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When Hornick and his partner, “Chef Jo” Kaucher, opened the restaurant in 1983, critics, loan officers and family members alike scoffed at the idea, some vehemently. “It’s like we were going against apple pie and mom and the whole thing,” Hornick recalled. “Big shot advertising guys came in and said you’re pissing against the wind.”
Their answer was to create an atmosphere as American as mini malls by decorating the place with vintage ads and neon lights and serving up heaping helpings of comfort food, but without the meat. “Instead of burgers, we have veggie burgers,” explains Kauchner, who, together with a long line of collaborators in the kitchen, created the Diner’s menu and authored The Chicago Diner cookbooks. “Instead of french fries we serve home fries,” she adds. They also offer vegan milkshakes, a Radical Reuben with homemade seitan in place of corned beef, biscuits & vegetarian gravy, and Not Dogs for the kids.
The restaurant fits the vegetarian mold about as little as its owners do. Hornick was lured into the vegetarian lifestyle — and into Kaucher’s life — while working at the Chicago Board of Options as a commodities trader. Although fairly successful, he says he felt unsatisfied. He began eating natural foods for health reasons and soon became a regular at the Breadshop Kitchen, a local hippie haunt where Kaucher was slaving away baking bread. “I just felt better eating there,” he explained. “I thought it was somewhat the wave of the future.”
One day he noticed a “dishwasher wanted” sign and was inspired. He quit his job at the Board and, despite warnings that the Breadshop could soon go under, he got to work.
“I came in as a dishwasher and after two weeks I told the owner I thought I could save the place,” he said, adding that since his background was in finance, he saw it as a worthy challenge. And it worked, for a time. “When Mickey came in, it was the first time the place made a profit,” Kaucher recalls, shaking her head, “and he didn’t even know what a cabbage was. I thought, ‘this guy is going to manage the restaurant?’”
Nevertheless, eventually Mickey left due to personality conflicts. The business went under shortly thereafter and Kaucher decided to leave Chicago for California.
Although the two weren’t yet romantically involved, she says when she told him goodbye, he said, “Someday I’ll find you, wherever you are, and we’ll open a restaurant.” A few years later, she returned to Chicago, and he did.