Jerry Davich: Jim Dandy’s struggles to stay with the times
JERRY DAVICH January 28, 2014 3:04PM
Updated: March 1, 2014 6:14AM
“If you don’t like the rules, buy me out — please.”
— House Rules at Jim Dandy’s
On this frigid winter night, Jim “Dandy” O’Kelly rummaged through an old tomato box of warm memories in the form of yellowed newspaper clippings.
The 72-year-old owner of Jim Dandy’s, a ’50s-styled diner in Hobart, billed for years as the “Cadillac of Burgers,” took a nostalgic glance in his life’s rearview mirror. On this Friday night, the last customer had left O’Kelly’s landmark joint, so he slipped into a booth to chat about his colorful past and cloudy future.
“We make the best hamburgers bar none,” he said flatly, making a believer out of me after I devoured one. “We also cut our own french fries and make our own hand-dipped shakes. Just like in the old days.”
Jim Dandy’s is a family-owned and operated eatery: O’Kelly is still flipping burgers in the evenings; his son, Bryan O’Kelly, is the chief cook; granddaughter Stephanie is a waitress; and his longtime wife, Linda, is also still part of the business.
The 3,000-square-foot restaurant, on U.S. 51 across from St. Mary Medical Center, has been a fixture there for nearly a decade. Before this location, Jim Dandy’s offered flashback food, fun and memories in Valparaiso, Portage and another site in Hobart. Regardless of location, each store was like walking into a time capsule, glorifying “hipsters, flipsters and finger-poppin’ daddy’s,” as the menu boasts.
“Unattended children will be sold as slaves.”
— House Rules at Jim Dandy’s
In one corner are decades-old high school yearbooks. In another, an old-fashioned jukebox and life-size cutout of Elvis. Biblical references pepper the menu, and neon lights adorn the walls. All the while, old rock ’n’ roll music never stops playing. Or so hopes O’Kelly, a former carpet salesman who built Jim Dandy’s from the ground up.
In a business world featuring corporate branding, O’Kelly is his own brand — Jim Dandy. He looks the part without even trying, like a well-aged “Bowzer” from Sha Na Na. His glory days came with fries, a shake and a cool tune.
“Here, we still do quality because, quite frankly, quality is a lost thing in America these days,” said O’Kelly, sporting his trademark black T-shirt with rolled up short sleeves. “Everything now is throwaway and cheap stuff.”
O’Kelly believes in old-school values, ideals and attitudes. But is he clinging to a bygone business from a bygone era? A handmade sign on the front screams: “Have a Jim Dandy New Year!” But this crisp new year has come with a side order of wrinkled problems — not enough customers.
Business is down, worries are up and he’s spinning his wheels to find some traction.
“I don’t know what to do, to be honest,” O’Kelly told me while two waitresses waited for customers to enter his emptied eatery.
“It’s worth going broke in business or losing your job once or twice in life just to find out how many real friends you have.”
— Jim Dandy’s menu
Twenty-five years ago, O’Kelly used a popular deejay’s name, Jim Dandy, to reflect his restaurant’s theme and to promote rock ’n’ roll shows, car shows and parking lot dances throughout the region. The coolness of the 1950s struck a chord in the late 1980s and his joint took off like a ’57 Chevy in a late-night drag race.
Still, during his first days in business, O’Kelly didn’t know how to properly cook a burger. He had to frantically call a relative who told him to “stick a fork in it” to check if it’s done.
“Back then, I wanted to put together a place where people could come in with their families and not worry about all the junk that goes on in our society,” he said. “They have a right to quiet enjoyment and an enjoyable time.”
“But,” he quickly noted, “sometimes you wonder if there are enough people who still want this.”
I hope there are, because too many mom-and-pop restaurants in this region are struggling and facing closure. I don’t want to see yet another one “stick a fork in it.”
To hear O’Kelly explain things in his own words, watch a video I created at http://posttrib.suntimes.com/news/davich/index.html.
Small business shout-outs
Again this year, Topperz restaurant on U.S. 6 in Portage is offering a five-course romantic dinner for Valentine’s Day lovebirds.
Last year, I dined there with my sweetheart and it was a wonderful experience, complete with a wine or champagne toast, appetizer, soup, salad and main dinner entrée. Plus, a fresh rose on every table.
Space is limited and reservations are needed for either Feb. 13 or Feb. 14, starting at 4:30 p.m. The cost is $72 per couple and groups are welcome. For more info, call 763-9674.
Breakfast at the bird
My favorite Northwest Indiana pizza joint, Flamingo, in the Miller section of Gary, is now serving a full-scale breakfast on weekend mornings in addition to its classic pizza, fresh soups and homemade lunch specials.
Since my childhood, I’ve been dining at Flamingo, first in downtown Gary, then the Glen Park location, Portage and now in Miller, where I pop in at least once week. For more info, call 938-0323 and visit its Facebook page for daily specials and discounts.
Connect with Jerry via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.