Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 21

I came out of the Old Rock River Café deeply in debt. I never really made any money there, but I kept it glued together for 10 years. The bank worked with me, and they often wound up paying the property taxes. Everything the business actually made, we pumped back in trying to get the whole thing to fly on its own. But finally, I got tired of never having a vacation, and I decided it was time to make a change.

Actually, it was inspired by my lawsuit against the MetroCentre. One day the president of the bank tactfully suggested that I try to sell the business. I told him I had thought about that, but I had no idea of what price to put on it. He gave me the name of a local Realtor. When I called the number, one of the partners in The Main Event answered the phone. A light bulb went on in my head. I called my attorney and dropped the lawsuit. This got the city off my back temporarily, but I still wasn’t making any money.

One of my good customers was Ken Ritz the attorney. One day I was commiserating with him about my inability to make ends meet and my desire to move on to something else. He suggested I file a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I was initially reluctant, but the more he explained things, the more it seemed to make sense. What I would actually be doing is filing for protection under Chapter 11, and I would be able to renegotiate my contract with the bank. As he put it then, before the filing, if I wanted to see my banker, I would have to call him and make an appointment at his convenience. After the filing, he would call me and come to my business when he wanted to talk.

I still wanted to be in the restaurant business. I had met a Dr. Gautam Gupta at the state’s attorney’s office one day when I was trying to collect on a bad check. He was there to recover his Dictaphone that had been stolen from his office. We became friends, and I asked him to purchase a building for me to renovate into a restaurant. He agreed. This became the basis for my Chapter 11 reorganization. The building he bought is the present-day Irish Rose.

Dr. Gupta bought the building from Ben McCarthy and gave me money toward leasehold improvements. My ex-wife Robin stayed at the old Irish Rose and ran it alone while I worked for months to renovate the new place. We couldn’t have survived without the generous help of Ken Ahlstrand and Dave Casazza. They purchased the State and Madison building from the bank and generously allowed us to stay while they were remodeling the rest of the building for offices. They didn’t even charge us rent or utilities.

Shortly before we filed for Chapter 11, the city conducted one of its underage sting operations. They brought a couple of underage kids into the bar we called Pockets, and a fairly new bartender served them. They had ordered us to close for a week because of this infraction, but we wouldn’t have any place to close. I volunteered to close for a week at the new place, but they weren’t buying it. They were trying to put me between a rock and a hard place. They were trying to put us out of business.

Dave and Ken saw me working, tearing out the refrigeration and other things that I would need in the new location. They respected that. I’ll never forget Dave talking to the city attorney on the pay phone in the old Irish Rose with Ken standing behind him. Ken said to tell her that we had a lease for as long as it was going to take. Dave told her just that, as long as it takes. Later, Ken confided to me that the city had “spanked” them for helping me out.

So we moved down the street, but there were to be more obstacles before we could open.

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 Aug. 3-9, 2005, issue

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