What it’s about—Part 1

July 1, 1993

What it’s about—Part 1

By Mike Leifheit, Columnist

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Woman’s Club March 3.

A husky female voice leaves a message on my answering service. It is the feared and dreaded Gen Schlicher. A tremble works its way through my body. “You promised to give a talk at the Woman’s Club, do you remember?” Unfortunately, I do. Unfortunately, I have a conscience. This woman is relentless, it is no wonder she chose real estate.

She even has a title for my talk, something about restaurants in Rockford. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I cannot remember the topic she’s spoon-fed me. I will have to go it on my own. I decide I want to talk about why I write a column every week for The Rock River Times. Sort of what it is about, and why!

I like Rockford a lot better than I sometimes let on. I was one of those people who disparaged our hometown. I found fault with everything. I bought into the argument that there was a five-year regression for every toll booth as you drove here from Chicago. I dreamed of moving somewhere else. Warmer climates beckoned to me. Memories of my time in Sacramento came flooding back. Never putting my motorcycle away; not having to drain the in-ground pool; not even owning a window scraper or a heavy winter coat.

Then Rockford began to change. Actually, it began to change before I moved to California, some 22 or 23 years ago. The start of the change was the opening of Charlotte’s Web. Jim Vitale opened Jungle Jim’s. Some things were happening in Rockford that evoked the rest of the world.

I went away and lived in California, then Indianapolis, then New York. I worked first for Royal Crown Cola, for Fred Adamany, who ran the local Rockford bottling operation, and then went on to run the national corporation. Then I worked on the East Coast for Coca-Cola, but everywhere I went, I ate in restaurants. Everywhere I went, I stole ideas. Every time I ate a dish I really liked, I tried to recreate it at home. God blessed me with an excellent sense of taste and smell. Usually, I could make whatever I tasted.

My wife and I separated. I was working in New York for the Eastern Area Coca-Cola office as a marketing person. My actual title was merchandising manager. What I usually did was to look at markets and make recommendations to bottlers of Coca-Cola. I think I had a real gift for the job. Then one day my boss fired me. I asked for an exit interview and salvaged my job. I went back to my office and initiated the acquisition of my first restaurant, the Old Rock River Cafe.

I had seen this restaurant in the State and Madison building on a visit to Rockford to visit my son, who was living with his mother and attending Boylan Central Catholic High School. I liked the idea of being close to my son while he finished high school I had always wanted to be in the restaurant business. As a youngster, I had cut my teeth at the Gill’s Diner in North Park, about a block from the little house I grew up in. I was 16 years old. I ran the grill and ordered the stock. I was paid $1 an hour.

Then for a while, I cooked at the Rockford Plaza restaurant. This was where I learned one of my most useful restaurant lessons. My fellow employee showed me how he would steal. He would put steaks in garbage bags and put them in the garbage to take out. Once he was outside, it was a short trip to his car. Being young, I didn’t turn him in.

My next restaurant job was working for Uncle Frank at the Lakeview Supper Club. Uncle Frank was my mother’s lover. Uncle Frank was the mayor of Loves Park. Uncle Frank was a successful gravel pit owner who decided to get into the restaurant business. Uncle Frank used to joke that he knew a guy that had so much money he owned two restaurants.

More next week.

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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