Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 27

When I opened the restaurant in Rockton, I was undecided on an operating philosophy. One part of me wanted it to be an upscale little bistro with emphasis on good wine and even better food. The other side of me was thinking only about the success of the operation. That side said to open it cheap. I chose the former. I should have chosen the latter.

We did have one brief period of success. My friend Mike Reilly came back from the South, and for a while he managed the restaurant. He was the greatest front-end man I have ever seen. But then he was a top salesman at Lexus when he worked there. He had all the local celebs eating out of his hand, and quite a few from out of town, too. Basically, he just did a fantastic job of selling our program, fresh food with no preservatives being the centerpiece of our philosophy. But Mike could sell it better than anyone.

Unfortunately, he bored easily, and was hard on the help. It wasn’t long before Jose, our cook, and his wife Maria refused to work for him, and the whole thing fell apart. This started the demise of the Rockton location. We went through a series of managers, some good, some bad, but the general trend was a downward spiral. The locals were resistant to what they thought was a high-falutin‘ restaurant. The local folks with money, the bedroom community contingent, were so over stressed with house and Lexus/SUV payments they couldn’t afford to go out to eat the early part of the week, and if they did they went to something like Jessica’s where they could get a sandwich for $5.95.

Our weekends were busy, but the first week of the month we would do 50 percent of our weekly average, and Monday through Wednesday, you could shoot a cannon and not hit anyone in our dining room. Clearly, I had made the wrong decision. And as Anthony Bourdain will tell you, once a restaurant has the stink of death, don’t hesitate, just bail. We did have some very loyal customers; a lot of them come downtown to this day. We also maintained a good reputation, right to the end.

Unfortunately, I stuck it out too long. One day, my friend Elisha and I were at the Nissan dealership looking for a new car for her. While we were standing there, they wheeled out a beautiful new 350 Z. After looking at the sticker, I looked at her and said I could buy one for every year I had owned Rockton, one in a different color for each day of the week. Right there and then, I made a decision to close the Rockton restaurant. The following week I did.

That same summer, the city shut our street down again. We responded with some good deals and managed to have a respectable summer, but it was coming up to the presidential elections, and that is a hard time for restaurants. I think it’s more about the indecision than anything else. This was the same time I had my heart attack. Things were not looking good. Restaurants were closing all over the city. More restaurants closed than I have seen in any comparable time period in the city of Rockford. For the first time in the 25 years I had been in the food business, I was losing money.

I decided to meet with my staff and discuss our options. We met outside in the sidewalk café. We talked about ideas and what we could do to stimulate the business. They were very forthcoming. I had some ideas of my own.

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. 21-27, 2005, issue

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