Patrons pack local eatery on last day

CHAMPAIGN – Recent college graduates Beth Stocking and Samantha Fiscella have long lives ahead of them, with the possibilities of great careers, unforgettable romances and the love of their grandchildren.

Tragically, their lives will go on without their favorite chocolate pancakes.

It was a bitter but sweet lunch for the Champaign 21-year-olds Monday, as the only place that ever made chocolate pancakes the way they like them closed after 43 years.

Many of the customers at Aunt Sonya's last day could remember back decades to when the eatery was called Uncle John's.

They could remember when for 39 cents you got all the buttermilk pancakes you could eat and all the coffee you could guzzle. Many of those who attended the nearby University of Illinois in the 1970s could remember the same deal for 99 cents, fueling jittery nights of chatting about Sartre and Supertramp.

Ken Moen, 67, managed the restaurant for most of those caffeinated years, first as part of the Uncle John's chain and later when it was part of the Chancellor Hotel holdings. Major renovations at Neil and Kirby, and a new business plan, forced the closings.

But the last month was far from retirement as nostalgic customers kept Moen, his wife Rose and daughter Amy Rosenbaum busier than ever.

Rose Moen said she felt grateful to the employees who'd worked so hard in the month before closing that they hadn't had the time to apply for new jobs.

"They're the best," she said, misting up a bit.

There were lines when Aunt Sonya's opened for the last time at 7 a.m., and lines an hour before it closed at 2 p.m.

"People have come from all over the country in the last month," Ken Moen said. "There were people from Chicago who waited for a booth to clear because it was the booth where they got engaged."

John Cloyd didn't come all the way from Macon, Ga., just for Aunt Sonya; his niece was graduating.

But during the years when he lived in Champaign, back when Uncle John ruled the roost, it was his breakfast favorite.

"I'm gonna miss it," he said.

Phyllis Jones has been coming for at least 15 years.

"My favorite is the bacon, eggs and toast," she said, looking a little forlorn as her plate was cleared.

Moen likes the biscuits and gravy best. At first, he used the Uncle John's chain recipes, but eventually he and his wife began to experiment.

"It's the kids that come back for the chocolate pancakes," he said.

His greatest fame came from the innovation of chili pancakes, which immortalized him on the pages of a Better Home and Gardens best recipe book.

Even Moen admits it's possible to overdo pancakes.

"One of the fraternities had a pledge eat 35 pancakes as part of a ritual," he recalled.

The frat boy got sick, but Moen insists it wasn't the griddle cakes that done him in.

"It was all the water he kept drinking to chase it down," he explained.

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