Loyal customers and curious shoppers flocked to a public auction of Chicago restaurant memorabilia on Saturday. The most precious? Neon signs for two long-running North Central neighborhood restaurants.
The signs, for the now closed Chicago Joe’s and the possibly soon to be closed Orange Garden, sold in the five figures each: $32,450 and $20,060, respectively. The Dinkel’s bakery sign in Lakeview, which officially sold its last pastry on Saturday, will go up for auction next month.
The auction – which was attended by nearly 300 people – was held at Chicago Joe’s, 2256 W. Irving Park Rd., where every collectible had been torn down and displayed to buyers. Tables, milkshakes, plates, framed newspaper articles, light fixtures, sporting goods and even the Rock-Ola jukebox were for sale.
Viewing began at 9 a.m. and the auction ran from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
A place where “average Chicago Joes” congregated and enjoyed cheeseburgers, the building was purchased by a construction company that plans to build condos in its place.
Chicago Joe’s was one of many restaurants that suffered financially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After closing in October 2020 following statewide restrictions on indoor dining, Brad Rompza, the last owner of Chicago Joe and grandson of restaurant founder Joe Rompza, took the difficult decision to close after being in the neighborhood since 1980.
Michael King, 30, has been a customer for many years, but this was his first auction. Besides buying Chicago hockey sticks and sports pictures for less than $100, he was able to get Chicago Joe’s van for just $500.
“I didn’t come here thinking I was going to buy the van, but I thought it would be a fun little thing to have, it was a really good deal for $500 and I like the slogan on it,” he said. said King.
The Chicago Joe neon sign was purchased by an anonymous Michigan buyer.
Meanwhile, the recognizable bright orange neon sign affixed to the Orange Garden Chinese restaurant, also on Irving Park Road in the central north, has been sold to a local buyer in the northern suburb of Highland Park.
The double-sided porcelain sign with neon lights, the original signature of this 1932 restaurant, has been a neighborhood staple for 90 years.
Although Orange Garden, 1942 W. Irving Park Rd., remains open for business, its manager said he plans to sell next year because the owner wants to retire and the sign has no operated since the months before the pandemic in 2020. .
“We don’t want the sign to be wasted,” said the manager, who said he didn’t want his name used because he didn’t want publicity. “So we decided to auction it off before selling this place to a company that is trashing it.”
Both the last owner of Chicago Joe and the manager of Orange Garden have received heartwarming stories from loyal fans who went on first dates with their current spouses, celebrated birthdays and met many friends at their restaurants.
Randy Donley, founder and owner of Donley Auctions in Union, IL led the team that put together Saturday’s auction.
Donley, 68, founded the company with his brother Mike Donley, inspired by their father’s business – a children’s theme park in Union, IL called Wild West Town after collecting tons of relics from the US frontier .
“The park had a huge museum of Old West memorabilia,” Randy Donley said. “I remember going to auctions since I was five years old and it always intrigued me. So, you know, at some point in my life, I went to auctioneer school and started selling.
Additionally, Donley’s Auctions plans to sell the 101-year-old Dinkel’s Bakery neon sign in May after it closed on Saturday. All proceeds from the auction of Dinkel signs will go to charity, he said.
Wearing a vintage Cubs jacket, Harry Mitrovich, 55, was the second person to pop into Chicago Joe’s on Saturday morning to take a look.
“You go to a restaurant or anywhere and you never notice the cool little things there until it’s too late,” said Mitrovich, who grew up in Lakeview and used to go frequently at Chicago Joe’s in the 1990s to meet friends.
Before heading to the auction, he stopped at Dinkel’s around 6:45 a.m. to pick up a few last baked goods before the place closed.
“It’s so sad to see these places disappear,” Mitrovich said. “Chicago Joe’s, Dinkel’s Bakery, what next?”
Leroy Larsen, 81, lives in a seniors’ rental apartment community a few blocks from Chicago Joe’s, which was their “go-to” restaurant. Larsen remembers celebrating there with friends for their birthdays and using the special discount the restaurant offered to people in their residences.
Larsen, who is an American veteran, wore his American Legion cap and stayed for the entire auction to bid on the set of three American Legion wall memorabilia that have been in the restaurant for years, a- he declared.
When Donley heard her story, he made the offers for Larsen and bought them from her as a gift for $225.
Georgina Kelle, 38, who also lives on the streets, said she and her family came to the restaurant until their last days during the pandemic.
“We were here when they brought out the tables (for outdoor dining during the pandemic). We had to come back for the key lime pie, oysters and burgers. Always the best!” said Kelle, who bid on several Chicago photos and also bought some Chicago Cubs-themed cookware.
Preservation Chicago, a nonprofit that advocates nurturing the local community by protecting Chicago’s historic buildings, creates an annual list of Chicago’s most endangered sites and in 2015 they included neon signs.
“Neon signs are in danger in Chicago because they’re being taken down left and right, they’re not necessarily appreciated, they’re not maintained,” said Max Chavez, 33, director of research and special projects at Preservation Chicago. .
“We are therefore extremely alarmed to see that not just one but three iconic neon signs will be auctioned off in the coming weeks,” Chavez said.
Preservation Chicago wants the city’s neon signs to be officially designated like any other historic building or landmark so they can be protected.
“Chicago’s neon signs are really like works of art in themselves,” Chavez said. “Each neighborhood has its iconic signs recognized by locals, which remind them of their home and are important to them.”