Stef // Bloomington, Il.
A restauranteur talks about respect, divorce, and the English scooter scene.
"They said if you're ever in Bloomington, stop by. I was going to be in town for just a couple of days, and twenty-odd years later, I'm still bloody here.
"It's crazy. How does that happen? I don't know. The man above..."
Stef grimaces comically.
"Thank you, eh?"
Strangers in a strange place tend to have a polarity of purpose that draws them together, like iron shavings around a magnet. The desire to find themselves in a place where they don't belong seems to draw them together.
That's not how I met Stef. In fact, it's fairer to say he met me. I was passing an alleyway off Center Street last Saturday night. He was tying up a garbage bag, having just finished working the crowd at WGLT's annual music festival. I was preoccupied with an interview I was about to do with someone else, and so was on the verge of passing the hulking red double-decker bus as if I hadn't noticed it.
But Stef met my eyes and said hello as if he was looking for me to show up. That's not the usual thing here in Bloomington, IL; I've grown used to the benign own-business-minding way people have here, and so his up-front manner surprised me. I said the only thing I could think of, which was to ask whether they were still open.
They weren't, but within seconds, I had an invitation to "do a story" on him, another to attend the Improvised Shakespeare Company's performance the following week (which he'd be catering), and a coupon in my hand for a free meal from Two Blokes and a Bus.
His coworker shook his head, with a smile, as Stef ducked inside for more flyers.
"Always marketing," he said.
But I got the idea it wasn't just that. This, I thought, is a guy who likes to connect with people the way some kids like to connect frayed electrical wires--for the thrill of seeing what happens.
When he was 21, Stef left hostel-hopping in Europe to take it up in the United States. He didn't think much of Los Angeles--the people were stuck up, and his British accent didn't get him as far socially as you might think. San Diego was just all right--the principal takeaways, for him, were Corona beer and the word "Dude."
"I remember going to this little party one night, and I didn't know any guys' names. Everybody was 'Eh, Dude! Dude! Dude! Dude!' Coming from England, it's like what you see off a bloody movie."
But San Diego brought him the acquaintance of another traveler--Mike, from Auckland, New Zealand. The two of them put together $400 to buy a 1961 Plymouth Valiant, and drove it across the desert.
"We were in Vegas for quite some time. I worked for a time at the Imperial Palace--twenty years ago, that was a really hopping casino. I met so many lads, and lasses, and different people from all over the States."
They worked Monday to Thursday, living at the local youth hostel. On weekends, they'd pass as hotel guests, and hang out by the pool, drinking and collecting invitations to visit the new friends they made. Stef began keeping a little diary of phone numbers. And once they left Vegas to head eastward, they put those numbers to work.
"We had places to stay in New Orleans, to Daytona, to Manhattan, to Bloomington-bloody-Normal. I remembered, 'I've got a guy's name in Bloomington. Let's call him up.'
"I pulled off at a gas station, opposite the Steak and Shake over there--end of this road, actually. Where GE Road meets, there used to be a petrol station on the corner. Used the pay phone. Said 'Hey, we're in town.'"
After only a couple of days in Bloomington, Stef was offered a job at Central Station Cafe. He'd tended bar in pubs in Bristol, so the work was nothing new. He had a place to stay:
"Good guy--Jeff Ware, still a friend of mine--he lives in St. Louis now. Hung out at his crib for quite some time. And he had fun, because we'd go out and he'd say 'Here's my English mate!'"
The English schtick, which hadn't done much for him on the west coast, went over like gangbusters in Bloomington, Illinois. He found people very friendly, in response to it--they always wanted to know where he was from; besides that, he says it was "good with the ladies."
"Fat Jack's is the hopping place now, but it was busier than that. The line would go down and outside, fifty people deep--it was crazy. That was the in spot, and I got work in there. It was good money, good times."
Six months later, Mike and he decided to drive up to Saskatoon for the world series of fast-pitch softball. After that, Mike said he was going back to New Zealand. But Stef flew back to Bloomington and renewed his visa, not yet ready to go home. He worked at Central Station well past the term of his visa. In the nine years that followed, he was promoted from bartender to head server, then dining room manager.
"Then one night, the owner--God bless him, he's passed away now--he said 'I'm making you GM.'"
Stef thought often, as restaurant industry veterans do, about opening his own place. At one point, the idea of starting a beachside cafe to took him all the way to the Canary Islands. This was in 1996; the owner of Central Station called him regularly, asking him to come back.
There was also a young lady, with whom he exchanged letters; after a year, he came back to Bloomington and they got married.
One day, Stef was driving round in Peoria, and noticed a red double-decker bus parked out in front of Jumer's.
"Being British, you miss that kind of thing. I thought 'Man, it would be great to get my hands on that.'"
By that time, Stef had left Central Station, managed a couple of different restaurants in Bloomington, worked in real estate for a few years, had two kids, and been divorced after seven years of marriage.
"It was a great marriage, but we became more friends. Got two beautiful children out of that."
He'd had continual thoughts about opening his own place; he even collaborated with Bloomington High School's AutoCAD class to design a feng shui-themed restaurant that he had in mind.
But then the bus followed him home.
"A business corporation here in town, Larry Hundman, bought the bus. It was sitting not far from my house.
"I said, 'How crazy is it to have a British bus in Bloomington-Normal, and me an Englishman being here?'"
Stef returned to work at the Central Station; there he bumped into Jon Fritzen, a friend whom he'd waited tables with twenty years earlier. They hadn't had a chance to catch up until one night, when Stef's car broke down on his way to work.
"My sous chef sent Jon. So when Jon came over, I said 'Hey, what do you want to do with your life, Jon?' He says, 'I want to go to London. I want to open up an authentic Mexican restaurant and do tacos, something along those lines, in London.'
"I said, 'Funny you should say that, Jon. Because I'll be honest with you--I need a partner. Let me show you something I'm working on. We'll do this restaurant, on a bus.'
"When I showed him the bus, he flipped out, went crazy, and said 'This is awesome.' Next thing you know, we've put an offer on the bus. We stole it, actually--got it cheap."
They paid four thousand dollars for the bus itself--normally, Stef says, they go for 25 to 30 thousand. The buildout, of course, was the most expensive part. And it took a long time to find a bank that would sign off on the idea.
"We had so many banks say no; the bus wouldn't work; how are you going to make it through winter? Well, we had an incredible winter. We really did. We're not going gangbusters, there's not a lot of money in our account right now, but we just bought a second bus. We're paying our staff. We're paying all our bills."
I suppose I'd better talk about the food.
I've brought my friend Jamie with me, and not only because she's my friend. She's one of those people who can taste something and go home and make it. I still remember, back when we lived together in Escondido, bringing home my favorite chicken salad from Jimbo's and having her deconstruct it so that we could make it ourselves. (We did, and it was better. Sorry, Jimbo's. But the memories are the really important thing.)
As for me, I came prepared to like whatever I ate, unless it was godawful. I can put up with a great deal of dearth if it comes with generosity. And I have to admit that, much as I wanted the help of Jamie's discriminating taste, I also feared it--what it I liked it, and she thought it was bad? Then what would I write?
Stef called me on our way--we were pushing it toward the end of their time slot--and asked what I'd like. He had me at "salmon tartare," but Jamie was doubtful of the salmon's origins, and she went with the fish tacos (which Stef pronounces with that cosmpolitan flat "a" that Brits reserve for words of foreign origin). And just because, he gave us a smallish order of the steak kebabs (again, flat "a") they were making that day.
I'm sorry--I really and truly hate food writing, as such. It always feels faintly prurient. Can I get away with a few photos, and saying that Jamie gave it all a thumbs-up? Even the salmon was responsibly sourced. But my favorite were the tacos--they gave this funny confluence of Mexican with British that was not only delicious, but also fun.
We ate sitting up in Victoria's top deck, a fresh cross breeze flowing through the vented windows from off the soybean fields surrounding the intersection. Looking out over them, I feel the same glee that I had as a child, when visiting a friend who had a treehouse. At the same time, the deco interior with its chrome-rimmed tables and nail polish-red walls, along with the cosmopolitan savor of the food, offer the worldly thrill I remember from summers spent abroad.
Multiple visits to the UK notwithstanding, I've never been in one of these buses before. Eating lunch in it is two kinds of excitement; three, if you count the novelty (to Bloomington, anyway) of the food truck experience. The feeling that you caught something in motion and got something wonderful out of it that was only available to you today.
That's the beauty, of course, of traveling--living for a few months (or, in Stef's case, several years) off the opportunities presented by "bumping into" people.
Now, of course, there are certain barriers to those opportunities. As much as people in Bloomington have warmed to Stef's effusive charm, and the unparalleled novelty of his "bus-taurant," I wonder if that's consolation to him for having his itinerant lifestyle detained. He insists on how much he likes it here, and in the next breath talks about how he can't believe he's still here. It's a conflict I'm familiar with--any place, however much you like it, is much easier to stay in when you can leave any time you want.
He says there are temptations to get bitter.
"I've got a shit apartment in downtown Bloomington, but I'm never home, so...it's a place to crash. My kids go, 'Ugh, dad, fucking piece of shit, this apartment.' That's the end of a marriage, though. That's what a marriage can cause.
"So I'm rebuilding! My life is about rebuilding right now.
"I feel growth anywhere, wherever I'm at. I meet people wherever I go. I like the city. I'm very open. I get on well with people, and go from there."
I think back on all the times I was stuck somewhere, and punished the place for keeping me around by not giving it the full benefit of what I had to offer. I doubt it even occurred to me; all I knew was that I felt frustrated, that there was no way I could be fully myself in this place (wherever it was), that I needed to go somewhere else to be fully myself. After going enough places, I realized it was the going that I really loved.
If I do end up getting stuck somewhere, I wonder if I'll go back into that mode of punishing the place for keeping me there. Or if, like Stef, I'll find a way to repurpose my natural inclination to do something for others that they might never have thought to ask for. Like using a love of world travel to offer country town midwesterners an exotic lunch in the top of a double-decker bus.
Between a small business loan that they finally procured, a Kickstarter campaign, and thirty thousand dollars of their own savings, Stef and Jon financed the buildout of the bus. Stef took a job at a corporate restaurant to help with the finance (and to make nice with the bank) while Jon worked full-time to get the bus operational as a mobile kitchen. It's name, Stef tells me proudly, is Victoria; she's a Leyland, born in 1958. He points to the icon on the sleeve of his shirt--it reads "58," designed like the patches worn by mods and rockers from the 59 Club.
Before I finish remarking on that, he lifts his left leg up for me to see. It's an impressive patch-up job, bent and gnarled like a sturdy walking stick cut from a tree.
"This was a scooter accident. I was a mod. 1984. I don't know if you've ever heard of the Who? Ever seen the movie Quadrophenia? I was one of those guys. I was a mod for many years."
Jon, his partner, shares Stef's love of the mod scene's 2-tone music; that was how they decided on the theme for the place. The idea, in the long term, is to build the brand into something more. Designer clothing, maybe. Hopefully, a franchise. They dream more immediately of setting up a permanent spot where they can park both buses--Victoria the Leyland, and George, a Bristol Lodekka (built, Stef points out proudly, in his hometown) that they sourced from Seneca and are still building out.
"Our ambition is, it would be nice to put the two buses out there, and have a fun feel, and call it Victoria Station.
"I'm familiar with this side of town. There's a lot of traffic coming from State Farm, goign to Lexington, going to Towanda. Plus you've got one of the nicest subdivisions here--Hawthorne Hills. These people know how to eat. Money's not an issue, you know what I mean. They know good food.
"It would be nice to have both buses, have a nice patio area. Peoria has quite a few. Champagne, it's beautiful downtown--the Cowboy Monkey, where you can sit outside on nice days. There's not one decent patio in this town. Gill Street Pub is kind of nice, but it's not that classy. You've got all the volleyball players, big boys, sweating...that's great when you're trying to eat. You're going to be hit in the head with a volleyball?
"Our vision was to have chairs and tables sitting outside, where you can come and eat. We'd like to have a little bit of music, have a band."
To that end, Stef offers himself as a help to a couple other locals who are trying to get their own food trucks off the ground. Jon is more wary about encouraging competition, he says, but he wants there to be a community around it, like the ones he keeps track of in Austin, Portland and Orlando.
"I love the community, I love the people. I love the fact that I can go two hours to Chicago. Bloomington's been great for me. I've also worked my tail off.
"I think people in this community, if they see you work hard...I think sincerity is huge, and respect is huge. As a person, I feel I've earned both from a lot of people in this community. I'm well-respected. I think that's helped our business. I can talk to anybody--both mayors. I know most of the bankers in the community, from running Central Station. They'll show up and I'll say, 'You're eating here, but you didn't want to bank us!'"
"That's the beautiful thing, with this business."
The other beautiful thing, he says, is the flexibility. In some ways, it satisfies the wanderlust he can't indulge...at least, he won't until his children are grown. (After that, it's anybody's guess where he'll go first.) For now, with the mobility of the restaurant, he gets to see a new scene every day.
"It's nice because you get to see different people, because you're in a different location. It's nice to be out here with this breeze coming through here right now. It's a beautiful feeling.
"Our lunch service is 11.30-1.30, so we have a good hustle there. Then we go back and prep, so we'll have a busy night from about 5.30 to 7.30. Tuesday through Saturday, it's fourteen-hour days.
"But hey, I'm sitting up here with two beautiful ladies, having a bloody chat right now. It's not that difficult.
"I love it. I love the restaurant business. I love it and I hate it at the same time. It's tough on families, tough on relationships. That's why I'm divorced, I suppose. But now I'm at a point in my life where business is good, we have a good crew, and I can take a Friday night off, I can go date or do something."
Although, he acknowledges, that's a little harder than most people seem to think.
"Everyone's like 'Oh, you should be meeting ladies all the time!' Well, I don't--I work. I'm busy. I flirt in the window, but I live for business.
"I go on Match.com here, trying to date, and they go 'When can you meet?' And I go, 'Well, I fuckin can't!' I really can't.
"I should be dating, because I work here. It's funny because I got the picture of the bus, and people go 'Oh, you're the bus guy!'"
It's made him a beloved local figure, but it's also proved to test love over the long run.
"The last girlfriend I dated for 5 years, she said 'You buy the bus, it's the end of us.' That was that, after five years. Well, your loss, girl! See ya. Adios."
"My father was German and left when I was three, so we've got traveling in our blood. My sister owns a restaurant in the island of Crete. My mum's over there right now, working. She's doing Mexican food, ironically. A little Mexican, a little British. My other brother lives in Bali, Indonesia. I have a half-brother who lives in Germany.
"So out of all the places I could have ended up was in Bloomington fucking Illinois!
"But I got a bus. So it's been good.
"I've got friends who call and say 'Man, you talked to us about doing that bus, I can't believe your'e actually operational now. You've got it done!' It's been good. I'm loving it. I wake every morning smiling. 'Eh, we got a bus!'"