As originally published in Daily Herald
Authored by Katlyn Smith
The past two weeks have been a whirlwind since five close friends found out the owner of their favorite neighborhood deli was preparing to close and move to Iowa.
The group of guys couldn’t stand the thought of parting ways with Shane’s Deli, a downtown landmark in the old Cock Robin for the past 16 years. But instead of resigning themselves to one last corned beef sandwich, they rallied to save the deli and a piece of Wheaton nostalgia.
The five — Kevin Dickson, Matt Green, Mike Kessler, Erik Miller, and Eric Schlickman — had to act quickly. Schlickman, who lives three blocks from Shane’s, heard through the grapevine on the night before Mother’s Day that Shane Rodgers planned to shut down his namesake deli May 23.
Once word spread to the rest of the group, there was little debate about whether to buy the popular lunch spot at the eleventh hour. All five live in a community just north of Shane’s, a gathering place for their families and a summer hangout.
“Wheaton has been so good for our own family. We’ve made lifelong friends here, and this is part of it,” Miller said.
Schlickman reached out to a mutual friend to connect him and his friends with Rodgers. The two sides began talks on Mother’s Day.
A flurry of late-night meetings, daily check-ins and text messages followed in the ensuing weeks. But their hustle paid off: Rodger’s has sold the deli to the five, and Shane’s will open Saturday in its current location under the new owners.
“It was driven by our love for the place and the nostalgia for the food,” Kessler said.
The five — three of whom are Wheaton North High School graduates — will take the reins of Shane’s Friday afternoon with no personal restaurant experience. But they’re each involved in some degree of entrepreneurship, and they plan to lean on a few good friends in the restaurant industry.
Rodgers, who’s switching careers and moving closer to family in Moline, will help with the transition during the Taste of Wheaton in nearby Memorial Park as needed through June 1. Many of his current employees have indicated they’re staying on at Shane’s.
“Our message to everyone is that we see this truly as a partnership through the transition, and we want to maintain his legacy,” Schlickman said.
The group isn’t planning any major changes to a menu known for high-quality deli meats and breads (Rodgers’ favorite item is the club salsalito turkey sandwich).
The deli also will still embrace its roots. Cock Robin was a throwback to a retro diner that served steak burgers and ice cream in square scoops. Rodgers largely kept the layout and exterior intact, though the marquee sign with a robin in a tuxedo is long gone.
“You have this little all-glass, midcentury oasis,” said Kessler, who sits on the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce board of directors. “It definitely draws you to it.”
Last summer, a proposal surfaced to tear down the iconic building as part of a redevelopment of the prominent corner into condos with space for retailers at Wesley and Hale streets. Jim Kozik, the city’s planning and economic development director, said there are no pending zoning applications for the redevelopment of the property occupied by Shane’s.
There were “preliminary discussions some time ago, but nothing since,” Kozik said in an email Thursday.
“I know he still wants to do it, and I know he’s still actively considering it,” Rodgers said of the property owner.
But the new owners of Shane’s are focused on keeping the business going and hearing from patrons about what improvements they want to see, Schlickman said. Rodgers credited the group for having a “good support network.”
“If there is an opportunity to continue this after whatever happens to the building — and that’s a complete unknown — it will definitely help set us up for success,” Schlickman said.
The owners, their wives and kids gathered for a group photo at Shane’s Thursday afternoon before the weekend opening.
And here’s the serendipitous part: There are a total of 28 family members, just enough to fill every seat in Shane’s.