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Customers at Old Chicago marshal forces to save restaurant

Lease dispute set to close eatery July 15
by: Jim Clark Old Chicago Pizza regular Buck Sheppard, left, is leading a grassroots effort to save Gresham’s Old Chicago pizzeria. He is joined here by Old Chicago General Manager Jim Mahnke.

For nearly 10 years, loyal customers have made Old Chicago in Gresham Town Fair shopping center a gathering place where everybody knows their name.

'This is where I stop on my way home,' said Buck Sheppard, a longtime Old Chicago customer. 'I can drive by six or seven places on my way here, but they're not where I stop. My biological family doesn't live here. When I need to be around family, I come to Old Chicago.'

Finding a restaurant that easily mixes families and the sports crowd is a rare recipe these days. Yet the iconic eatery, known for its Chicago-style deep-dish pizza and World Beer Tour, is scheduled to close its doors Friday, July 15.

At issue is a lease dispute between the restaurant's parent company, CraftWorks, and leasing company, KIMCO. Details of the impasse are unknown. As of press time, phone calls to both CraftWorks and KIMCO for comment were not returned.

But Old Chicago's regulars aren't willing to let go easily. They've launched a letter writing and petition campaign, led by Sheppard, hoping to enlist city leaders' help in getting the two parties back to the negotiating table.

'I've been coming here since the day Old Chicago opened,' Sheppard explained. 'When I found out a few weeks ago that it was closing, I thought no way - not without a fight. The goal is to get the parties to realize this is not a brick and mortar store. It means a lot more to the community.'

Old Chicago was one of two national restaurants to open during the spring and summer of 2001. The warm reception from the community - and that of the red bird up the street - were glaring examples of Gresham's ability to attract and support major dining establishments.

But Old Chicago took its commitment to the community further than simply providing an outstanding place to eat and quality customer service. They created a family atmosphere for both patrons and employees and annually host holiday events aimed at helping area residents in need. Old Chicago's closure, Sheppard said, would be a setback for Gresham.

'What bothers me in this economy, is what vacant store frontage does to the livability and panache of the area,' he said. 'Gresham is a growing community. It's finally becoming its own.'

Jim Mahnke, Old Chicago general manager, opened the restaurant's doors 10 years ago and will likely close them as well. While not privy to details over the lease issue, Mahnke said the decision to shutter operations in July doesn't appear to have anything to do with the current sluggish national economy.

'Nobody here left when the economy went bad,' he said. 'Our business has always been consistent, and it's actually up by 30 percent since word got out that we'll be closing. We don't want to leave, but those decisions aren't made here.'

Mahnke oversees a crew of approximately 40 employees, several of whom have been with the restaurant since it opened. Management has been working with employees for placement at Old Chicago's three other Portland locations, as well as providing contacts for possible employment at other nearby restaurants.

But for longtime employees, the looming closure means a loss of camaraderie with both fellow co-workers and loyal customers.

'It breaks my heart,' said April Sturdavant, who was a college student when she was hired as a server in 2001. 'I don't live in Gresham, so it won't be like I'll be out to dinner somewhere and run into someone. There are so many people who come in regularly, and they're so much a part of my day. It's hard to move on from somewhere you've worked for 10 years.'

Sheppard established a Facebook page recently, posting copies of the correspondence being sent to CraftWorks, KIMCO and Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis. In less than a month, more than 800 people have joined the Save Old Chicago, Gresham page, many sharing their memories of how they've marked some of life's most memorable moments at the restaurant.

'I am so sad to hear that the Gresham Old Chicago may be closing,' wrote Marilyn Kaiser, a former Gresham resident. 'My husband proposed to me with all our friends and family to share our happy moment. I have so many fond memories of (Old Chicago) in Gresham. I really hope a way is found to keep it open.'

Sheppard is undaunted in his effort to remain noisy and vocal against the closure, but also realistic about the inevitable. His duty, he said, is to keep others informed.

'I don't want to see something as ingrained in the community as Old Chicago close because of ill-informed board decisions,' he said. 'We need to let the company owners, leasing agents and the mayor know how much we care and how they can't let something this good for the city go away.'