Hanging Out in Rockford: Hard times

By Mike Leifheit

2009 was a hard year for a lot of folks. Here at the Irish Rose, it presented us with the first unprofitable months in our existence. We had always made money from the first day we opened the doors. When I left the State and Madison building, I had a stack of bills so high I avoided adding it up because I knew I would bum myself out. I was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It took me several years to pay off what I owed to my creditors. But we were always profitable, right from the start in our present location.

The trouble with having your business doing too well is that you accumulate too many things that you think you need. I say “think” because you are used to doing or having them, and you don’t want to set them aside. The good part about bad times is that they force you to re-evaluate your priorities and make you realize the things that you think are so important are not as important as you make them out to be.

Over the past few months, I have reversed or improved up to $40,000 a year in incomes and expenditures. Now that things appear to be turning around, that same cutting of expenses will help us to make profit again. I hope we have learned our lesson and will not add on those things that we discarded, and our profit will be greater, even at lower overall numbers than it was before.

Hard times cause you to take a more active role in your business, too. It makes you try new things. Such is the case with our sausage and beer dinners, which are a resounding success. Right from the start, I wanted them to be a value. The first couple of times around, we pitched them at $10. This was a stroke of genius, as folks were looking for value, and they were a phenomenal value.

After a while, though, I wanted to do something besides pork, and I raised the price to $15, tax included, and it didn’t slow them down a bit. In fact, they increased in participation, but it probably has something to do with the choices. Now, sometimes we sell out before we place the ad in The Rock River Times. In fact, last month, we didn’t even run the ad, and we sold all the tickets we had. It has inspired us to consider another Tuesday event, a vegetarian wine dinner, perhaps the first Tuesday of the month. I’ll let you know when we make up our mind. Jonathon is working up a menu.

I see the same thing in my friend Sandi across the street. She has been active in her building in a way that I have not seen for a while. Hard times bring out the best in all of us. Her new shop is a credit to the neighborhood. Paul is working hard, day and night, to put something where Cru used to be. That should bring a lot of new interest to the neighborhood. Frank Calvanese (who incidentally has the best pizza in the city—yes, I said the best) is starting the remodel on the front of his building after the crazy motorcyclist drove the car through his front window. The new look is bound to help his business, too.

All in all, business has been unbelievably brisk here in Block 5. Two weeks ago, the Irish Rose had a 14 percent increase over the same week last year. In February, we saw increases three out of four weeks. I think a lot of it is our new $10.95 or less Pub Menu, something I had thought about for years, but was always afraid to initiate, until there were hard times. Again, hard times make you re-evaluate, and they make you experiment.

This summer is going to be a great one in Block 5. Vinnie has re-established the Red Lion as a force by trimming hours and improving profitability. Bamboo shows no signs of slowing up from its impressive opening. Not that far away from our block we have Kuma’s able management. (I think Kuma is one of the smartest restaurant people I have ever met.) And within walking distance to the east is Uncle Nick’s reopening of his Micro Pub Oasis, where they sell all their craft beers too cheap—yes, too cheap. Hard times make you do things like that.

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 March 17-23, 2010 issue

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