At The Ranch Steak House in Roseland, manager Yolonda Pierce (right), dishwasher Aaron Hall and waitress Dana Morris get through the tough times together thanks to loyal customers. (DNAinfo/Mark Konkol)
ROSELAND — On a morning stroll, I hiked west from Pullman and under the 113th Street viaduct that leads to the wrong side of the tracks.
I walked past Palmer Park, where the faint scent of marijuana hung in the cool, humid air, and headed up the hill toward Michigan Avenue — Roseland’s once-vibrant shopping strip now populated by hustlers, pimps and dealers who openly cater to the vices of the addicted, the desperate and the damned — on my way to “The Ranch.”
That’s what locals call the neighborhood’s only surviving steak joint, where you can get a T-bone, charbroiled just the way you like it, with a baked potato and salad for less than 20 bucks. And they serve tasty breakfast — two eggs with hash browns and toast for under $5 — all day long.
The late John Kapsaskis opened The Ranch Steak House at 11147 S. Michigan Ave. in 1969. Back then, Roseland was home to mostly blue-collar white families who later fled to the suburbs when black folks moved in and good-paying steel mill jobs dried up. His son, Dino — “The Greek Cowboy,” as one photo behind the counter calls him — kept the family steakhouse going even as the neighborhood’s population changed and its economy slumped.
Inside the front door is a far different world than the one left behind on the sidewalk. A set of bull horns hang from the ceiling. A sign welcomes customers to a dimly lit dining room decorated with carved Indian chief statues and faded photos of cowboys, those rifle-toting white men on horseback from Hollywood westerns.
“The complaint I get sometimes is that there aren’t enough black cowboys on the wall,” Yolonda Pierce said.
She’s the blond-haired, blue-eyed gal, a former hair stylist from Griffith, Indiana, who runs The Ranch now that Dino Kapsaskis — the owner and her ex-fiance — packed up and moved to Greece to take care of his 93-year-old mother.
Pierce’s friends tell her she should be angry that Kapsaskis left her to run The Ranch by herself, unsure if he’ll ever return.
“Even though he is my ex, this is his business. Dino could have sold this place. He always said business is business. He felt like he was doing me a favor. If I go anywhere else I’ll make minimum wage. What can I do?” Pierce said.
“We still care about each other enough to keep it going. I’m not mad at him. He did what he had to do. I’m taking care of my mother. I take care of my daughter. I do what I got to do.”
She doesn’t just do it for herself and her own family. The Ranch is the lifeblood that keeps a lot of people — her dishwasher, waitresses and cooks and even Kapsaskis, whom Pierce sends cash she considers “rent” — on the winning side of “the struggle.”
“They say when you eat at Outback Steakhouse or one of those chain places you’re paying for the owner's private jets and fancy houses. What we make helps everyone here. Nobody makes a lot of money. Here, you’re paying for our people to buy clothes for their kids,” Pierce said.
“I just feel like I don’t care if it’s a struggle. I’m gonna keep it going and that’s how Dino feels, too. No matter what, we’re going to try to keep The Ranch open for as long as can. Either things are going to get better or … whatever.”
Tough times at “The Ranch”
In the ‘90s, despite the economic downturn, urban decay and raging gang wars that earned Roseland the notorious nickname “The Wild Hundreds” — Kapsaskis and his former business partner at The Ranch each pulled in about $100,000-a-year profit.
Those days, however, are long, long gone.
“Profit, now?” Pierce said. “No. Nothing. Not at all.”
When Pierce first started dating Kapsaskis eight years ago, random visits to see her boyfriend turned into picking up a few waitress shifts, then a full-time job and eventually, her life’s work.
Kapsaskis gave her a crash course in running a restaurant during difficult times in a poverty stricken neighborhood.
So, when the place gets busy Pierce puts on an apron and flips flapjacks rather than hiring a second cook.
She picks up cases of eggs, boxes of meat and 50 pounds bags of potatoes to save on delivery costs.
She even butchers the restaurant’s signature steaks — the Roy Rogers ribeye, the John Wayne strip steak, the Gunsmoke T-bone and the Dale Evans porterhouse — to save a buck.
“I go to the bank every day to deposit money to try to stretch it for all our bills and to make payroll,” she said.
There’s nothing she can do about the parking meters — $2-an-hour to park on Michigan Avenue — that she says chase customers away.
“Do they know what charging $2 for someone to park here when they can’t even afford breakfast does to a business?” Pierce said.
“When they added $2 parking in this neighborhood, that’s when our nights went from bad to worse. Legally, you have to pay the meter until 9 at night. During the day people can park on the side streets, but they don’t feel safe doing that around here at night.”
When it was clear the “parking arrangement,” as Pierce calls it, had thinned her after-dark dinner crowd good, she decided to close The Ranch two hours early at 7 p.m.
Last year, the skyrocketing price of steak — $3.55-a-pound, a national record high — hit The Ranch especially hard.
Pierce says she tries to make sure meat doesn’t go to waste. Sometimes that means even a good week can go bad if she sells out of T-bones after a few days and can’t afford to buy more until her regularly scheduled shopping trip on Fridays.
And Chicago’s minimum wage increase, which pushed the required rate of hourly pay from $8.25 to $10 in July, added to the financial squeeze at The Ranch.
That forced Pierce to find creative ways to cut overhead costs. Two cooks bartered to live rent free in the apartments above the restaurant as part of their pay, a cost-saving move that saved their jobs and allowed Pierce to hold the line on menu prices.
Serving good food at fair prices is the company mantra at The Ranch. There’s even a message from Dino printed on the back of the menu thanking customers for their loyalty and pledging to give them “the same great food, service, plus the affordable prices” they deserve.
“We are always afraid to raise our prices because then you lose customers,” Pierce said. “We last raised them three years ago.”
But Pierce says she won’t be able to hold the line on prices thanks to the skyrocketing cost of eggs — which have gone from “$30 to $80 a case.”
“That makes a difference. Vegetables went up, too. Everything costs,” Pierce said. “I’m going to have to raise prices more than I normally do — 55 cents, but still, you know that’s a lot down here.”
‘The community ... makes a restaurant’
When The Ranch first opened there were lines out the door for the hearty steak dinner they served up for about $2.50-a-plate. Lines spilled out the door and dozens of other local restaurants on Michigan — locals used to call it “The Ave” — that were just as popular.
That was at a time when Roseland was about to hit a tipping point. When the first black residents moved in — they were finally allowed by the banks to purchase homes there — white residents fled in droves to the south suburbs.
Eventually, most of the stores and restaurants left, too, but The Ranch remained.
“Some of our customers moved to this area when it was prejudiced against them and they could barely step in restaurants,” Pierce said.
“Now, they consider this place theirs. It’s the community that keeps this restaurant going. We have customers who come to visit family who say, ‘We always come to The Ranch. This is where my parents brought me when I was little.’ And it’s amazing they keep coming.”
Given Roseland’s long history of racism and the effects of white-flight segregation, some customers are shocked — or even displeased — to see a 52-year-old white woman running a restaurant in an all-black neighborhood with a reputation for its poverty, violence and open-air drug markets.
It was tough, Pierce says, but at The Ranch she’s found a home where she least expected it.
“I got a hard time when I first came here. I understand what racism is. I can say that,” Pierce said.
“Even though I wasn’t born here or even raised in Chicago, I like it here. I feel accepted. … I love the public. I’m here for them. I’m here for the community. I’m not even in [the Kapsaskis] family. I love our customers and they love me. They respect us. The community is what makes a restaurant.”
When customers tease her about all those pictures of white cowboys on the wall, Pierce says it's just part of the throwback charm of the place. She points to photos that Kapsaskis hung prominently above the kitchen.
“What other cowboy steak house from the ‘60s are you going to see pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., [former mayor] Harold Washington and President Obama?” Pierce said. “Dino loved Washington, he was his absolute favorite mayor. And was so proud to hang Obama’s picture when he won.”
But the real proof that the color of a person’s skin doesn’t matter at The Ranch is the way people who work there follow the golden rule — treat others the way you want to be treated.
But it’s not always in the way you might expect.
“You don’t go to the suburbs and see customers yelling. Well, you do here. They don’t always turn the other cheek. Sometimes, we yell back. It’s a little like Ed Debevic’s,” she said. “The thing is, people feel comfortable to be themselves here.”
Pierce admits she gives the staff — and her complaining customers — a lot of leeway because, well, there’s no use in fighting.
At The Ranch, they’re all in it together.
“Sometimes, a customer will say, ‘If I don’t get a free pancake I’m not buying it.’ If it’s slow, I’ll just give it to them. It’s like, ‘Just pay the money and go.’ And I’m not a mean boss, either. We laugh. We laugh at each other. I can’t be rough, and can’t be mean to anybody,” Pierce said.
“Our struggle, you know, it’s business. We’re all here trying to make honest money. … People out there, they’re trying to get by.”
In between, there are the special moments that Pierce says she cherishes most.
“What makes it worth it, the upside to all of it, is when I see a little kid running around to look at all the cowboys … and then eat a pancake,” she said.
“Oh, how I just love that.”
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