Obituary: Carlos O’Kelly’s in Springfield

March 28, 2011

Andrew Hicks

Carlos O’Kelly’s of Springfield, Illinois, died on Monday, March 21, 2011. It was 5 years old.

The general manager got the news from his boss on Saturday night:

Your sales are too low. They’re actually second to the bottom of 48 locations in the Midwest. Your store, along with five other low-volume Carlos restaurants, will be shut down.

Call all your employees bright and early Monday morning and tell them they no longer have jobs. Get ready to tell your day-shift regulars they have to find somewhere else to go to eat from now on.

Some trucks will soon be by to move your food inventory and kitchen equipment to other area Carlos locations. Make sure to call Pepsi, the coffee and tea people, and the guy who rents you knives so they can come get their stuff. We’ve already hired some movers to take away the booths, tables and chairs.

Thank you for your 18 years of service to the company, and be sure to thank the kitchen manager for her 20-year tenure. And hey – you have a nice day.

Carlos in Springfield opened in a freshly constructed, standalone building in November, 2005. The kitchen manager and general manager transferred in from the Carlos in Decatur, Ill., to open the store. The GM’s wife came too. She’d been a server with Carlos for more than a decade, and she met her husband while working in the restaurant. And this lady, from a purely objective standpoint, was one hell of a badass server.

The three of them — KM, GM and Roboserver — were a powerhouse team that could and should have taken on a restaurant five times as busy as the one they presided over in Springfield for five years. Objectively speaking, of course.

The Springfield Carlos O’Kelly’s was on the town’s east side. Residents of Springfield tend to patronize the restaurants on the west side — really, the best side — of town. East Springfield has a cluster of hotels next to a cluster of restaurant chains. When there’s a convention or horse show or giant state fair in town, the east side hotels and restaurants are slammed. The rest of the time, not so slammed. The everyday service economy sucks now. Too many toxic loans and layoffs and store closings and stuff.

In early 2008, this writer started working opening shifts Monday through Friday at the Springfield Carlos as a second job. Only three servers were on in the daytime, including the GM’s wife, the Bionic Waitress. In a few hours, a server could make $20 or $35 or $50 or the ultra-rare jackpot lunch-shift take of $80 or more. There was a camaraderie between front and back of house that was terrific, but the low sales volume made for frequent boredom.

Also in early 2008, Carlos Springfield started having karaoke on Thursday nights. The earliest karaoke nights were attended primarily by off-duty employees, which made it seem like you were at your work’s Christmas party every week. Albeit a Christmas party where you’re handed a hefty tab when the fugly lights come on. Over time, thanks to steady and eager word of mouth, a stable of karaoke regulars developed. This writer made Thursday Carlos O’Karaoke his primary social ritual, with his personal attendance rising and dropping based on the effects of two pregnancies and births in a three-year span.

Carlos O’Kelly’s in Springfield is survived by its general manager and his wife, the head server, who have already moved to Florida. Its kitchen manager gets ten weeks of severance pay for working two decades for the company. Its hourly hospitality manager, who for six years drove 45 minutes each way from and back to Lincoln, Ill., to earn somewhere in the neighborhood of ten bucks an hour from Carlos, gets nothing. Its other assistant manager, nothing. All the front and back of house staff — including one server who helped open the restaurant seven years ago — get nothing. In a capitalist economy, that’s only reasonable. The Carlos people have a business to keep afloat, after all, and the restaurant industry is cutthroat.

Carlos is also survived by a couple dozen core karaoke regulars, many of whom gathered last Thursday night at Applebee’s on the west side of Springfield, to bury and praise the three-year run of Carlos O’Karaoke. It was universally agreed that, next to what this group was used to, Applebee’s karaoke sucked. Hard.

The karaoke crowd was a comfortable one, a family loosely defined as “people you only really associate and connect with while partying together.” The Carlos staff, by the traditional definition of the word, was more family than many of its employees’ actual families. When the restaurant died suddenly, there were a lot of tears. Granted, there were also a lot of female employees, and women may be more apt to deal with sudden, unexpected loss by crying, crying and crying some more.

The closing of Carlos is not the end of the world, by any means, but it is the end of an era. The close-knit Carlos ex-employees will disperse to other jobs, and the ex-karaoke regulars will press on to find a new home to sing and party in. But most everyone involved, including this writer, will remember the Springfield Carlos O’Kelly’s with great fondness for many years.


One Response to “Obituary: Carlos O’Kelly’s in Springfield”

  1. Cayleigh Says:

    Andrew, this is the best thing I’ve read all week. And by the way…my mom actually being a robot designed specifically for serving is pretty hush hush around these lets just keep that on the DL =P

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