By Jim Hagerty
DOWNTOWN — The space at 212 E. State St. lends itself nicely to a quaint eatery for those living, working or playing in downtown Rockford.
That’s what investors thought when they were planning a multi-use project for the old Rockford Furniture building. And that what Paul Sletten thought when he planned on a taco joint for the corner space.
“It’s meant for people coming off the river in flip-flops, but just upscale enough,” said Sletten, a partner in the project who operates Taco Betty’s. “It’s great for groups or someone who’s riding solo looking for a place that’s vibrant and fun with good food. It’s a place to run into someone you know.”
The modern taco restaurant was a concept brought to Sletten by investors in the building, which also includes the rooftop conservatory and event center, The Standard; and street-level shops Tique Furnishings and London Avenue.
Sletten says he’s a fan of tacos, so the owner of downtown’s Abreo and Social was eager to join Brent Hughes, Alan Brown and other partners to make Taco Betty’s a reality.
“I love tacos and I love the building,” Sletten said. “Tacos are fun, easy and casual. They appeal to everyone. And we do modern tacos, so we don’t really have to follow any guidelines. They don’t need to be traditional or unique. We just do whatever we want with them. It’s easy and fun food meant to be eaten in a fast, noisy environment.”
Sletten has seen the ebbs and flows of downtown Rockford over the years. In his 13 years, new attractions have come in and had some success. Others have closed or relocated to follow the trends. That’s been some of the struggle: as countless people have discovered, turning old buildings into sustainable properties is no easy task, especially as downtown has lacked amenities to keep people in the area on regular basis.
That’s all changed now. The Rockford IceHogs, UW Health Sports Complex, City Market and a growing housing stock have paved the way for eateries like Taco Betty’s. However, the partners knew it was a now-or-never opportunity. Downtown space is so in demand, and gone are days of mostly small restaurants and shops.
“The timing couldn’t have been any better,” Sletten said. “If we would have come in five years ago, it may have been too soon. If we would have waited five years, we may not have been able to find a space to do it or even afford to do it.”
Hughes and Brown bought the Rockford Furniture building in 2015 with Dr. Jeff Grumley, Dr. John Koehler, Dr. Jonathan Koehler and Ray Koons for $365,000. Renovations topped off at more than $2 million, so they are in it for the long haul.
It was curtains in 2012 for On the Waterfront, leading some to wonder how downtown would fare without what was once the state’s largest music festival. Rockford leaders said the festival would be replaced by a series of downtown festivals.
But since then, the weekly City Market attracts 100,000 people downtown during the summer. Prairie Street Brewhouse’s Dinner on the Dock packs the riverfront every Thursday. First Fridays and Block Party’s draw visitors to the city’s center from across the area. Each complements the other while they all offer downtown’s growing residential core things to do in their backyard.
“Now, people are living down here, companies are moving down here,” says Sletten. “It’s not just us little 1,200-foot restaurants and boutiques opening up. There are real anchored things happening with real potential to attract other people to come downtown.” R.