Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 26

Right after we moved into the new location, the City decided to revamp every road leading to us. Every single means of access was shut down. Income we had predicated for our success was missing. We could hardly pay our day-to-day debts, much less reduce any of the debt we had brought with us from the old location. Fortunately, our landlord, Dr. Gupta, was understanding and let us slide on the rent for some period of time. Later, he and I worked out a deal to repay him by increasing the rent.

So we survived again. But the City was not through with us. They sent in another sting operative. This one was only 19 years old, but they dressed her in a business suit with pointy-rimmed glasses and her hair up. She sat at the bar by herself and ordered a beer. This was totally unlike the behavior of the usual underagers trying to get served. They usually come in in groups and order some kind of Frou-Frou drink. The telltale signs were not there. Robin, my ex-wife, served her. My friend Doug Busch noticed her and said all he did was check her out. He said that she didn’t look underage, or he would have warned me. He had before.

There wasn’t another person in the room under the age of 30. We weren’t in the habit of serving underage persons. We didn’t cater to that crowd, but no matter, they had caught us with our pants down, and the price would have to be paid. We had to close, this time for a full week. Undaunted, I refused to close the restaurant portion of our business. Through Dr. Gupta, I secured the services of two Indian friend cooks of his, and I became an Indian restaurant for a week. Since there was no Indian restaurant in Rockford at this time, and Dr. Gupta had a good input into the Indian community, we barely lost any sales at all. This was hated by the powers that were, but we survived to fight another day.

We then entered a period of unbridled success. Over the next few years, we paid off all the debts from the old place. I began to think about opening another place. I had always wanted more than one restaurant and it seemed like the time was right. I began to look around. (I was involved in a restaurant in Loves Park while still at the Old Rock River Café location. My partners were Jerry Dal Pra and Dick Provi. In this instance, I had been approached by Jerry to remodel and create a restaurant out of the old Prime Cut Restaurant they owned. This was Tony Salamonie’s first restaurant, originally a Howard Johnson’s. We did a Mexican-themed restaurant with Irish beer. We called it Rosalita Malone’s. I think to this day that we were just ahead of the neighborhood.)

I looked all around the area in neighboring towns, Freeport, Oregon, Belvidere and finally settled on Rockton. I wanted to build a state-of-the-art restaurant utilizing both a wood oven and wood grill. I had incorporated a wood grill into the present Irish Rose location to great success, but I wanted the flexibility that having a real brick oven would give me in the kitchen. I looked for a wood oven expert on the Internet. This was in the fairly early days of the Internet. My friend Mike Reilly and his son had opened an Internet consulting business in John Sykaluk’s building across the way from the Irish Rose.

The first name that popped up on our search was Oven Crafters of Petaluma, Calif. I made a telephone call and talked for the first time to Alan Scott. This resulted in my making a trip to California to see what Alan had to offer. He had built literally hundreds of wood-fired ovens all over the state of California. We stayed in his wonderful old house located in the former Synanon. We arose at 4 in the morning to make black wheat bread in the outdoor oven. We were sold; Alan was coming to Rockton to build our oven.

While we were in California, I looked around at the restaurant scene. I was pleased to see that California in general had moved in many of the same directions I had in my food and menu presentation. Gone were the overblown menu descriptions (Pan seared filet of bungo-bungo, sautéed with bla-bla, tossed with frou-frou and arrayed on a bed of whatchamcallit. Totally insecure and over explanatory. On this note, there is no such thing as Tomato Bruschetta; Bruschetta is toast, made over from yesterday’s bread.) The emphasis was on fresh ingredients and simple preparation. A typical menu item would be offered simply as in Roast Chicken. Only when you received it would you find out that it was pasted with fresh herbs and served with pan-roasted fresh vegetables and potatoes. I liked it. I adopted it fully. Rockford still has a long way to catch up.

So we bought an old donut shop in Rockton and started to remodel it. Mike Reilly helped me put most of the interior together. The vision was mostly mine, but the refinishing and finishing was all Mike. He did a wonderful job. The biggest compliment I ever received on the Rockton location was that it looked like it had always been there. It still does.

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 Sept. 14-20, 2005, issue

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