January 14, 2014 | 03:01 PMOpening Joni’s Diner took more effort than either Joan or Kelly Yunker ever imagined.
“The community has been impatient; you can’t blame them,” said Kelly in a recent interview.
Not that the husband-wife team of diner owners hadn’t experienced disappointment before.
About 10 years ago, Kelly was looking at the lot where the former Marathon Station stood, right at the top of the T at the T-intersection where Wells meets Main.
Kelly said he had the diner picked out for the site and did substantial research on the site, in addition to talking to the city about his plans.
And then, the city bought the site.
That ended the project, Kelly said.
He said he had accumulated old milk crates full of files of information and contacts he had gathered about diners.
“I thought, I won’t need this anymore and I threw it all out,” he said.
In 2007, Kelly and Joan’s daughter, Shaye, graduated from culinary school and asked her dad about the diner project.
That reignited the family’s interest in opening a diner.
Shaye has had experience in the food industry.
Joan was a friend of the late Chef Charlie Trotter, the famous University of Wisconsin graduate who brought his style and taste to Chicago, Kelly said.
He said Shaye interned in one of Trotter’s restaurants. She also worked at Grand Geneva and several downtown Chicago restaurants.
Since the failure of their effort to bring a diner here, the Yunkers, who had been commodities traders in Chicago, had bought a half-acre business site on Wells Street as an investment property, Kelly said.
Once they decided to make a second try, Kelly said he refilled the old milk crates with renewed connections and information about diners across the country.
They finally located the perfect diner in Fairfield, Conn., an O’Mahony for sale that had closed its doors in 2006.
What could go wrong?
Hurricane Sandy, for one.
The 115,000-pound diner had to be cut in two to be transported 925 miles or so from Fairfield to Lake Geneva.
The storm hit at just the wrong moment, causing water damage and delaying the building’s departure.
When the diner finally did hit the road, on two flatbottom semi-trailers, it took a week to cover the highways between Fairfield and Lake Geneva, Kelly said.
When it arrived, on Jan. 15, 2013, the Yunkers received another shock.
Although businesses had existed on their lot for decades, all of the utility connections had been removed.
The half-acre where Joni’s now stands was also a vacant business site.
A building that stood on the property earlier was the Trade Winds store, and it was also a video rental store.
That building was torn down about 10 years ago. The Yunkers didn’t discover that until their diner was set down over its pre-dug basement.
“No water, no sewer, no gas, no electrical,” Joan said, ticking off the shortcomings. “We don’t know when they were taken out.”
Work on the outside and inside proceeded, but at least one torrential rain storm in spring washed out the carefully graded parking lot.
Contractor and subcontractor scheduling also became a nightmare, Joan said.
And the Yunkers had to arrange for new utility connections. It wasn’t easy.
For example, the gas connection had to come from a main 280 feet away, Joan said. The Yunkers had to get permission from a number of local businesses to make the connection.
However, Joan said the Yunkers found that many of the local businesses were supportive and cooperative.
She said The Cove of Lake Geneva, Sprecher’s Restaurant, which is housed in the Cove; McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Mama Cimino’s all gave permission to allow utility connections for Joni’s run through their properties.
The Yunkers said they were also grateful for the watchful eyes of the Lake Geneva Police Department.
The police patrolled the area to make sure no one broke into the work site.
“They even asked Kelly for identification when he showed up to look things over at 1 a.m.,” Joan said.
“It gave me a real sense of community.”