Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 24

The front room that was to become the bar had a beautiful coffered ceiling. It had been covered during the ’60s by a dropped false ceiling. This false ceiling also covered half the remaining portion of the windows. The bottom of the windows had been bricked up, and the part that was not bricked in was covered with a Pabst Blue Ribbon plastic window covering. The night I made the deal to trade Dennis Clements some equipment for restoring the full-length windows, I was so excited that I could not sleep.

Originally, the ceiling had been covered with burlap, and then the coffering had been put up over the burlap covering. Over the years, the burlap had been painted countless times, giving it a smooth look like it had been plastered. But from years of leaking roofs, the burlap had deteriorated and was hanging down. To recreate the look of the original ceiling, we had to cut and fit sheetrock to each of the spaces. These had to be cut and fit individually, as every one was a slightly different size and then screwed into place. All of this was done on a scaffold, and the entire process took more than a month.

After the ceiling was finished, it had to be painted. This took another week’s time. Rosanne Pumilia picked the colors for the entire restaurant. She had the best eye for color of anyone I knew. She used a lime green color we found on the coffering under several layers of paint. She thought it would age nicely with the cigarette smoke. The walls were to be a mustard color. She had me apply several quarts of paint to the wall before she was satisfied. It remains the same today.

The day we were to open, we still did not have tables and chairs at 5 p.m. Nor did we have a budget for any. Frank Schier took his van down to the State and Madison building. He personally talked Ken Ahlstrand and Dave Casazza into giving me the old tables and chairs out of the Old Rock River Café. They had acquired them with the building. I remember heaving a huge sigh of relief when he returned, and a group of friends started unloading them from the truck. We opened about an hour later and did $1,300 our first day in business.

We still weren’t able to open the back dining room, the one that was Ma’s Café. The zoning didn’t cover that. The old bar had been zoned for liquor, and that presented no problem, but the zoning didn’t cover the new back dining room. Actually, this is all part of a larger story, one I will detail further on, about how the city tried to prevent us from opening in the new location. But the room wasn’t finished anyhow; it had no carpet.

I got a line on a company in Elk Grove where I might be able to get the kind of carpet we were looking for. Roseanne wanted it to be a paisley with red and blue tones. I went to the bank and cashed a check for $1,000 and set out for Elk Grove. At the carpet outlet, one of the salesmen had an epiphany, there were 70 yards left from a casino in Aruba. We needed 69. It turned out to have a different color scheme, but one we could adjust to. The reds matched the red in the ceiling. All we had to do was change the wall colors. They sold it to me for $1,000; it was originally $70 a yard.

The check I cashed at the bank overdrew our account. Because we had had an account for 10 years and had never written a bad check, the teller didn’t bother to check my balance when she cashed it. Thank heaven, or I wouldn’t have had the money to purchase the carpet. That evening I was back at the restaurant, and the carpet installers were laying the carpet. I became aware that the account was overdrawn. I didn’t want to write another bad check to them. It was going to be hard enough to cover the existing overdraft.

To raise cash to get the doors open, I had come up with a scheme to raise some extra money. For $500 I was selling $1,000 in prospective purchases. I had pitched the offer to everyone I knew, and quite a few people bought them. A well-known local industrialist was sitting at my bar. I sat down next to him. He asked how it was going. I answered that it wasn’t going very well and shared the story about buying the carpet and the check having been bad. I was going to have to rob the change box if I was going to make any attempt to pay the carpet installers. “So now would probably be a pretty good time to buy a couple of those deals,” he said. It was music to my ears.

He handed me a wad of $100 bills. I counted 13. I said there was too much money, that they were only $500 each. “Keep it,” he said, “We’ll probably buy a couple more.” I was able to pay the carpet people. Tragedy was averted again by the narrowest of margins, but there were other concerns. The city had been actively trying to keep us from opening.

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the Aug. 24-30, 2005, issue

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