The wait to get into Rip's Tavern on the unremarkable Main Street of Ladd, Illinois, on a recent Wednesday evening approached 40 minutes. The population of Ladd is 1,300, and counting the people inside the no-frills dining room, Rip's didn't seem far behind.
Bill Rounds, the 57-year-old grandson of Rip's founder, surveyed the clientele. "I see Mendota, Princeton, Anawan, Setonville. I see LaSalle-Peru, La Moille. I can pick out 15 towns in here tonight. I see Arlington, Ottawa." Rounds was spotting customers from a radius of about 20 miles, but some regulars have been known to drive as much as an hour to stand in line.
He sat down, slightly disappointed. "We've shortened the wait considerably from what it used to be. Old days? You'd wait forever. You want light or dark? No, you got to eat dark--we're out of light."
There's no menu at Rip's. You order while standing in line: chicken strips or quarters of light or dark meat, hand-cut french fries, pickles or fried mushrooms; as an appetizer, there are "crumbs"--fried bits of batter. The chicken's superb, moist and tender, with a delicate flaky crust.
Since shortly after Silvio "Rip" Gualandri founded the tavern in 1936, "there's been lines clear back to the corner" a block away, says Mark Wise, a customer for four decades. "If you're in a hurry it's not the place to come." There's a mom-and-pop fried chicken place in Wise's hometown of Mendota, but he and his wife still drive the half hour to Ladd. "When we were dating"--he motions to his wife, Jo--"we'd come here Friday night. We'd come back on Saturday night."
"It's cheap, that's why," she says. "Cheap and good. Still is."
Later this year Rounds plans to hike the prices by a quarter: the light's going up to $3.75, the dark to $3.50. When his aunt, Gina Ramey, began waitressing in 1957, it was 50 cents. Ramey was 16 then; a half century later, she's still around. "I waited on people when they were young and when they were courting and when they came in with children," she says.
Rip's is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and on other days it's open only for dinner, but the restaurant still goes through 4,000 pounds of chicken and 3,000 pounds of potatoes a week. There's a customer who once a year buys 30 quarters and a garbage bag full of crumbs to take to Las Vegas. A customer of Ramey's who came every week with his wife just passed away. "He lived up near White Sox field," she says. "And I can tell you their order, and they'd sit at the same table every time."
Rounds has consulted for other restaurants and taken classes at DePaul's business school--he worked as a Cook County public defender before returning to Ladd when his father became ill in the mid-80s. But he's hesitant to analyze his restaurant's success. "We've been at it a long time," he says. "A loooong time.
"Consistency," he then hazards. "We're unique and we stay that way. People want forks, we tell them no." The wait itself seems to be part of the attraction. "Our line is part of us," Rounds says. "They BS, they visit. That's why we've never gotten too big. If people come in and just sit down they're like, 'Why are we doing this?'"
Josh Randall, who drives to Rip's from nearby Princeton, agrees. He remembers waiting two and a half hours for a table. "You didn't think anything of it. You used to be able to drink out on the sidewalk," he says. (A city ordinance curtailed that a decade ago.) In high school--Randall's now 33--the lengthy wait meant he'd meet girls from other towns. "It just brings this whole Illinois Valley area together. If you could just walk in here and get your chicken with no wait whatsoever, I don't know if the nostalgia would be there."
As a business model, though, that's a chicken-and-egg problem: if people come to Rip's for the line, what happened before the line? Why did the first person get in line? And when?
The man who could answer that, Rip himself, died at age 90 in 1993. The son of Italian immigrants, Gualandri was born in Ladd. The area's farmland was already settled by Irish and Germans; Italians were left with the railroads and the coal mines. Gualandri was in the mines at 12; he got his nickname from working the railroad's "repair, inspect, paint" track. To survive the Depression he bootlegged. (He continued to make his own wine until he died.) "When he originally started it was gambling and moonshine," says Rounds. "It wasn't all real legal."
Before fried chicken there was fried fish. "After they played baseball they would give away fish," Rounds says. "Because when we got fish--back in the 30s, 40s, 50s, even into the 60s--it was local fish. A lot of people would catch carp, bring it in. My grandfather would clean it, fry it; they'd eat it." Chicken was eventually added because, as Rounds says, "everybody raised chicken. We put farmers in business to raise our chickens." Gualandri and his brother, Ramey's father, who worked alongside him, "would go get them on Monday night alive," Ramey says. "Then on Tuesday, they'd slaughter them and clean them. In the summertime, when it was hot--oh my God."
Back in what Rounds likes to call "Catholic days," the restaurant served only fish on Fridays (catfish and Alaskan pollack are still on offer). For the first decade or so there was pasta, too, but that ended in the 50s--the kitchen couldn't handle the volume. The menu hasn't changed dramatically since, though a truly thorough accounting would note the fate of onion rings, which came and went in the 80s.
For decades the staff didn't change much either. "It was all family," says Rounds. "In fact, you didn't get a job unless you were family. They didn't trust anyone. It was all cash. They never had a checkbook." Gualandri's nieces and nephews came from Italy to work. Ramey, who speaks with a slight Italian accent, was born there; her father, who'd been born in Ladd, had returned to his home country during the Depression. He brought his new family back to Illinois in the early 50s. (His wife went back to Italy a decade later. "She didn't like America much," Ramey says.)
After 40 years Gualandri transferred ownership to his son-in-law, William Rounds, Bill's father. A decade later Rounds co-owns and manages it; his brother, Dave, the other owner, does the cooking. "When I was a little kid I grew up doing it," Bill Rounds says. "I'd be ten years old tending bar on a Saturday morning." When the relatives ran dry--"We've killed most of them off," Rounds says--locals took over. A bartender and two of the waitresses have now been there 40 years. But these days employees are mainly kids from the area. (Rounds has a hiring philosophy: "I only get good-looking bartenders. They don't have to give it away to get a tip.") In the past Ramey had only taken time off for childbirth, but at 65, suffering from osteoporosis, she recently cut down to two nights a week. "People say, 'Oh, thank God, you're back.' I say, 'I haven't gone anywhere.' They're so used to seeing me four nights a week."
"The hard part is when people pass away," says Rounds. "We have so many people who've come here--oh gosh--since they were teenagers, and they're in their 70s and they're passing away. That's the hardest part of our job." Ramey says that she's "lost at least four [customers] in the past year--ones that I'd gotten close to."
Rip's hasn't modernized much since the 30s. Cash is collected in a duct-taped cigar box with the lid open. Time cards are handwritten on folded white sheets of paper; there aren't any social security numbers or proper names on them, just nicknames--Yogi, Melonhead, Sky.
In the eighth decade of its existence, however, the difficulties of being a Brigadoon-like establishment are becoming more apparent. Rounds has to drive to Chicago himself to pick up 5,000-pound loads of the noncommercial Robin Hood flour Rip's uses--he can't get it delivered. He can't get Rip's particular paper plates delivered either, so he hauls them back too. They had to replace the only pickle the restaurant had ever used when Dean's bought the pickle company and threw away their customized recipe. Now Rounds is worried about losing access to his frying oil, a secret blend of three different vegetable oils. Suppliers have consolidated, leaving restaurants with fewer product choices. Plus he's picky. "They don't want to deal with us," he says. "I'm a pain in the ass."
Nevertheless Rounds is considering franchising. "I get a call a week," he says. "My grandfather could have franchised. He didn't." Rounds has a good offer from investors in Bloomington-Normal on the table. "In ten years, we may not be here," he says. "If you don't develop small niches in everything you may not survive."
But who knows whether franchises could repeat the secret to Rip's success? Rounds likes to tell a story about Boog Powell, the power-hitting first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles in the 60s. "Big man," he says. "He was at a golf outing and came in here to eat. He was drinking martinis out of pitchers. 'You got good chicken,' he says. 'But you know what makes it so good? You starve a sonofabitch to death before you feed 'em.'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.