Tom Kacich: Love birds find happily ever after in St. Joseph eatery

Tom Kacich: Love birds find happily ever after in St. Joseph eatery

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This is kind of a love story, but it's also about good food and interesting drink and bicycles and family. You know, many of the great things of life.

Ryan Rogiers was a gifted chef, a 2000 graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and the assistant manager at a trendy little French bistro on the north side of Chicago.

Abbie Layden-Rogiers was a burned-out social worker who was divorced with four young children.

Ryan had graduated from St. Joseph-Ogden High School in 1993, Abbie in 1994. They had known each other since childhood but never dated.

Until what Ryan calls "the magic of Facebook."

"We were always friends, but we went our separate ways," he said. "But in the magic of Facebook about eight years ago, we reconnected, and the next thing I knew, I was moving back to central Illinois."

They married about 18 months ago, they're back in St. Joseph and they really are living the dream, running a farm-to-table restaurant down the street from the high school they left more than two decades ago.

Ryan, who for five years has taught a number of courses in the culinary arts program at Decatur's Richland Community College, always wanted to own his own restaurant.

"Just a place where I can create what I want and do what I want to do," he said.

Abbie wanted to serve. Not just meals, but the community.

"I always told Brian, 'If we could stay focused on serving the community, you know, come from good intentions, we'll be so much better off mentally rather than just that this is a business and we've got to succeed and it's all money-driven," she said. "I think we come from a place of wanting to serve the community and that we'll get blessed back in the meantime. And we'll make people happy, and we'll be happy, too."

About a year ago, a friend gave Abbie a handmade sign with big, bold, colorful letters: SERVE.

"It was there to remind me every day. For a year, I was wondering, 'How can I serve people? How can I be of service? How can I serve my kids? How can I serve Ryan?'"

The answer is the Wheelhouse, an environmentally friendly little restaurant along the soon-to-be-opened Kickapoo Rail Trail.

Much of the fresh meats, vegetables, fruits and cheeses come from central Illinois, as do the draft beers. The bar and shelving behind the bar is made of the same wood pallets that the restaurant equipment was shipped on. The tables were made by a Monticello craftsman. The dishes and glassware are second-hand.

"We've been buying them and collecting them from Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity for a few years," Ryan said. "Just little things like that where we reuse stuff. It saves us money and kind of goes with our theme here of eclectic and funky and environmentally friendly."

And every week, the Wheelhouse menu will be adjusted, depending on what's available from local farms and suppliers, he said. This weekend, watch for dishes featuring asparagus and spring carrots and spring peas.

"There will be little tweaks all the time," he said. "I don't want to get into expensive ribeye steaks and $30 entrees, but keep it around $20 or below. That fits it into the community here. We're not trying to be a fine-dining restaurant. We just want to do what we know how to do."

After years of working long workweeks at restaurants all over the country, Ryan Rogiers said he was happy to have his own place.

"This is something I've always wanted to do. But Abbie was definitely the driving force behind it," he said. "I wanted a place where I could cook my food and serve my weird drinks and create and have a place where people could just come and hang out and eat. That's always been my dream."

Abbie said there are parts of their families within the restaurant. A bicycle on the wall belonged to Ryan's younger brother, Aaron, who died of a rare disease at the age of 19. And their mothers are in that restaurant in spirit.

"Both of our moms are two of the nicest women you could ever meet. They're both soft-spoken, humble, kind, sweet, thoughtful, full-of-care women," she said. "My mother just passed about six months ago, and Ryan's mom is in late stage Alzheimer's. They both have that servant heart. I just think about my mom and how she lived her life with the heart of a servant. I just want to be more like her."

The Wheelhouse opened on May 4, and the response from the community has been enthusiastic, Ryan Rogiers said. And that's two months before the scheduled opening of the rail trail.

"A little farm-to-table restaurant in St. Joe is what we wanted. And then it just happened to work out that the bike trail was here," he said amid a restaurant with bikes on the walls and ceiling. "We did think there was a void here. I think there were four pizza places here when I was going through my business plan, along with El Toro and Roc's.

"A lot of people here work in Urbana and Champaign, and it's a better-off community, so we thought there was enough of a call here to have a small, not stuffy, but a upscale restaurant."

These two have packed a lot of living and experiences into their 41 or so years. Some of it is on display on the walls of their little dream place in downtown St. Joseph, and some of it you'll just have to ask about. I think they're going to be there for a while.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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