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You are Family at Fred's Diner

The secret to how the Grayslake staple keeps diners coming back for more.

With only a few dozen booths, stools and tables, brown paneling on the walls and the hot skillets in plain view, Fred’s Diner on Grayslake’s Center Street is the place to be on any given morning.

A few hundred or more hungry residents will pack in to get the biscuits and gravy, an omelet, a burger or a bowl of soup. And just as much as the food is a hit, so is the atmosphere: friendly, down-home, easy.

“We are very casual. We treat people like family,” said owner Joyce Schaefer. “We will give you a hard time if you have it coming, or be sympathetic and buy you a cup of coffee when you need it.”

Schaefer has been at the helm for 17 years, buying it from Fred himself in 1996. In that time few things have changed.

The current chef, Bernie Reyes, has been manning the kitchen for 12 years. Just as long as Fred’s current brand of coffee. “You have to have good coffee. I found this and stuck with it.”

The prices are fair and Schaefer has hardly raised them despite a struggling economy. “I really try to consider the customer. They are hurting too,” she said. “There’s no sense on hurting both of us. It’s just not worth it.”

"We are what we are"

The no-nonsense approach seems to be the secret of Fred’s success. Only open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday, and closed on Sundays puts the diner in its own niche.

“All of us in town have something different to offer,” Schaefer said. “We are what we are.”

Schaefer said at one point she had considered opening for dinner, but knew the competition was too stiff. She briefly thought about changing names, but realized Fred’s is what the community knows. She also said despite the fairly cramped quarters she never thought about moving locations.

“This is what makes us Fred’s, the paneling and all.”

There are regular customers who often start their day at 4:30 a.m. when the diner opens for a cup of coffee. Others trickle in later to enjoy a seat at the counter and full view of Reyes and his team filling the orders.

Nancy Pugh of Wildwood has been a regular for 25 years. She said she comes for “the Girls” referring to the waitresses who treat everyone like a brother, sister or friend. Hustling and bustling back and forth, pouring coffee, taking orders, delivering food and chit-chatting, the six full-timers and one part-timer take Schaefer’s approach: make everyone feel at home.

Great value

Amy Lang and her husband Tom would consider themselves regulars. Seated at the counter on a Friday morning within minutes their favorite breakfast is in front of them.

“The food is always really good. And, I don’t even like breakfast food!” Amy said with a plate of eggs, hash browns and sausage in front of her.

“You really can’t beat the value. This would cost us double somewhere else,” Tom added.

Schaefer never thought she would own a diner, let alone still be there almost two decades later. She began working at age 14 at a restaurant in Libertyville and continued for years as a waitress and learning the kitchen.

When the opportunity to purchase Fred’s opened, Schaefer said a partner convinced her it was a good decision. “I was hesitant at first; just wasn’t really sure.”

Today Schaefer said she couldn’t imagine herself anywhere else.

At age 60 Schaefer said she has thought about retiring, but is not close to making that happen. For now, she seems content in the comings and goings of Fred’s. “Every day is something different, something new.”

Do you have a favorite restaurant in town? Tell us in the comments below.

Jeff November 12, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Freds is one of those places you love to have in your town. Great food, good prices, great service. The "girls" are wonderful, often serving a zinger with your eggs. I hope they know how much we love them!
Daisy Flanders November 12, 2012 at 03:17 PM
We LOVE Fred's! I've been going there since I was a kid watching Fred cut the ham off the bone right in front of us. It's always a "must stop" anytime we have friends or family from out of town to show them one of our fav places! So glad to see this article about one of GL's town gems!
Softball Jim November 12, 2012 at 04:42 PM
You can not get a better small town place than Fred's. Everyone knows the girls and they know everyone who walks in. I started going to Fred's with my family as a small boy when the original "Fred" owned it. Now it is where my family and I go for breakfast. We even have a family tradition of kids breakfast before school for their birthdays.
kathleen November 12, 2012 at 06:24 PM
A "few dozen booths" makes the place sound much less cozy than it really is. There are less than a dozen booths, and half of those are just two-seaters. There are probably less than a dozen stools at the counter. It is cozy and wonderful! Like Grayslake.
My Self November 12, 2012 at 08:20 PM
I just had breakfast at Fred's this morning. I love the place. It is like being at a friends house, they make you feel comfortable. Zingers and all! Love the food, love the staff.
Angela Sykora (Editor) November 12, 2012 at 10:34 PM
I must get to Fred's very soon!
Kelly Chase November 13, 2012 at 03:51 AM
Everything is great there! Even just the toast with butter is the best I've had
Kelly Chase November 13, 2012 at 03:53 AM
I love breakfast for dinner. Maybe once a month they could be open at night so I can go for dinner !!
chuck manson November 14, 2012 at 11:49 PM
They can't change a thing. People have become to expect this type of enviornment. A place so great, they even let me come in. I love these girls.
jam November 19, 2012 at 10:02 AM
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