Everyone at Grumpy’s knew the coffee shop/ice cream parlor was living on borrowed time. The storefront had been for sale for more than a year and, anyway, business wasn’t exactly booming.
But when a letter last month from the property’s new owner — Scott Zimmer of the Chew Chew, located right next door — stated the business had to vacate at the end of the year, it still came as a shock.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that fast,” said Kim Palka, who manages the store and is onsite most every day kibbutzing with regulars who gather to talk over cups of coffee.
“There was a lot of crying. This is more like family. It’s like going to a party and ending up in the kitchen,” she said.
Palka and Grumpy’s owner David Moreau will close up shop for good on Dec. 24. And, unlike in 2008 when the business relocated from the Arcade Building on the south side of the railroad tracks to its present space at 35 E. Burlington St., it won’t be moving again.
“In the end, it was in the cards,” said Moreau, adding that he’ll be making “long overdue” visits to spend time with family in New York and Milwaukee after the business is closed.
“Twenty years is a pretty good run.”
It was a run Moreau never planned or could have predicted. Two decades ago, he was managing a restaurant called The Refectory in the Arcade Building, 1 Riverside Road. Palka was a waitress there.
After The Refectory closed, Moreau started the Refectory Ice Cream Parlor in the corner space of the building at 1 Riverside Road. A couple of years later Zimmer would open up the Chew Chew Café, at first as a coffee/sandwich shop in the former Refectory space. Later, the Chew Chew would morph into an upscale restaurant. Eventually, the ice cream parlor was named Grumpy’s, which Moreau points out, he did not name after himself.
Moreau was a fan of the movie Grumpy Old Men, which came out about the time the ice cream parlor opened. He also liked the name as a possible retort to any customer who complained.
“If someone complained, I could say, ‘You walked into Grumpy’s and you’re complaining?'” Moreau said.
The explanation he favors, though, is: “I like to say I named it after my customers.”
His customers could not love the place more. A group of a half-dozen or more gather there almost daily to hang out for a couple of hours and talk. No subject is off limits.
“We solve the world’s problems every morning,” said Michael Ottomanelli, who makes the daily trip to Grumpy’s with his wife, Theresa.
On birthdays, regulars celebrate by bringing in a cake or cannoli to share with their friends. On Halloween, Palka and Moreau host a costume party. Last year Ottomanelli came as Frank Sinatra, serenading the party-goers. Another regular, Victor Zezelik, came recently as Fat Elvis to accompany Ottomanelli.
“It’s Cheers without the buzz or the hangover,” said Zezelik.
The regulars have planned a going-away party for the business on Friday, Dec. 20.
Moreau seems philosophical about the loss of Grumpy’s. Ever since the business moved from its spot kitty-corner from the Riverside train station to its location on East Burlington Street, it hasn’t been the same, he said.
“We’re on the wrong side of the tracks for coffee,” Moreau said. “The other spot was perfect. You could watch the trains come in, zip up, grab your coffee and get on the train.”
Grumpy’s move also coincided with the economic recession — its former home was caught up in an international Ponzi scheme. First Chew Chew and then Grumpy’s were forced out of the Arcade Building, which was left to deteriorate until it was saved by an investor in 2010.
“We’re one of the fatalities,” Moreau said of the recession. “The economy devastated us.”
Palka, on the other hand, holds back tears when she starts to talk about leaving a job she’s loved for two decades.
“I’ll miss the kids,” she said. “When they walk in and see the ice cream, their eyes light up. When I see them on the train, I hear them say, ‘There’s Mrs. Grumpy.’ I love the family ambiance. No one’s a stranger here.”
Palka said she’ll continue the Halloween parties at her home and the regulars plan to continue to get together as a moveable coffee klatch. They’re not sure exactly where they’ll land. Places like Starbucks and McDonald’s just aren’t the same.
“It’s not friends and family out there,” Zezelik said.
“They’re not as intimate,” he said.
As for the future of the Grumpy’s space, it’s not exactly clear at this time.
Cook County property records show that SWZ Properties LLC, which lists Zimmer as its president, bought the storefront at 35 E. Burlington St. for $148,000 on Nov. 15. Asked last week what his plans for the space were, Zimmer said he wasn’t ready to announce them at this time.
“I’d rather not make a comment now and let Grumpy’s go out and be in the spotlight,” said Zimmer. “[Moreau] deserves it because he’s been here for 20 years. Grumpy’s was part of the community.”