RIVER NORTH — A cook at Ohio House Coffee Shop said the staff and customers of the tiny River North diner are "like a family."
Carlos Luna, who has worked at the restaurant for 22 years, said he's watched customers' children grow up, and owner Cathy Roquemore, 77, is a regular at his own family parties.
"It's like working for my grandmother," said a cook who asked to only be identified as Mike.
News of the shop's closing — after 53 years in business — came as a blow to that tight-knit family.
"We all feel really bad about it," Luna said. "But we're going to remember...all the good times we had in here."
The shop at 600 N. Lasalle St. will be replaced with a franchise store by the owner of the property, who also owns the Ohio House Motel, said waitress Kim Jurgensen. The motel is not closing.
Jurgensen, who has worked at the shop for nine years, called the closure "devastating."
"We figured it was going to happen someday, but we didn't expect it this soon," she said.
The closure of the coffee shop will be a loss for the area, which doesn't have any "ma and pa" businesses anymore, Mike said.
"They like all new, higher-end, flashy stuff, geared toward the younger generation," he said.
But many customers have passed their love of the coffee shop down to "the younger generation," as their children have become part of the Ohio House family.
"There is no other place that we can walk into and feel like we are at home," wrote one family of five in a tiny, pink notebook on the store's counter meant for collecting memories. "You have been a part of our lives, seen us get married, have children."
"Even the kids are like, 'Why? Why can't we eat here anymore?" Jergensen said. "I think the customers are more affected than we are. All I hear is, 'What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?'"
The signature dish — "If five people come in, at least three are going to order the Deuces Wild" — is two eggs, two pancakes, two strips of bacon and two sausage patties for $5.75. The clientele of the tiny diner ranges from neighborhood regulars to tourists from across the globe, Jurgensen said.
"A lot of it is word of mouth," she said. "People say, 'I've been walking past here for 30 years and never knew this was here.' We hear, 'Oh my God, this is the best-kept secret in Chicago.'"
The last day for the shop is April 28, and Jergensen said she doesn't think there are any plans to move the diner someplace new.
"They ask us where we're going, and it's nowhere," Jergensen said.
But many customers have promised to follow the staff to the restaurants where they'll be hired next, and become a regular again if Roquemore ever opens another diner.
A customer ended his letter in the memories notebook, "I will be there opening day."