From powdered potatoes to homemade heaven on a plate
After retiring from a 20-year commercial real estate career, John Zimka picked up the reins of an Illinois café and kicked it into its second act.
Tackling the menu with determination, Zimka got rid of old “diner style” staples like powdered potatoes and canned gravy and ushered in menu items such as fish tacos and stuffed potato pancakes, as he went about revamping Tony’s Café of Crystal Lake, Ill.
“Tony’s was at the tail end of its run after 20 years in business when I decided to purchase it about five years ago,” says Zimka. “The business had dwindled and the first thing I did was introduce a new menu. We revamped the menu to a modern, all-homemade and from scratch cuisine, and it’s paying off. We were recently voted best breakfast and best soups in our county by the Northwest Herald newspaper.”
Zimka also breathed new life into the staid atmosphere: he opened an 80-seat patio that people stand in line for in good weather, and brightened the diner’s main room with chalk artwork done by his son Joey and daughter Lauren.
He explains more about his approach to comfort-food dining in Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success.
Q: Please explain how you switched up the menu at Tony’s?
We introduced an all-homemade, from scratch, menu and made it eclectic. So, we now serve breakfast tacos, fish tacos, breakfast quesadillas, a chef’s burrito and a breakfast burrito. We also make several kinds of waffles with ice cream, whipped cream, bacon and blueberries and an incredible banana bread French Toast. Our most popular item is stuffed potato pancakes, which are stacked with eggs, bacon, sausage, cheese and covered with sausage gravy. It’s quite a meal!
Q: Who do you compete against for customers?
We’re in the suburbs of Chicago and my competition is really not that great. We have a lot of corporates, like, for example, Denny’s. In order to survive as an independent, you’ve got to stand out and be different and special. If you’re not you’re gone. So, our focus on offering real food, made from scratch has really helped us stay ahead of the competition.
Q: How did you attract customers to your door?
We really played on curiosity. The original Tony’s has been around since it was opened in 1994. And there was a base of longtime customers who knew the restaurant was under new management. We publicized our commitment to bring them good food in every way we could, running small promotions showing off our new menu. And I also added an 80-seat outdoor patio that faces south and became an instant hit. People will wait in line to eat outside in good weather, and helps to make Tony’s even more appealing.
Q: Inside the restaurant you feature chalkboard art. What’s that about?
My son Joey and daughter Lauren are both artists. My son’s a graphic designer and soccer coach, and we change out the chalkboard once a month with new graphics that are inspired by our customers. We’ve created competitions for the kids who come in, giving them paper and crayons and asking them to draw pictures of something they’d like to be up on the chalkboard.
Q: Who is a typical Tony’s customer?
Our crowd is very diverse. During the daytime lunch hour, we get a lot of elderly, some mom’s, and a mix. Though we’re situated near a high school, we don’t get many kids. We have a church across the street and after Sunday mass we get a big rush.
Q: What has been your biggest obstacle?
When I first came in, it was getting the kitchen onboard for the changes. I was making all my employees angry. I created new recipes and insisted they make everything going by those recipes instead of throwing stuff together the way some of them once did. They weren’t used to it. But, maintaining consistency (with the product) has been the biggest obstacle. But, once you have success at something, people expect that all the time. So, consistency has to be job one.
Q: What’s your background in hospitality?
I was a restaurant owner 35 years ago before I got into commercial real estate, which I did for 20 years. Once I retired from that, I realized there might be an opportunity to step in at Tony’s, because the original owner was retiring. The restaurant business is like an infection—it always comes back! And, so I found myself returning to my roots and getting back into hospitality.
Q: How did you learn about food and cooking?
I always enjoyed cooking. Where I live, I was always the guy on the block who did the Super Bowl cooking. And I paid attention to my Mom’s cooking. We’re Polish, and had some specialties that really worked, things like stuffed cabbages and other recipes. But she also learned by watching her what not to do.
Q: What advice do you have for budding restauranteurs?
I’ve had customers say to me, “Oh boy, I’d like to open up my own restaurant. It sounds really fun!” And I tell them I think they’re idiots. Owning a restaurant is very hard work, and most people don’t understand that going in. But, like I said, it gets into your blood. — Tony’s Café uses Boxerbrand’s Café Style menu covers in their table presentation. Thank you!