CHAMPAIGN — Among the regulars at Sam's Cafe, the modest downtown diner, are athletes from the University of Illinois. Oftentimes, they'll complain to owner/chef Sam Issa about having to wake up before dawn for 5:30 a.m. workouts or weightlifting sessions.
As if Sam is the one to whom they should be sharing those frustrations. He wakes up daily at 3 a.m., and he's at the restaurant shortly before 4:30 a.m. most days, preparing his grill, dishes, gravy and pancakes for Sam's Cafe's 6 a.m. opening.
"I take a shower at 7 p.m., and I'm in bed by 7:30," Sam said. "You get used to it."
The 56-year-old was there early on Wednesday. By 6:30 a.m., he had five weary-eyed customers sitting down sipping coffee and scarfing down bacon and eggs. Sometimes, folks arrive before the 6 a.m. opening, and if he sees them, Sam lets them in.
One customer, Bob, arrives so early often enough that Sam has given him a key to the place.
"He gets here sometimes at 5:05, and he'll come in and help open, get the coffee going," Sam said.
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Sam has been in business here for 29 years, having purchased the cafe in December 1987. Born Bassam Issa — "It's pronounced like you're saying 'Bus and Sam,' " he explains — in the Christian town of Hamat, Lebanon, Sam came to the United States with very little in the late 1970s to study business at Indiana State University.
He remembers watching a friend of his leave for work in the wee hours to go to work so he would never have to ask anybody for anything. Sam vowed to do that for himself one day and moved to Champaign with the hope of starting his own business.
Rejected by bank after bank, he stumbled across a loan officer at First National Bank — now PNC Bank — on the corner of Walnut and Main downtown, who initially rejected him for the $23,000 he was asking.
"I came back and saw her, and she told me she gave me the loan because she was retiring the next month, otherwise she'd never give me that loan," Sam recalled. "She had nothing to lose."
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By 6:45 Wednesday, business is picking up.
"What makes this job easy is I know just about everyone's orders," he said. "Sometimes a person will have one thing Monday through Friday and then something different on the weekends."
He knows more about them than just how they like their eggs, too. One woman arrives shortly before 7 and asks for the breakfast special.
"That poor lady was homeless, and you can't tell anymore because she's trying to get her life back together," Sam says.
"You meet all kinds of different people. It's fun, you can talk about everything like sports or whatever."
In 29 years of doing this, Sam has interesting stories to tell. Like the time earlier this month a man came in trying to sell some tools.
"I told him I wasn't interested and told one of the guys to just get him out of here," Sam said. "I knew they were probably stolen. He said his wife got them for him for Christmas, and he didn't want them."
Not long after, a regular brought in that guy's booking mug shot as he had been arrested.
"I knew better than that," Sam said.
More than a decade ago, another man entered the restaurant and told a former waitress that he had a gun and demanded the money in the register. Instead of complying, she told the man, "That's not my money; you have to ask Sam."
Eventually, police arrived and arrested the man, who did not have a gun. He spent two years in jail and returned to Sam's once he was freed.
"He came in with his hands up, and he apologized," Sam said. "We laugh about it now, but I told Leona (the waitress), if someone says they have a gun and asks for the money, don't come find me, just hand it over."
Regulars at Sam's know that only cash is accepted.
"Credit cards charge you, and I don't want to mess around with that," he said.
If someone forgets cash or doesn't know the policy, no big deal; Sam just tells them to come back. Some customers are baffled with the trust he shows.
"They always come back," he said. "And when they come back, they're going to buy another meal, so that works out."
In addition to attending to his regulars and the UI athletes, Sam has rubbed elbows with Illinois politicians through the years.
Pat Quinn, Bruce Rauner and Mark Kirk have enjoyed a meal and a conversation with Sam.
"With Mark Kirk, we had good conversations," Sam said. "I told him between myself, my wife and two older sons, he picked up four votes."
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Sam works six days a week most weeks, leaving 25-year-old son Ryan, who is with him waiting tables on Wednesday, to run the show on Sundays. On Mondays, Toty, his wife of 24 years, is in charge. On Wednesdays, he leaves at 9 a.m. as Toty takes over.
"Wednesdays are my errand days," he said. "That's when I can get done everything I need to get done. On full days, we close at 2, and I like to be out of here by 2:30."
Sam and Toty have three sons: Ryan; Nathan, 27; and John, 11. Tracy Abrams has been to their house to play basketball in the driveway with John.
"Tracy's great with him, and it's amazing how much better of a basketball player he is than the average guy playing in a driveway," Sam said.
At 7:15, two men walk in, and before they can take their seats, Ryan has prepared a tall glass of chocolate milk for one and a coffee for the other. Meantime, Sam has started preparing their BLT sandwiches.
A couple minutes later, the phone rings.
"Dave the barber wants an order of biscuits and gravy. He'll be here in 15 minutes," Ryan tell his dad.
The breakfast rush is beginning, and Sam throws more bacon on the grill while whipping away at some scrambled eggs and turning over some fried ones. More potatoes go on the grill as Sam looks above at four order tickets, cooking the food for all of them simultaneously.
"I didn't know how to cook a thing when I came over here; I learned from my cousin in college," he says. "It started coming to me; it's all pretty simple now. I feel like I'm pretty good at cooking whether it's here, home or wherever."
And he'll be back at it bright and early tomorrow morning.