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.
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.”
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