Phil McArdle poured the driveways and parking lots of the Standard Oil gas station in his younger years, and stayed a regular customer of what began as the 100-seat Chuck Wagon restaurant and ended up as the 250-seat R-Place Family Eatery just off Interstate 80 in Morris.
At 98, Bob Hollenbeck drives to R-Place Family Eatery from Seneca, which started out as a snack stop, then became a dinner tradition.
“This goes back a lot of years, but in 1969, I worked on the rest areas out here on I-80 and we used to come here when we got off work to get a cold glass of lemonade,” Hollenbeck said. “Then, my wife and I met another couple here every Friday night for dinner for 40 years.”
These and many more stories were shared Nov. 27 during the 50th anniversary celebration at R-Place Family Eatery in Morris. New and old employees and customers sat around and told stories of the restaurant, walked around to look at the changes that have been made over the years and caught up on current events.
Larry and Kathy Romines opened the restaurant named Chuck Wagon in 1967, with 100 seats and wagon wheels hung from the ceiling, which was a part of the Standard Oil gas station. In 1987, Kathy knew she had to compete with modern restaurants and expanded to a 250-seat restaurant, changed the name to R-Place and added a bakery with a German pastry chef. Ten years ago, R-Place began a catering service and now has two catering vans. About that same time, Kathy sold the property to Travel Centers of America, but stayed on as manager and kept her staff.
On Monday, Kathy invited the community to celebrate the success of the restaurant and offered fun events throughout the day. Coffee cost 50 cents a cup and free mini-cupcakes of all flavors were passed around to patrons at their tables. At noon, a ribbon-cutting took place inside the building in front of the restaurant. Members of the Grundy County Area Chamber of Commerce were in attendance as well as Morris Mayor Richard Kopczick.
“I feel old, I remember coming here when it was a little truck stop with maybe 15 tables, nothing like it is today. I hope to be around for its 100th anniversary,” Kopczick said. “R-Place is known for its atmosphere and is so successful, I hope it stays successful.”
After the ribbon-cutting, Kathy held up a box full of entries for a $500 Travel Centers of America gift card. Kopczick pulled the name of Cindy Carr of Sandwich.
From noon until 2 p.m., Kevin Schramm from WCSJ/WJDK hosted a live radio remote to promote the event and featured a spinning wheel patrons could spin for prizes. At 5 p.m., a wrecker along with the Morris Fire Department, Morris Police Department and Grundy County Sheriff’s Department had vehicles out on the parking lot for a touch-a-truck event for the children. Inside, while the youngest customers waited for their food, they could have their faces painted and play games.
As customers entered R-Place to the right, the dark wood trim, cozy booths and roomy dining rooms created an inviting atmosphere for families or an intimate dinner. On another side, a more diner approach with an eat-in counter and small booths offered a more casual dining experience. A large pastry case filled with cream horns, cream puffs, cakes, cupcakes and pies gave a preview of the after-dinner treats.
When she first began the menu, Kathy said, the tastes of the customers included fried chicken, roast beef sandwiches and burgers. The small menu offered these staples as well as other favorites of the times, but now pages of offerings allow patron many choices, all homemade. Popular in 2017 is the pot pies and fried chicken, Kathy said.
Kathy did not want her customers to walk into a boring restaurant, but a place they would remember and want to return. She met up with Biggar’s Antiques and, twice a year, she changes the décor to create new a look. She said 60 percent of her customers are local, 20 percent truck drivers and 20 percent destination customers on vacation.
R-Place celebrates holidays, as well. Jane and Keith Davis of Morris love to come to the restaurant for Mardi Gras and taste the Etouffée, gumbo and jambalaya. The couple also has taken advantage of the Thanksgiving meals, which truly felt like a holiday with family.
“Everybody knows everybody,” Jane said. “Everybody knows everyone here eating and [they] go table-to-table. Sometimes, we can’t get the people at our table to sit for 10 minutes because they are all up talking.”
Kathy said she hopes this restaurant always stays a staple in Morris.
“We want kids and adults to have a good time and look at all of the memorabilia on the walls and tables. Of course, the food has to be really good and we have to be on target with service,” Kathy said. “It has been a wonderful adventure and journey keeping our place rolling.”