Hanging Out In Rockford: A personal journey—part 14

The next few years (after opening the Old Rock River Café) are almost a blur. So many things happened so fast that it’s hard to put them in perspective. One of the first and foremost was our purchase of the State and Madison building. The restaurant business was really successful. We had waiting lines for lunch. Our reputation for food helped us build a night-time business although, then as now, it was hard to get a lot of east-side people to come downtown. We depended mostly on the younger, more adventurous set.

We were leasing from the Woodstock Century Corporation, which was, in turn, buying the building from the bank (First National Bank and Trust). There was another tenant who was running the bowling alley, the pool hall and the back bar, called the Head Pin Lounge. We shared in the utilities. I would pay our share of the utilities to the other tenant, and they, in turn, would pay the utility bills. That was fine, when it happened. Then one day in the middle of lunch, Commonwealth Edison came to shut off the electricity.

In addition, I was paying the rent to the Woodstock Century Corporation, but they were not, in turn, paying the bank. In consultation with the bank, I began to put the rent into an escrow account. It wasn’t long after that that the bank and I came to an agreement for me to buy the building. We took over, and all of a sudden, I was the proprietor of a pool hall and a bowling alley, neither of which I had any previous experience to guide me in running.

We prepared a projection for the bank, and at least on paper the whole thing looked really good. But, like so many business plans, the unforeseen was to be our undoing. About 50 percent of the revenues of the bowling alley were derived from a tournament that had existed for years. It was the main source of income during the summer months or off-season. The big problem was that the old management had absorbed the winnings for the tournament, about $30,000 or $40,000. All the people who bowled in the tournament got cheated out of their winnings.

We didn’t have the kind of capital needed to cover the tournament prizes, so it kind of cooked our goose when it came to running the tournament again. People who had been cheated before were unlikely to return. We ran the bowling alley for a couple of seasons, but without the tournament, there weren’t enough revenues to bring in a profit. This eventually resulted in our taking out the bowling alley, and turning it into a number of things, but more of that later.

The first thing we did after acquiring the building from the bank was to retile the pool hall floor and reopen the Head Pin Lounge as the original Irish Rose. Many people have asked where we got the name for the Irish Rose. We didn’t want to call it a bar, lounge, or saloon. Then a woman I was dating at the time came up with the name, Irish Rose, pure and simple. Frank Schier was the original bartender. We had Guinness on draught, and we ran a contest to find quotes to go under the pictures of the Irish authors. Jamie Bailey submitted most of the winning quotes and won so many Guinnesses that she had to throw a party. John Berry painted the windows in the authentic Celtic design that was to be the trademark of the bar. Later, Katy Sullivan, sister to Jim of the New American Theater, ran the bar. It was during this time that it really flourished.

At this time, there were a bunch of bright young people working at the Rockford Register Star. Most of them lived, worked and played downtown. Among them were Ira Tennowitz, Dianne Belke, Rick Pearson and, of course, my good friend Wendy Vissar, who lived next to me in the building at the corner of First and Market. All of them hung out at my place and wrote, photographed, etc., what was going on. This was greatly responsible for the success of the Old Rock River Café. We haven’t had really positive journalism from the Register Star about downtown in general since that time, in spite of the fact that much more has happened.

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. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the June 1-7, 2005, issue

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