional.”
When he broached the idea of starting his own place, his family heartily backed him. Everything at Manny’s would be made from scratch, they decided, just like their daily fare at home.
The restaurant opened with five employees, all family members. It held as many as 55 customers. Expansion began the next year and the restaurant doubled in size. By 1989, it boasted a staff of 52 and seating for 385.
Arson in January 1998 extensively damaged the restaurant, forcing it to close for about six months.
Over the decades, Lopez won various awards, supported many charities and served in multiple community and restaurant association leadership positions, including as president of the Hispanic chamber of commerce.
As co-chair of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City, he helped push passage of the restaurant-hotel tax to finance a Bartle Hall expansion. He also was active with the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City, the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City and other civic organizations.
He pushed for improvements in the Crossroads Arts District decades before the area became known as that.
But family was most important, said his daughter, Kim Lopez-Burdolski. He taught his children to be self-sufficient but reminded them they always had him in their back pocket. He told his 11 grandchildren that if they needed anything, they should “Dial M for Manny.”
As illness weakened him in recent months, he left the hands-on restaurant work to his family, Lopez-Burdolski said. Whenever they would call, he would ask how lunch was, how the crowds were or what time workers closed up the previous night.
As word of his death spread, a community outpouring of recollections and condolences inundated his children. They had no idea he had touched so many, Lopez-Burdolski said.
“Not to this degree,” she said.
Family members actually laughed a few hours after his death when they realized that he had died just days before Cinco de Mayo, the holiday celebrating Mexico’s unlikely victory on May 5, 1862, over much stronger French forces.
They knew what he’d say about that. He’d tell them not to close the restaurant on the holiday because “we cannot disappoint Kansas City,” Lopez-Burdolski said.
Instead, Manny’s will be closed Wednesday so the family can say goodbye.
“We loved him dearly,” Lopez-Burdolski said, “and we are going to miss him tremendously.”