Quit Quashing the Quirky: Support Small Businesses

Quit Quashing the Quirky: Support Small Businesses

Years ago, I was assigned to write a series of Chicago Tribune articles set in Princeton, IL, the historic Bureau County seat that grew up along U.S. Rt. 6, about two hours west of Chicago, and an hour east of the Quad Cities.

After I wrapped interviews one day, the Princeton Chamber of Commerce director winked and said, “C’mon, I want to show you a special place out of town.” We got in his car and motored winding, forested roads a few miles south before pulling up at a low-slung motel overlooking a picturesque lake in the middle of nowhere. “Welcome to the Ranch House, ” the chamber czar said.

The Ranch House looked so much like the Bates Motel of Hitchcockian fame that I half expected to find Tony Perkins behind the front desk, battling odd facial tics. A 1950s-era neon sign with a blazing arrow beckoned to the parking lot, and an old, creaking wood plank walkway led to the handful of rooms.

The motel had the same air of abandonment as the hostelry in Psycho. Yet it was wide open for business, as was its attached dining room.

Ambling into the Ranch House Restaurant was akin to stepping through worn oaken doors into the immediate post-War era. The eatery showcased dark wood paneling, booths of virgin Naugahyde, and a decorating style time had forgotten. Yet it radiated a cheerful air. We slid into a booth with the owner and ordered up the mouth-watering specials, “whiskey steak” and battered, deep-fried pickles.

The grub was bested only by the stories told of the Ranch House.

A colorful legacy

It turned out that the history of the motel and restaurant was as unique as its ambiance. In the 1950s, the legend went, a handful of Chicago politicians made an autumn ritual of skipping town for a long weekend on a west-bound train. At the first stop out of the city, they’d be joined by their best friends, a pack of Cicero mobsters. Thus assembled, the fun-loving group of cronies would travel until the train hit Bureau Junction, home of the Ranch House. There, they would hunt, fish, and be entertained by area gals practicing a profession as old as time.

Returning to Chicago, I couldn’t stop trumpeting the charms of the Ranch House. I pleaded with anyone with the slightest urge to weekend in Bureau County to book a stay at the old motel, and sup at least once in its restaurant. Several took me up on the suggestion, and ended up loving the place as much as I did. When out-of-state friends came to the Windy City, I always squeezed a visit to the Ranch House into the itinerary. After all, I reasoned, a place that unusual, that distinctive, that one-of-a-kind couldn’t survive much longer.

Of course, it didn’t. It wasn’t three years after my discovery of the Ranch House that I got the sad news that it was gone. In a more urban setting, it would have been razed to make way for one more chain submarine sandwich shop, or another in an endless string of national bank branches or chain pharmacies.

But since it wasn’t, it simply burned down. Arson? No one knows.

Iconoclastic ancestry

In the lineage of idiosyncratic small businesses, the Ranch House was a cousin to a variety store in my hometown that sold anything the owner could buy off the back of a truck, from tackle boxes to tape recorders. It was of the same family tree as a much-beloved German eatery on Chicago’s north side that felt like a mini vacation to Bavaria each time you visited. It was a distant relative of a quixotic amusement park where generations of northeast Illinoisans relished their first Tilt-a-Wheel rides.

All the above have passed into memory now, replaced by condominiums, parking lots and in one case, the latest outpost of a national home center chain.

These recollections aren’t just random, misty, watercolor memories. Consider the existence of Small Business Saturday, the post-Thanksgiving and Black Friday event designed to encourage folks to shop small, independently-owned stores, boutiques, and service businesses for their holiday gift purchases.

That’s a noble cause, and one I applaud. But we ought to be shopping and dining small most days of every year, not just one. If we don’t, the future for America’s subsequent generations may be as absent of independently-owned businesses as it could be of spotted owls, Siberian tigers, and mountain gorillas.

Sure, there should be a place in the world for chain restaurants, convenience stores, bank offices, cinema megaplexes, and discount retailers.

But through our quest for the quick and convenient, we’ve made them so ubiquitous that when traveling it’s getting harder and harder to tell Dallas from Philadelphia, Seattle from Jacksonville, or New Orleans from Detroit.

Moral of the story

If there’s a place for national chains, there should also be one for the family-run, non-plasticized, non-homogenized, non-Seal-of-Approval-endorsed business. The kind of enterprise that doesn’t just sell you a product, service or meal, but leaves you with a memory, an anecdote to recount to friends and just maybe a friendship with the personable owner dependent on your business.

If we all back independent stores, eateries, and hostelries with our dollars, we can help ensure at least a few of them will still be around years from now. We can think of it as our holiday gift, and indeed a priceless one, to generations yet unborn.

7 Responses to “Quit Quashing the Quirky: Support Small Businesses”

  1. Anonymous

    For 10 years during the 1980’s I had the great pleasure of dining and staying many weekends throughout the fall and early winter at the Ranch House Motel and Restaurant.

    While the rooms were a little on the tired side (albeit clean), the restaurant was top of the line for great dining and cocktails. Steaks, seafood, salads, pork chops, chicken and whole fried catfish, a specialty of the house. The waitresses were very attentive to the diners and their wants, often juggling the menu to accommodate a particular culinary desire. They were also experienced enough to keep a wonderful sense of humor on hand when it was needed or wanted.

    The bar was large yet comfortable for extended conversations and entertainment both before and after dinner. You could even start with a pre-dinner cocktail then order dinner from the bar with the waitress seating you when the dinners were ready to be served. Real ice cream was always on hand for those extra special, after dinner foo-foo drinks.

    The main dining room was large though often not large enough for the crowd which invariably arrived for dinner Saturday evenings from as far away as Chicago. The bar proved itself to be a wonderful holding area for diners awaiting tables. The best surprise though was the porch dining room which afforded a view of the lake during the daylight hours. I would often stop there on a return trip from Peoria after visiting relatives to have Sunday lunch with my mother. She is a true aficionado of fried catfish, who always proclaimed the Ranch House as the best.

    I still have one of the old style brown coffee cups so prevalent in diners in my collection of cups from all over the U.S. It’s nothing different or special except that I know it came from the Ranch House and I will sometimes reminisce about the great friends and memorable times we shared there.

    Thanks for letting me dust off the cobwebs for s few minutes of remembering.

  2. Anonymous

    Nice column, Jeffrey. Whenever I spend a few bucks in a local, independent business, I imagine that money working to keep the community healthy and charming. I hope many heed your advice.

  3. Anonymous

    Well-written article. When I travel to another city, I make it a rule to never eat at a restaurant that we have back home. I like to taste and experience something different in every city and what makes that city unique. Also, in my home city, I love going to restaurants that are locally owned. I also like to go to my locally owned hardware store so I don’t have to walk a mile up and down aisles trying to find what I’m looking for. I just ask the owner at the front counter!

  4. Anonymous

    What an excellent article and beautifully written as well.

    Having lived in Illinois for 10 years, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this establishment. Now I understand.

    It is such a shame that so many places such as the one described has gone and is still going the way of the dinosaur. These are what made America what it was back during that era, and on until progress and technology entered the picture. But, it went further than that, destroying so much what we considered inherent to our now disappearing middle-class.

    I live in a very rural area of northwest PA. There are still quite a few Mom and Pop stores and eateries, but you have to know where to look. A privately-owned hardware store who also owns the corner grocer not 300 yards down the street. Across from this is the also privately-owned diner; the owner doubles as chief of the volunteer fire dept. adjacent to his establishment.

    There are two eateries (hole-in-the-wall-style) that I pass on my way to work. I’ve tried the food at one place – Betty’s Dinor (sic), which was quite good. I’d like to try their breakfast sometime. The other in another small town – Old Timer Cafe – has gotten great reviews.

    Those are my favorites. Better than the chain restaurants, such as a Denny’s. Friendly, warm, good food….all this comes together by creating a close-knit community akin to what we once had decades ago.

    I guess for some, there’s no need to let go, while still able to move ahead.

  5. Anonymous

    National chain stores do have their place. Still, I agree with the idea of supporting local businesses. It can only help the local economy to support these businesses.

  6. Anonymous

    Amen! Consumers have great power to shape the society in which we live, simply by spending money consciously. By ‘consciously’ I mean taking into consideration ‘the big picture’–what makes for good quality of life? what sort of community do we want to live in? what practices are sustainable?–rather than a single-minded focus on today’s price.

    My wife and I have adopted a habit. When we pass in our community a small business that’s closed and that we liked, we ask ourselves: Well, how much money did we spend there in the past year? If the answer is ‘not much,’ then we acknowledge the story’s moral: If you want to see a business stick around, spend a little money there! This encourages in us a ‘practice what we preach’ mentality.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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