By Mike Leifheit
I don’t write a column (last week). It seems like so many things are happening in my life that I just don’t have time. Friday night, I am walking down to Deli Italia/Trinacria Bar to have a glass of wine when I notice that the lights are out in Cru and that there is a note in the window indicating that its days are over. I am always sad to lose a fellow business downtown, but Cru has held a special place in my heart because of the friendship I have with Damien and his girlfriend Katrina.
Downtown Rockford is a hard place to do business. All of us who are down here do it for the dream. The dream of having a place that is different from the corporate-dominated crap on the east side of town. A place that is real—Rockford real. A place that stands out in the region, where you can come to get food that is a little better, wine that is a little better, music that is live and different, too. The mayor, Larry Morrissey, shares that dream. It is a foregone conclusion that towns that have a vibrant downtown community fare better overall. Larry is always saying that.
Classy folks who run big corporations are not impressed by our east side. Our east side is exactly the same as every other upscale, reprocessed farmland development anywhere else in the world. The same signs hang outside. The same mediocre, mass-produced food awaits within. There are only so many ways you can configure melted cheese. There is only so much you can do with mechanically-separated meat. These places are for the masses. It’s the old H.L. Mencken thing about how you will never go broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
In any other city, Cru would have been full all the time. It isn’t so much a reflection on Rockford that it wasn’t as it is a reflection of the local media and how they fail to perceive what we all are trying to do. They just don’t get it. Or perhaps its not ignorance, but survival: their success is predicated on the masses. The fact that there is a collection of hometown restaurants trying to do things that are real, simple and unique seems to be totally lost on them. Perhaps if they were to hire some folks with a little knowledge? But that’s probably too much to expect.
The only place where this type of endeavor can survive is downtown. That’s the only area of town where there are old buildings that are affordable, that have the charm necessary (real charm, not contrived, manufactured “oldness”). It won’t cost you a million bucks to get involved, but you probably won’t make a million, either. A number of people have come together over the years to make this whole downtown thing work. They are a plucky bunch. They bring something to Rockford that you just cannot get out of a can.
Running a small, independent restaurant in these times is difficult, at best. Profits all accrue in the top 15 percent of operation. Remove that 15 percent, and there are no profits. That makes running any business difficult. It’s all about cash flow. Inclement weather or the threat thereof made for a couple of especially bad weeks in December and January. When times are tough, the independent operator has to have a lot of faith to keep going. Sometimes you lie awake at night wondering, “How can I make this payroll?” or “Will this tax check clear?” You are going to have to put up with this if you are going to be in business in downtown Rockford.
In spite of this negativity, the weekends are now great business-wise. Fridays and Saturdays are out the door. The following Saturday, I take the same walk. All the storefronts are bustling. Bamboo, our newest neighbor, is packed. Brio is full to capacity. I laugh to myself and feel both good and bad. I can’t help but wonder if Damien had just held out one more week if it would have given him the cash flow to see his way through. I sit in Deli Italia/Trinacria Bar and eat the delicious stuffed peppers Michelle serves me. Then, I walk back to the Rose and climb the stairs to my little apartment. I love living in this time in downtown Rockford, and I hope it goes on for a very long while.
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 Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 2010 issue