ELBURN – There soon will be many new features in the old Kountry Kettle building as the former restaurant is transformed into a new dining destination.
New owner Cheryl Groce finalized the purchase of the building at 115 N. Main St. in Elburn on Feb. 28, and by the next day, she was installing a new boiler and water main.
“We knew it was going to be a lot of work,” Groce said of the more than 100-year-old building.
New ceilings, new seating and flooring and a fresh coat of paint are just a few of the improvements that Groce is making to the restaurant that she will rename Rise-n-Dine.
What she is hoping will stay the same is the small-town feel of the diner that has been a hallmark of downtown Elburn for generations.
“I want to keep that mom-and-pop feel where everybody feels at home,” Groce said. “Those places are getting harder and harder to find.”
The history of the building dates to the 1920s, when it was home to the Elburn Bakery. Roy and Elsie Fisher established Fisher’s Café when they took over in 1948, and the Country Kitchen from the early 1970s became the Kountry Kettle and Katering in 1981 with owners Dennis and Angie Lexa.
Mary Whitney, one of the Lexa family’s 15 children, ran the restaurant from 1995 through 2002, when Tim Reed bought the building.
Whitney’s brother recognized the booths from his parents’ restaurant from photos in the Marketplace section of Facebook, where Groce had posted the booths for free. He contacted Groce to ask if he could have one of them for the memories. Groce said he told her he had spent a lot of time as a kid doing his homework in one of those booths.
Groce was happy to oblige.
“There’s a lot of history in this place,” she said.
Groce, who has worked in the restaurant business for many years, managing, waitressing and “jumping into the kitchen” when needed, said she plans to keep the hours more or less the same, although she will reopen the restaurant on Sundays.
She will have her own menu, which she plans to keep simple – “what you’d expect in a country diner”– including specials for each day of the week.
She will hire a cook, a bus person and dishwasher, as well as a few servers, and at least one, Roxanne Cornwell, is happy to stay.
Cornwell had been upset when her boss, former restaurant manager Marlene Hernandez, had told her the restaurant was closing. Certainly, she would have to find a new job, but it was more than that to Cornwell. Groce said she recognized what it was. Groce and her mother had anonymously visited the restaurant a number of times before the closing. She observed the relationship Cornwell had with the regulars, who came in day after day.
“I could see the rapport you have with your customers,” Groce told Cornwell when she offered her the job. “They’re not just your customers; they’re like your family.”
Cornwell said she is looking forward to coming back to work at the restaurant when the remodeling is done and it reopens.
Cornwell even has offered to help with some of the redecorating and painting.
Groce said she hopes people will be patient while she gets the place back in shape to reopen, which she hopes will be in late March or early April. She said the village of Elburn has been very easy to work with, so that “should keep things moving.”
Lynn Meredith, who was born and raised in Elburn, said she remembers the restaurant as a place where her father, a farmer, would gather with farmers and others in the morning for coffee and conversation, and her mother would join her friends and others to socialize, as well.
“It was always a place where people could meet up with others they knew, but might not see otherwise, and talk about their daily lives,” she said.
Meredith, who moved away for a time and is back and currently teaching yoga classes at the Town & Country Library, said she and members of her classes often stop at the restaurant after class, where they have gotten to know each other better.
“It’s nice to have a place where you can do that,” she said. “It’s casual, and it’s not noisy, and the food is like what you might have at home. The portions are regular sizes and the prices are reasonable.
“It’s a place that you could eat at every day. To see that go away would be sad. I’m so glad it will continue on.”