By Kayleigh Rahn
Kenny Hogue Jr. was 18 when he left Tuscola.
The TCHS multi-sport standout athlete headed for larger cities to chase his dream of becoming a chef, thinking he’d likely never return home for good.
“For a number of years, I was a young cook trying to learn the craft in large cities,” he said. “I wanted to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could from the best, so I had to live where they work.”
He set out with the the mentality of lighting the world on fire with goals of spending his career as a fine dining, three star Michelin chef in world class metropolitan areas.
“I wanted to do fine dining forever, but it is such a burn out industry at that level,” he said. “My hats off to those chefs who can cook at that level. You have to really want it to a point that you sacrifice everything else in your life, and it consumes you. It’s unsustainable. You can’t work at that level forever. After I felt like I’d learned what I’d set out to, I realized it wasn’t the style of cooking that I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
After several years working in cities from coast to coast, Kenny and his wife Angela landed in San Francisco where he was working for a tech company as an in house chef. Despite the cost of living, they were able to put away a nest egg and enjoy living in the beautiful Bay Area.
Then came Cam, the Hogues’ first child. While Kenny was on paternity leave the couple realized family had taken over their list of priorities, and they began considering opportunities outside the expensive region.
“We loved the Bay Area; absolutely loved it. Within two and a half hours, you can be in Tahoe, Santa Cruz, Napa, the mountains. But the cost of living was just so expensive, we could afford it but we wanted to give Cam more. I was also getting tired of breaking my back and my body to line other people’s pockets.”
The family made the decision to leave the west coast.
Kenny had several friends approach him about opening a restaurant in Chicago, they were also considered landing in Indianapolis, Charleston, S.C., St. Louis, and Las Vegas, among other major cities.
However, one spot, on the far west side of Sale Street in his hometown that had been a long shot in his mind, finally came into focus.
“When I would come home for Christmas, Dad (Kenny Hogue Sr.) would always joke that this restaurant (at 125 W. Sale) was still available downtown,” he said. “I was always thinking there was no way we’d take that on. Then two years ago, when we were home for Christmas I decided to finally take a look. We saw that it had a good structure, and we had this vision that it could be something really cool, and at the end of the day it was a fraction of the cost to do this than it would be in a larger city.”
They headed back to the Bay Area to begin creating business plans; however, in the end it was the City of Tuscola TIF Funding that sold the idea for the Hogues.
“We knew then that we could really turn this into what ever we wanted, and we were all in,” he said. “It’s really easy to sit around and complain about what’s not here, but it’s really hard to leave and come back to bring something new to the table. I just hope people can appreciate it. We miss being in the city, but we feel we can bring something unique here.”
The Hogues moved home, closed on the building May 22, 2018, and started the demo process by June 1, 2018.
In the beginning, they had their sites set on opening only a restaurant.
“That seems kind of ironic now, because all I have right now is a bar,” he joked. “We saw that this space is way too big for just a restaurant.”
The building has held a variety of businesses over the decades and is portioned into an east and west side. With the building in their hands, they set aside the space to the west for a restaurant and the east side, after months of labor, has transformed into Cast Iron Pub.
In the coming months, Kenny and crew will begin to shape the second space that will become a full restaurant called “Irma Lou’s Kitchen,” named for Hogues’ beloved late grandmother Irma Bailey.
For now, Cast Iron Pub, the business plan add on, will be Kenny’s first reintroduction to the Tuscola community.
“When Angela started creating logos for Irma Lou’s, there was a cast iron skillet for the backdrop,” he said. “Ninety percent of the photos of grandma in her kitchen are of her standing in front of a skillet. So the thought of these being sister businesses, this seemed to work well.”
Kenny hopes the name evokes nostalgia for many while fitting the style of the bar with rustic touches including exposed wood and brick.
“We liked the way it sounded, and it was a play off of Grandma’s skillet,” he said. “Her kitchen is over there, and cast iron is here.”
Behind the bar at Cast Iron Pub, there is room for 10 drafts that will rotate frequently, and Kenny plans to keep the options as local as possible.
“Certainly we’ll have mostly Midwestern beers on tap, but we will probably throw a few of our other favorites in as well,” he said. Effing Brew in Effingham, Savoy’s Tryptich Brewing, Riggs in Urbana with a few breweries from Chicago, St. Louis, and Nashville will be represented as well.
“We plan to never have a common beer on draft,” he said. “It’s a decision we made, but we’ll still carry them. You can still get your Bud Light, but it won’t be on draft.”
They will share samples in an effort to pitch the regional brews to their guests and hopefully widen the community’s pallet, as well. Pub goers will also have the option to purchase beer flights.
In addition to the drafts, they will offer 45 craft beers, cans and bottles, and there is another 35 more common beers.
“We are sitting at about 85 different beers and ciders from all over,” he said.
Cast Iron’s identity is a bit difficult to nail down. Yes, it is a craft beer bar, although the drink menu will also offer a variety of 10 wines along with seasonal, house-made cocktails. They will also carry 65 whiskeys, scotches, and ryes.
“We’re pretty particular about it, and we tasted dozens of wines before we found a few that were within our price point,” he said. “We’re always open to changing things out. Throughout this entire process, if it’s on our menu and it’s not selling, we’re not going to carry it anymore. If there is something people want that we don’t have we will try to bring it in.”
Within the space, there are two 60-inch TVs and an overhead projector to catch the area’s favorite college and professional teams with hopes of watching the Warriors, as well. However, the screens aren’t all about sports.
“Some of Angela’s and my favorite experiences at bars in the city would be Oscar nights or Grammy nights,” he said. “You’d go to the bar, and they had the Oscars on the wall with games themed to the event. Within reason we plan to show major events.”
They also have plans to host live music, mostly acoustic, solo or small ensembles that will fit the space.
“We’re not trying to be a wine bar or a sports bar,” Kenny said. “We have an idea of the culture we want to cultivate, but ultimately it comes down to whose coming in. We’re trying to fill a lot of gaps in Tuscola, things I feel we haven’t had here in a long time, if not ever, at least certainly not while I was here. The last thing we want to do is force something on the community that they don’t want, so we will be highly receptive to what’s working.”
He will be working on logistics to offer a limited menu for the pub in the coming months, though in the meantime, the Hogues have been working with their new business neighbors to help feed their customers with more details available in the coming weeks regarding food options.
“The real focus first and foremost, we want it be a comfortable atmosphere for anyone, especially families,” he said.
“There’s not really any good place around town to hang out and do adult activities with your family,” he said. “We really want to keep it a classy family environment, until at least a certain time of night. We’re trying to think of things to incorporate to keep kids entertained, as well.”
More than 14 months into the work, the Hogues are anxious to have customers at the bar as the renovation took several unexpected turns.
“You see Chip and Joanna Gaines do it on a weekly basis, then you see Flip or Flop, and it seems like they are all in and out,” he joked. “Certainly we knew it wasn’t going to be like that, but we still didn’t think it would be a complete gut job. We’d hoped to peel back layers until we got to something that was workable.”
However, the building had been patched together by numerous owners over the decades. For example, once they started taking a look at the electrical components, they discovered old knob and tube had been patched into modern wiring, pipes had burst without repair, and what they believed would be at least one usable HVAC system was toast, literally. They discovered the back of the component had caught fire at some point and would not be salvaged.
In the end, the wiring, plumbing and HVAC systems were overhauled, which turned into costs and labor spent before the true work of changing the space could even begin.
Those who remember the restaurant in its past life may feel as though every inch of the space has been gutted for renovation, and while that’s true, many of the building’s pieces are still around.
“The wood floor, it’s still here,” he said. “Most of the wood you see was already here in the building. The bar top is made out of the old floor joists; the pub tables are made out of the old 2x4s from the framing upstairs. We repurposed a lot of it.”
In all, around 90 percent of the work has been completed using Tuscola contractors and materials, he said.
“While in some cases it might have been cheaper to run up to Champaign, we made the decision that if this is the community we want to help build, let’s build it now,” he said.
The first day of business has been slated for Monday, Aug. 12.
Hours will be Monday through Thursday 3 p.m. to midnight; Friday 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to midnight.
Other features of the space are a simple beer garden in back with overflow seating for about 16 in a back room with hopes to have sidewalk seating with city permission.
“But I have to get people in the door first, it does no good to have outdoor seating with no one inside,” he said.
“Most of the major overhaul and mechanicals have been completed for the entire building, when we go to get into the kitchen and dining area, the ground work is laid, so that will be a matter of time,” he said. “The dining room will be purely cosmetic with the kitchen still needing some rough in work.”
He hopes Irma Lou’s will be open yet this year, though he’s not promising a date, a lesson he learned from working the pub construction.
“You can make the life you want here, and if it’s not through us, we want to help other people get there, too,” Kenny said about returning home. “We hope to be an anchor on this end of the block, and we’d love to draw people down the whole street. Hopefully we can get people to realize that our downtown is becoming something worthwhile.”