Dec. 5 was a big day for Scott Zimmer.
Twenty years ago that day, Zimmer opened what was then known as the Chew Chew Café in the Arcade Building on Riverside Road in downtown Riverside.
The Chew Chew, as it’s now known, relocated to East Burlington Street in 2009. And Zimmer celebrated the restaurant’s 20th birthday by giving himself a gift – opening a new restaurant right next door.
Sawmilly, a fast-casual eatery at 35 E. Burlington St. featuring gourmet sandwiches and stuffed baked potatoes, opened its doors Dec. 5 to a line of people that stretched out the door.
The name is a nod to the 19th-century sawmill that made Riverside attractive to a group of wealthy industrialists who wanted to create a country retreat and resort. But the concept for Sawmilly is unique in Riverside and nearby suburbs.
For now the hours of Sawmilly are noon to 4 p.m. as the staff works out the kinks and gets into a routine. In time, said Zimmer, the plan is for the restaurant to be open from 11 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m.
It’s been more than a year since construction began on the new space, which can seat 32 people, and the decision to open on Zimmer’s 20th anniversary in Riverside was not always part of the plan.
“But when I saw the time frame begin to change, it started lining up that way, and I figured it’d be the perfect anniversary present for The Chew Chew,” said Zimmer.
Sawmilly’s menu features 10 sandwich options, five potatoes and about a dozen side dishes. While the sandwiches sound familiar — grilled cheese, spicy salami, roast turkey and tuna – Zimmer’s ingredients can be unexpected. The “salami” includes traditional meats like capicola and mortadella, but it also includes the spreadable nduja. The pork roast sandwich includes pickled raisins and the flank steak sandwich includes truffled mushrooms.
There are vegetarian options and Zimmer is working on including gluten free choices as well. The menu will change over time, said Zimmer.
“Our vision with the team is to be somewhat fluid,” Zimmer said. “It’s up to us to keep it fresh and exciting.”
The restaurant has artisanal soft drinks as well as a dozen or so craft beers and a half dozen wine choices. Customers order and pick up their food at the counter and can eat at one of the booths, tables or counters.
One of the things Zimmer is most proud of is the new restaurant’s approach to waste disposal, which seeks to divert as little as possible to landfills. Instead of tossing trash into plastic bags, customers are asked to toss trash into three chutes – that lead to a lower-level sorting room.
Glass and plastic bottles are recycled; food waste, cups, paper items, utensils, boxes and lids are composted. What’s left, the smallest amount, said Zimmer, goes to landfills. Once customers dispose of their trash, an employee re-sorts it downstairs. The whole system, including building a special trash-sorting facility in the basement, cost $15,000, according to Zimmer.
“I wanted this to be the industry leader [in terms of sustainability] from the beginning, and there are still improvements we’re making,” said Zimmer. “I wanted this to be a place that took trash seriously, and most people are excited to know we’re trying.”
Zimmer’s side-by-side restaurants are a far cry from the business he thought he was building when he first came to Riverside in 1996 as a 27-year-old entrepreneur. After losing out on a lease in a building under the el tracks in Wrigleyville, he rolled the dice on a former restaurant space in the Arcade Building, in a town he’d never heard of.
He researched the village and then came to town to count the number of people getting on and off the train in downtown Riverside. Soon after, he opened Chew Chew Café.
“I thought I was building a Starbucks with food in proximity of the train tracks,” Zimmer said.
But a year later, he transformed the business after receiving Riverside’s first-ever liquor license.
“That’s what changed our path forever,” Zimmer said.
He elevated the food menu and started offering things like steaks, seafood and pasta, and the restaurant began attracting more serious diners.
It hasn’t always been easy. Chew Chew Café was forced out of the Arcade Building in 2007 after the property was caught up in an international securities fraud scheme and went into receivership.
But Zimmer had already begun thinking about the future, buying 31 E. Burlington in 2005 and 33 E. Burlington in 2007. He knew he didn’t want to lease again after the experience with the Arcade Building, and after considering a couple of offers to move Chew Chew out of Riverside, he decided to convert the two Burlington Street storefronts into a new restaurant, which opened in February 2009.
In November 2013, he bought the storefront next door, at 35 E. Burlington St. – which then housed another Arcade Building refugee, Grumpy’s Café. Zimmer said he intended originally to “clean it up and put smiling faces in there.”
But there were too many issues with the property’s condition, Zimmer said. But the concept for Sawmilly’s was something Zimmer had been toying with, he said, for years.
“The enthusiasm for it has been off the charts,” Zimmer said. “Lines have been out the door, people want to be first in line, they’re taking pictures of the food – it’s wonderful.”