Jim Dey: Saying goodbye one sad note in long, happy stay

Jim Dey: Saying goodbye one sad note in long, happy stay

Christine Mechling has so many sweet memories of her years behind the counter that she's finding it hard to call down the curtain on her career as a countess of confection.

In fact, she can't stop crying, and it's going to get worse. Today will take the cake.

"It's going to be the meltdown," said Chris, who started her career in food preparation and candy-making at age 10 in her dad's downtown Champaign business — Chris' Candy Shop.

"I had to stand on a soap box at the cash register to make change," she recalls.

Fast-forward 50 years, and Chris is getting ready to pull the plug on 20 years as manager of the Beckman Cafe at the University of Illinois' Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

Because today is her last day, Chris decided that she wanted to show her appreciation for Beckman Cafe customers by serving cake (both chocolate and white) to them from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

She describes working at Beckman as the "best job I ever had."

"I had the opportunity to feed the greatest minds in the world," Chris said.

Actually, she's fed the great and not-so-great, an occupation that grew out of familial lineage that's relatively easy to keep straight if one knows his k's and g's.

Great Uncle Chris Chrisakis — that's Chrisakis with a "k" — bought the restaurant and candy shop in 1952 and persuaded Chris' dad, Gus Chrisagis — that's Chrisagis with a "g" — to work with him.

Chris' Candy Shop eventually became Gus' candy shop. But the original name stuck and regained a level of accuracy when daughter Chris entered the picture. She enjoyed the work so much that she decided to stick around after growing up and getting married.

"It was wonderful. My dad and I were so close," Chris said.

In addition to serving meals, Chris' Candy Shop provided what Chris calls a "full line of chocolate candies" and mints whose colors could be made to order. She said her dad did a big business providing mints for weddings in colors that matched bridesmaids' dresses. For Halloween and Christmas, they made caramel apples and candy canes.

Chris said food service "is a tough business." But she and her dad hung on together until 1980, when Gus decided he'd had enough.

Chris thought she had, too. But after working a couple different jobs, she opened her own Chris' Candy Shop in 1982 and ran it until she sold it to Sam Issa, a move that transformed the venerable business into Sam's Cafe.

It was in 1996 when Chris, after working in food sales for nearly a decade, went to work at the UI, first overseeing operations at Krannert Center's Palette Cafe before moving to Beckman two years later.

Chris raves about her years at Beckman — the "wonderful students" she hired to help run the cafe and the terrific faculty members, staff and townspeople who were her customers.

With typical customer traffic of 300 to 400 per day, Chris said it takes planning and efficiency to prepare a menu that offers "something for everyone."

There's the entree (chicken and noodles will be her last meal), a vegetarian meal, soup, salad and sandwiches.

Chris also said she "tried to make sure I have some kind of fish every day." That's for the vegetarians who cheat by eating fish.

Then there were the special catering services for Beckman's group meetings, like the regular gatherings of the Council of Deans.

"I don't know what they do. I just fed them," Chris said.

And don't forget about the holiday parties. Chris and her crew were asked to prepare candy for a gathering of 400.

"That's a lot of chocolate," she said.

It makes for a busy day, and Chris conceded she wasn't interested in cooking dinner when she got home from work.

"If I could get out of it, I would," she said, noting that her husband, a retired UI police officer, eats whatever she prepares without complaint.

As if she wasn't busy enough, Chris went back to school to get her bachelor's and master's degrees while running the Beckman Cafe. Now, she says she's looking forward to unwinding before deciding what to do next.

On Wednesday morning, she plans to get up, grab a cup of coffee, get her two black Labradors, take a walk around the big yard in her home out in the country and "breathe."

"Sometimes," she said, "I just think I don't take very deep breaths."

But before Chris leaves, she's looking forward to saying goodbye to all the people she met and the friends she made at the Beckman Cafe.

She has a simple message for all of them:

"It's been my pleasure."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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