As I left off the newsletter last
week I was fresh off a disappointing second in my bid to become the
concessionaire at the Starved Rock Lodge. The remodeling at the lodge
in 1988, I felt was going to be huge for our local tourist trade. I was
approached by the owners of the Starved Rock Marina about leasing their
space that overlooks one of the most beautiful spots in all of Illinois.
I had been going there for many years especially back in the days when
"Sunday Brunch" was a big thing. They would serve hundreds of people
every Sunday. I,
as well as many people, were of the opinion that
the food at that time anywhere in "Starved Rock Land" left something to be desired. I
knew the place was out in the boonies but I had thought we had
developed a pretty good local reputation and that people would drive for
good food with a spectacular view.
Kickapoo Klub dining room
We started this project on February 1st 1989 with the plan of a little
less casual menu and a Southwestern theme to go with the Indian heritage
of the area. The place had seen better days when we took it over. With the help of good friend, Gilbert Barratini and his
company American Bilco, we completely gutted the entire 4800 square foot
upper floor to the studs and rafters. I finally had an office with windows.
We opened on May 3rd. I was getting
pretty good at opening restaurants by this time and things went so
smoothly I was actually able to attend my brothers wedding in North Carolina on memorial
day weekend. In large part due to Marsha Klimek, who with the Kickapoo Klub acquisition, turned into another one of my most valued employees.
We made a profit in our very first month. With all the
training and set up costs this is unheard of in our industry. The
business we did in June and then July was amazing to me.
Kickapoo Patio in the height of the season.
In July we did
almost 3 times the volume that the Uptown did. By the end of the summer I
was actually thinking about selling the Uptown. Good thing I didn't
move too fast.
Kickapoo Patio during winter. Still a beautiful view.
When we got to September business was cut in half.
October was just okay and then the bottom dropped out. The previous owners
closed for all but the most profitable months. I realized that if I was
going to hire and retain the great staff we had, I needed to offer them
round employment. This business is hard enough to find professionals, let
alone lay them off for 4 months a year. In December and January if we
didn't have a party we would be lucky to serve 6 people on a week night.
Many nights I would work with 1 or 2 other staff members to save costs.
When the season re-started again it was like opening a new restaurant.
This was absolutely the most disconcerting thing to me and I grew to hate
it. I said to myself give it 3 years. If you do a good job for that
long and nothing happens stop beating your head against the wall. It was
during this period that I also started running marathons. If I was working only the
day shift I would run out there in the morning from La Salle and run
back in the evening. This is how I kept my sanity. By year 3 nothing had
changed. I got really lucky and found a total novice to buy the place. I
had sold it on contract, but this was fine with me because I had very
solid collateral. On one of the best days of my life, we closed and he took
over July 1st 1991. He lasted less than 6 months. I did have one more
surprise coming. At the beginning of 1992 Congress had eased up on
some of the bankruptcy laws and because of this I no longer had the
secure collateral that I thought I had. I got the restaurant back. Not
having the energy to go through this again, we decided to auction off all
the equipment, cut our losses and go back to a simpler way of life.
Throughout this time I would still spend quite a bit of time at the
Uptown but Kris Hall and Greg Hybki pretty much ran the show. With the help of a few right hands like Chris Biagi and Ron Ansteth they handled it very
I still had big
plans for the small Uptown. It was going to be pretty easy now only
having one place to run. We did a major remodeling, green this time.
tore the bar platform out and took the squeeze out of "the pole". We
moved the restrooms to a common area of the mini mall thus gaining some
more seating. Our office got moved out of the elevator to something
slightly larger, but again no windows.
Every day we would be visited by Georgie Tarbuck. I am sure that you all remember him, a downtown icon in his day. He would stick his head in and yell. "I hate money!" on a daily basis.
We bought a state of the art point of sales system.
When training the staff we would enter their current shift's tickets in
the system. We found out that doing it by hand we were making about 100$
worth of mistakes every day. Needless to say it paid for itself very
quickly. We were still using this system up to October of 2009. Things
were starting to return to normal, sales and profits were good. I was
going to recover from the Kickapoo set back. We were able to start doing
our own design and graphics using computers and laser printers
which greatly increased our ability to change things up in the
restaurant and with the menus.
A few highlights of that era........
During this period we started the tradition of covering the place with
an obscene amount of balloons and streamers on New Years Eve.
Our best bartender, Kristie Witek, got engaged to our best customer Randy Pytel.
We started doing a "Magic Cake" for birthdays and special occasions.
My oldest son Ryan started to work and my youngest son Reid was
almost chopped in half by the freight elevator doors.
a house in Spring Valley and had to start driving to work. Previously we had lived only
about 2 block from the Uptown, next to the library in La Salle.
Business was so good that we were still out growing our facility. I
started to get offered opportunities to move. I did not want more than
one place and I did not want to compete with myself. Still renting our
space, it had become time for us to become owners. For a while I
seriously considered moving to "mall land" and building a new spot. I
was very concerned about how this might upset our client base. If I
moved farther away someone might occupy my old space. The answer was
closer than I thought.
The Woolworth's had gone out of business several years
before and was sitting empty, as was much of downtown La Salle. I could
move right next door and really not upset anything that I had spent 10
years building. But how do you make a Woolworth's store into a
restaurant? The place was also much more space than I could ever afford
to remodel let alone use. After much bargaining, design, concept work
and obtaining financing we closed the deal. We were going to become
owners. We were going to be able to design a space that worked exactly
for what we wanted to do.
This is a hard place to leave off so I will finish off the old Uptown
now and next week start building the new Uptown.
Last night, Last Table.
It was Saturday July
27th, the last night in the old Uptown. We did not advertise
As to opening of the new place we wanted to keep the hype down
having learned by now that you are much better learning to walk before
you run. I was so touched that so many people came to say goodbye to the
old place that night. The party went into the wee hours of the morning.
The burning of the ties!
The girls burned their ties on the sidewalks on First Street. They hated
every uniform but this was their most hated.
Last Night, Last Moment
I had a crew coming in at
6am Sunday morning
to start the move. It was going to be a long
day.....week.... month....... We were moving!
To be continued........
If you have anything to add, comments, pictures or memories you would like to
share please don't hesitate to contact me directly at -