Staying Competitive in the Locally-Owned Restaurant Game

The the world of small town, locally-owned, non-chain restaurants, making good food is the absolute baseline of what you need to survive.

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Some of us are chain restaurant averse. When we travel through small towns, we will go out of our way to find the locally owned diner or family restaurant. If there is one.

Haute cuisine? Wonderful when the opportunity comes along.

Chain restaurant food? We’d rather not.

Family-style restaurant food? Usually good, sometimes really good. Plus, the people watching is fascinating, with friendly kidding and gossip that accompanies the main business of small-town eating.

Locally owned restaurants are not a thing of the past, but they definitely face challenges. Even in our small town of Bushnell, Illinois, population more or less 3,000, our Highway Family Restaurant competes with Subway, Dairy Queen, and Hardee’s, plus a good locally owned Italian restaurant here, and many locally owned and chain restaurants in nearby towns.

In a small town, you need good food, a loyal customer base and drawing power from surrounding areas. That’s the short take on Highway Family Restaurant.

Joe Purelku, 62, is the owner. His three sons and daughters-in-law help keep the place running, serving an average of 200 or so meals a day. He employs 14 or 15 total staff.

Joe came to the United States around 1990, fleeing the violence that gripped Western Macedonia, his native land. There, he had run a cafeteria in Kichevo, but had to leave because the war made him and his family “afraid for our lives.”

Having a brother in New York City helped ease the way into the United States. Joe lived in the city for a few years, working for his brother’s fence and home decoration company, learning English, and going to night school.

On a vacation from New York City to visit a friend in Canton, Illinois, about 30 miles from Bushnell, he was out on a drive and saw his future restaurant for sale along Illinois 41. He sized it up. He decided to buy it. That was 24 years ago.

The Highway Cafe was pretty small, seating about 40. The only restroom was in the kitchen. Under new management, that didn’t last long.

Within a few months, the renamed Highway Family Restaurant had been more than doubled in size with new restrooms and an office in the back. Minor renovations were made over the years to keep the place fresh and competitive.

This year, Joe and family did a total renovation, adding a new shell and roof outside, rearranging the front dining room to put in a counter with stools, expanding the back dining room, and adding new restrooms. The upgrade is well done and represents a significant investment, especially in a small town with numerous socioeconomic challenges.

The new place is friendly and bright, quite different, especially the floors, walls, and lighting. The remodeling added a few seats, but the restaurant seems more spacious than before. The menu was expanded to include healthy foods and senior citizens’ options, plus additional items.

The restaurant stayed open during most of the work, but revamping the interior took almost three weeks longer than expected. The restaurant had to be closed. Customers were patient. The first night back was crowded. The work wasn’t quite finished, so staff faced some confusion and stress. They deserved the flowers a few thoughtful people sent. It was wonderful to see the changes and the crowd and overhear the compliments.

Twenty-four years is a pretty good run in the restaurant business, and Joe has built a loyal following of older folks and families and workers passing through town at noon. As a newcomer to the country, Illinois, and Bushnell so many years ago, he remembers that the “good people made it easier. I’ve been lucky. We are so blessed. They made us feel welcome.” 

“Where neighbors and families meet to eat” serves its customers all year long. The restaurant is open until early afternoon on holidays so folks have a place to go for a good meal. Out of loyalty to customers, Joe’s family celebrates its holidays after closing for the day. With grandchildren in the picture, this might not be so easy in the future.

Long hours, care for the customers, good service, and quality of the food seem to be part of the ingredients that have kept Highway Family Restaurant in business.

“We do the best we can do,” Joe says, adding, “This town needs a good family place, a nice meal for a reasonable price.”

The renovation was not only hopeful for a small rural town in the corn and soybean fields of Western Illinois. It is, according to Joe, an “investment for the future of the family and the employees.”

Highway Family Restaurant isn’t exactly like a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives spot. It is straightforward, friendly, reliable, with pretty darned good home-cooked food.

You can’t ask for much more.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Joe Purelku’s last name. The Yonder regrets the error.

Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He is the author of a recently released fantasy book, Memories of Santa Claus, as well as Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.

 

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