Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 13

I was working in New York and immediately after I gave notice at Coca-Cola USA, Angelo Bruscato called and told me that the liquor license for my new restaurant wouldn’t go through. I wasn’t prepared to worry about it. I decided to go to dinner. I had heard about a Chinese restaurant in Scarsdale. I wanted to go there before leaving New York. The dish I had was really interesting, especially the pink sauce. I pressed the waiter for an analysis. I could taste the garlic and the onion in the sauce but I couldn’t account for its pink color. Ketchup was his answer. A group of ladies at an adjacent table told me that they thought I had great knowledge about food and what was it I did? I owned a restaurant was my answer. And I did, for at least a couple of hours at that point.

Back in Rockford, I started to put my new restaurant together. Through the help of my friend Jim Hughes, I was able to pull together a number of his friends, who helped me get the mechanical work done. I wanted to structure the restaurant along the lines of places I had seen in California while I was working there. I had fallen in love particularly with downtown Sacramento, and I wanted to emulate that kind of feeling. I thought downtown Rockford could become that cool.

Imported and boutique beers and wine by the glass (mostly Californian) were to be the focus of the bar. I remember the fellow from Woodstock general corporation, my landlord, telling me that they had tried to sell imported beer, and that you couldn’t sell imported beer in Rockford. Cocky young thing that I was, I said that they just hadn’t known how to sell imported beer. Cocky or not, I proved myself right. When we opened, we had a list of more than 100 beers. Now remember, this was 25 years ago. I displayed them in an open cooler where the customer could select them for his or her self. This was the key to getting it started.

We had deli sandwiches that had things like sprouts and avocado on them. We cooked all our sandwich meats from scratch and used the best and freshest ingredients we could obtain. Our lunches were a huge success, and there would usually be a waiting line for our 20-plus tables. After a month or so we opened for dinner. The evening business was harder to come by. We decided to try music to fill the place up on the weekends.

Robin, my ex-wife, had seen a group called PeeWee and the Wristers (originally the hand jobs). She waxed rhapsodic. They turned out to be a real blessing. They were the first band we booked, and they did fill the place up. Pretty soon, we were crowded every Friday and Saturday. The kitchen progressed, and we began to find a loyal nighttime crowd in the dining room. But not what I expected. I tried to price promote to bring in additional customers. But to no avail. Our customer base was loyal, but not very large. At this point in time, all we did by cutting our price was to reduce our revenues.

We instead had to play it the other way. We were unique, and we charged more for what we did because we were basically the only show in town. This went against my RC Cola upbringing. I had always piled it high and sold it cheap. But the number of adventurous people who would venture into downtown Rockford was limited. We had to back into prices that would support us based on a fixed number of clientele. I stopped selling sandwiches at night and sold only dinners. Our crowds were not as big, but our numbers were a lot better.

So we were basically this upstart business in this old building with an antique bar that I had dreamed about. What we were able to create emulated the feeling I had encountered in Sacramento. We were paying our bills pretty well. I was living in a little apartment on Market Street that was owned by Jon Bystrom and Doug Bruno. I had successfully made the transition from Coca-Cola to private entrepreneur. I could envision the downtown of my dreams. The future looked so bright, I had to wear shades.

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com, and featured on WNTA talk radio AM 1330. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the May 25-31, 2005, issue

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