Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 15

The Old Rock River Café had all the earmarks of becoming a tremendous success. At lunchtime, people would line up to wait for a table. The pool hall was packed at all hours of the day. In the evening, we developed a terrific bar crowd. The only thing that seemed to be holding us back was the bowling alley. Its costs exceeded its income. I decided to do something about it. We obtained a redevelopment loan from the city and set about tearing it out.

This was no small feat as the bowling alley was located on the second floor. I hired a subcontractor to tear out the lanes. When we pulled up the lanes, we were horrified to find out that there was a covering of cinder ash over the entire floor, about 2 feet deep. All of this had to be shoveled out by hand and wheeled over to an open window, where it was transferred by conveyor to trucks waiting below. Luckily, our contractor was able to sell the cinder to the county to spread on country roads and therefore was able to get it hauled away for free.

But then our problems escalated when under the cinder ash we discovered that they had not smooth finished the cement floor. They probably never envisioned the bowling alley being taken out. The solution to this was to pour a new 4-inch thick cement cap and have it finished. Over this cement we applied a clear wax-type finish. After this room was cleared, we used it for large gatherings and banquets. This was our most successful time financially. Our annual revenues exceeded $1 million. The bowling alleys themselves wound up in some pretty interesting places. They still reside (I think) on the countertops in Ken Ritz’s kitchen. They also comprise the bar in the back room out at the Sports Page.

A lot of this banquet business was ethnic clientelé. It was through this connection with the Asian and Mexican communities that I developed many of the relationships that I hold with these communities to this very day. But I wasn’t really happy with the direction that the business was going. I had wanted to have a more upscale and smaller business. I didn’t like the disparate climate of the business. I wanted it to be more homogeneous. Then an old attorney friend of mine, Ken Ritz, suggested that a friend of his, Many Olivera was looking for a home for his production of a medieval dinner theater. This sounded like something that would give us the additional income we needed and fit better with what we had going on downstairs. We borrowed some more money and set about creating the Castle Keep.

Initially, the Castle Keep brought in additional revenue. But then, for whatever reason, the crowds for the dinner and show started to fall off. One day I found Many in tears because he could not make his payroll. I took him for a long walk and gave him a pep talk. That seemed to do the job. But a week or so later, he moved out in the middle of the night leaving my security door open at the back of the building. I wasn’t paid for my share (the food and drink portion) of the last show. We had to find something new to do with the upstairs.

This was to come in the form of Endless Nights and my friend Bruce Hammond. Bruce had operated a music bar of the same name out on the far east side of Rockford. He was looking for somewhere to move. Bruce knew the music scene. He would book the bigger acts that required cover upstairs. It looked like a marriage made in heaven. And in some ways it was, except that this was the ’80s, and there was another player on the scene, cocaine.

In the meantime, we had been trying new things downstairs, too. My friend Jim Hughes and I opened a small bar in the front of the building, which we called Pockets. Next door to it, I opened the Blue Room, which featured a fantasy wall finish by John Berry. Initially, this was to be a standup bar patterned after bars like those in New York. Rockford wasn’t ready for a standup bar, so we tried it as a girl bar. That was successful for a short time. We added another bar at the pool hall desk and another one in the big hall in the basement, where we would book additional music acts. It was the era of the bar mall, the largest bar that this town has ever seen.

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 8-14, 2005, issue

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