25 years! What a long strange trip it has been. This coming June 3rd we will celebrate our 25th
anniversary. I was really torn what to do, if anything, having
never felt comfortable blowing the Uptown horn. I thought about having a 25th
anniversary bash and asked my wife Rita to sing for me but she nixed
that idea, good thing! We settled on having a week long happy hour to
invite all of our friends, customers and ever faithful employees, both
past and present to spend some time catching up and reminiscing. We will
follow up with more details on that as the time gets closer.
advent of our newsletter we also thought it would be nice to chronicle
some of our history, share some pictures and tell some of the abundant
stories that can come out of 25 years of serving the public. So for the
next few weeks we will share this and divide them up between the
early, middle and present years.The Early Years (The Pink
Back in early 1985 after working my whole life at my
family's restaurant "The Red Door Inn" I was feeling a desire to venture
out on my own. I had felt a need in the area for a "casual restaurant".
TGI Fridays and Houlihans were changing the restaurant industry. Our
area did not have anything similar with our market consisting only of
fast food and fine dining. This also seemed to work because I did not
want to compete with The Red Door. The menu would be big on lighter
items, sandwiches, soups, and desserts. It is hard to imagine how back
then food choices were so limited. Before the days of the Food Channel
and Iron Chefs, salsa was an unknown condiment and people pronounced fajita using the
the "J". We wanted daylight and fore-ground music to contribute to the
casual feel both of which were unheard of
at the time.
I had an opportunity at a newly opening mini
mall in LaSalle, in the old JC Penny building, which at the time housed City Furniture. With the help of family
and a local bank we were able to scrape up enough capital to start
planning. It was a scary proposition with me being only 25 years old and
having 3 children, 2 of them under 2 years old. Rita and her sister
Irene helped with the design and I was left to the operational aspects of
it. The space was a 1300 square foot store front, in which I was able to
cram 18 tables, 60 seats, a bar and some semblance of a kitchen. As the
place was being laid out the designers started to get back to me. I was
pretty opposed with what they came up with, PINK!
Ryan during original construction.
I had the help of a
good friend, Jerry Nosalik, a local carpenter. Together with him and
some of my newly hired "gorillas" we pieced it together. Time was of the
essence, having a very tight budget and not much room for error or
dawdling. We started construction on April 1st the day,
our lease started, and opened June 3rd 1985.
The "Elvis Bar"
Beyond the pinks,
several other things were coming into focus. In an antique magazine I
found a white marble ice cream back bar in Memphis (supposedly Elvis frequented this
place) that would fit perfect. We used several levels to break up the
place. We installed several glass block dividers, hanging pendants for
lights and got the kitchen equipment into place.
The "Burger Bar"
Since our burgers were a
big part of our original repertoire we added a high end condiment cart so
you could decorate your burger the way you liked it. We served our Coca Cola in the returnable glass 12 ounce bottles. That lasted about a week.
The south dining room(upstairs)
Opening was a night
mare. Our first lunch we had a waiting list until 3pm we served over
200 people. We were out of food and out of breath. The very first day on
a trip to the walk-in cooler, which was in the back of the building,
some one locked me in. I was there for over an hour until someone missed
me. Good thing there was
nothing sharp in there. The next few days would get even busier. After about 5 days of this we decided to just do lunches until we could
get our act together.
Grandpa Barto with his "custom paper"
Ask anyone that has ever opened a restaurant. In order to
get over the hump the only option is to work through it until you gradually
find the people you can trust. I have been known to exaggerate but the
first 2 months were a 6am to midnight proposition and we were open every
day so it was 7 days a week. We did all the laundry at home and were
raising 3 small children. One looks back and you wonder how you did it, also knowing at the same time you could never do it again.
in the beginning was very difficult. I think many of the food service
professionals in the area did not want to jump in with both feet until
they had a feel for if we were going to make it. Slowly and surely I
added some of the people that made us what we are.
Chris Biagi, Lynn Parnisari, Susie Tondi
Some of my key people
that jumped on board were Susie
Tondi, Chris Biagi,
Chrissie Mattioda, Greg Hybki.
Then in January I hired what is still my most
valued employee, Kris Hall (Rue). The first year came and went. We became
more financially stable. I felt we were improving our food and service
everyday. As the next few years went on we gained space wherever we
could. We added on to our kitchen when a store behind us went out of
business. I was able to move my office from home to the old JC Penny
elevator. ( Yes, my office was actually in the elevator) In general we had started to become a real business. We were
going to make it. Our menu was ever increasing in size and our dinner
business started to surpass our luncheon business.
The Proposal table #11 was under the mirror in the small alcove.
while I was working, Donald
O'Connor came in looking for the old Kelly & Cawley's where
he used to perform. Every single day with out fail we would have the
"coffee guys" ( a group of downtown business owners) come in at 3PM sharp. The Chicago Bears Superbowl ring was designed at table 19. We
had at least
a two dozen couples get engaged at table 11. Why table 11 we don't
know. Our current chef, Chris Plankenhorn who was in the process of
moving from dishwasher to cook, fell into (yes into) the deep fryer.
we would do a 2 for 1 happy hour from 11 to midnight.
point things were starting to run like a well oiled machine. I had the
staff that could run things on their own. The Uptown had gotten as big
as it physically could. I was looking for another project. In 1988 I bid on
becoming the concessionaire at the Starved Rock Lodge. I came very close
to getting it. With all of the investment that the state had put into
Starved Rock I felt like the best thing I could do was find something
that would capitalize on the areas tourism potential. I was looking for
To be continued next week....