WESTERN SPRINGS – Jim Dames hasn’t been able to draw a check from his business in two years.
The steady decline of customers at Snackers Café started when the recession hit in 2008. Dames first noticed he was seeing fewer parents at his restaurant; a something-for-everyone cafe and upscale diner at 909 Burlington Avenue that has been a staple in the community since 1995. Parents would give their kids money to eat out, but would stay home themselves to save money, he suspects.
Then, he noticed fewer customers were coming in for their morning cup of coffee and bagel. Regulars he used to see every day disappeared. Some told him they had started working from home. Others, he guesses, lost their jobs in the city and therefore didn’t pass by Snackers every morning on the way to the train station. Even those who kept their jobs started bringing their own coffee to save some money.
Meanwhile, Dames’ own costs soared. In 2008, the cost of a jug of fryer oil went from between $12 and $15 to between $30 and $35, almost overnight, he said. Things got so bad that almost two years ago, Dames’ wife, Mary, had to leave the restaurant and take a banking job.
Dames also had to let one of his cooks go, leaving only himself and one remaining cook. He’s lost money each of the past few years, refusing to raise prices because of the sunken economy. Earlier this year, he cut the restaurant’s hours and no longer opens in the morning, which used to be his most steady time of the day.
"We're back to struggling like we were 18 years ago,” said Dames. “It's not pretty."
How do you spin corned beef?
If Snackers’ problems could be chalked up just to a struggling economy, that would be one thing, but Dames knows it’s more than that.
Snackers is one of the few remaining Western Springs “community restaurants,” as Dames tags it. He wonders if people appreciate that any more, or even know what it means.
“We have very good food at a good price in a clean environment,” he said. “We're friendly. We're open to suggestions. I had a guy who wanted olive burgers. I got a jar of olives and we made him olive burgers."
The menu at Snackers is a laminated sheet of paper that sits on the counter next to the register. Orders are taken on paper and handed to the cook.
A corned beef sandwich costs $6.79; a half-pound cheeseburger is $7.49; and a turkey club wrap is $7.79. To Dames, those prices reflect what Snackers offers: An option better than fast food, but not fine dining.
Jeff Reynolds, an employee at Village Hardware down the street, stops in several times a week to eat. For him, Snackers is convenient and offers excellent food. But he suspects Western Spring residents are starting to look for something different.
"It's now become a town of boutiques,” Reynolds said. “It's more specialized to certain interests instead of something for everybody. And unfortunately, I think that's the way most communities are going."
A few of Dames’ relatives have told him that he needs to brand Snackers differently – carve out a niche. But that’s the thing. If anything, Snackers is the generalist in a food culture that’s become about trends and offering something completely new and different.
"I like change, but there's only so many ways you can spin corned beef,” Dames said. “Is it real or is it pressed? Go to Arby's and have a corned beef sandwich and come here and have a corned beef sandwich. There's no comparison.”
From institution to under water
Admittedly, Dames isn’t sure how to portray Snackers, especially in an age where brand seems to be more important than the product itself.
"That's a question I've been asking myself the last few years,” he said. “How do you redefine, in 2013, 2014, a community restaurant? What is it today?"
Dames remembers when the village conducted research on how to revitalize the downtown and mentioned Snackers as an example for other businesses.
“One of the reports listed us as an institution in the town at the time,” he said. “I think people accepted us more back then … Today the expectation is different. They don't know how to classify us.”
Dames stopped advertising about a year-and-a-half ago because it wasn’t worth the cost. He’s working on a new menu, but with just one other employee, it’s taken him four months.
Dames says he’s always tried figure out what customers want and offer it. Although most of Snackers menu is hearty, filling food, Dames started selling wraps and other lighter items when a wave of healthy eaters demanded them.
"I always thought [evolving] was one of my traits and that's why I lasted as long as I did, but we're in such turmoil and it's so bizarre right now,” he said about the food industry.