Smile Politely

40 years of history at Courier Cafe

The Courier Cafe is one of the oldest restauraunts in Urbana. Due to its vibrant look inside and out, especially in the evenings, the Cafe has become a lovely place to enjoy a meal.

I was able to interview the Courier Cafe’s owner Allen Strong, who discussed his riveting journey to the success of the restaurant along with its unique features. The Cafe is filled with Champaign-Urbana history stemming from 40 years ago. Although COVID-19 has made it more difficult to attend the restaurant, Courier Cafe is still open with outside seating, and it is still producing the same high quality meals.

On another side of the exterior of the building, an intricate and large mural covers the entire brick side. It consists of various vibrant colors depicting the origin of the Courier Cafe and its sister restaurant, Silver Creek. The painting is full of old trains, cars, and the four men who started the Courier newspaper originally. Photo by Allen Strong.

Photo by Allen Strong.

Smile Politely: How did Courier Cafe begin at its start in 1980?

Allen Strong: Well, that’s a long time ago! I had moved down here from Chicago to go back to school. Coming from a not-so-wealthy family, I had to figure out some way to put myself through school. And so I decided to open up a small deli on campus and get that going. After that was up and running, I would go back to school and that would be my life plan.

What I did was: I took over an existing place and expanded it, but about a year afterwards, there was this huge fire on campus. It destroyed my business, but because it was only food and smoke damage, the insurance would only cover half of it. So I had to make a decision to either stick with it and try to make a business or close up shop and figure out a new life plan. I decided to stick with it, and I did that for about five years — and it did really well. Of course, I couldn’t go back to school because my whole world was invested in that place.

We did some innovative things in the original place. We put in the first salad bar ever put in in the area, and we started our own bakery and were baking fresh breads everyday. It did really well, but I got tired of being on campus and tired of being in a basement. People would walk by and spit on the sidewalk. Sometimes it would flood downstairs in the deli.

I had always wanted to do a historic renovation, so I started looking around. The Courier newspaper closed around 1979, and that building became vacant. There were no places to eat in downtown Urbana. There were 17 empty storefronts, and I decided that was an opportunity. So I took over the building and built the Courier Cafe, and it was an instant success. Our sales grew every month for 17 years. So we got to the point where we couldn’t do anymore volume, and that’s when I opened Silvercreek. That’s how the Courier Cafe works.

SP: The ambiance is one of the most charming aspects of the Cafe. How would you describe how the building and staff create that peaceful experience?

Strong: Well, I think a lot of it just has to do with the decor. I love antiques, and I love functional antiques. So I really like to integrate things that are useful and unique. Like our clocks and the fixtures and lighting are all vintage authentic antiques. Most of those are things that I’ve restored myself. I love things from the 1920s and 1930s and the industrial era, so I try to incorporate things into the restaurant that we actually use as part of the atmosphere.

SP: This might be difficult, but what’s your favorite thing on the menu?

Strong: Oh! Well, I’ll go in, and I’ll eat whatever whether it’s the special soup or sandwich or whatever I’m in the mood for. The corned beef, the quesadillas, and the skinny dippers are all great.

An array of breakfast dishes on white plates on a wooden table at Courier Cafe. Pancakes on two plates, eggs and sausage on the other two. Photo by Jessica Hammie.

Photo by Jessica Hammie.

SP: Well, what do you think is the signature dish customers love from Courier Cafe?

Strong: Definitely the corned beef. It’s probably what we’re most famous for. All the breakfast foods are great as well. You know people love the pumpkin pancakes in the fall. They’re all great, and it just gives people a lot of choices.

SP: What does a general day for you look like at the Courier Cafe?

Strong: Well, I’m usually there early in the morning, and the first thing I do is see if there’s anything that needs to be repaired. It’s probably my biggest thing — doing all the maintenance. And things break all the time! I’m a pretty good plumber and electrician now. Then I’ll look at sales reports and schedules and see where we’re at with that. Then I may set up interviews for hiring and check around with staff for any issues or problems. So, I’m pretty hands-on.

SP: So, what do you like to do after work? What are your hobbies?

Strong: Well, my passion is collecting and restoring pre-war classic cars. We have sort of a museum of cars I’ve restored, and they’re mostly from the 1920s and 30s.

Presented here is a frontal view of the Courier Urban gardens. A small sign with the Courier Cafe logo is placed into the mulch in front of many green plants. Photo by Allen Strong.

Photo by Allen Strong.

SP: That’s so cool! Next, can you talk a little bit about the Courier urban gardens used to grow fresh food for the restaurant?

Strong: Sure! A few years ago, the building that had been there, which was a Denny’s dry cleaners, was condemned and torn down, so that space was just open. I thought, “Gosh, what would be the best use of this space?” and I started thinking about a garden. With the salad bar and the two restaurants, that’s what we could do to keep it interesting in terms of land use. Unfortunately, we really didn’t pursue it too much this year because of COVID-19.

SP: Can you discuss some of the awards the Cafe has won?

Strong: Oh, gosh. We’re very famous for our handmade milkshakes, and we’ve got those in a range of flavors that we’ve won multiple awards. We’ve won best breakfast awards, chicken soup awards, and more. Midwest Living featured us as a local restaurant. So, there’s lots of stuff like that.

SP: How would you describe the relationships between the staff at the Courier Cafe?

Strong: Because I’m real hands-on, I think I’ve got a strong relationship with them. We’re on a first name basis with everybody, and I do all the hiring. So each employee’s beginning at the Courier starts with me. Over 40 years, we’ve had lots and lots of people that have worked here. What’s really rewarding is when people come back — especially some who you think didn’t enjoy their experience — and say, “This is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.” Sometimes, when you’re dealing with young people during a transitional time, there’s a lot of growing going on, and it’s fun to be a part of that and help them through that.

SP: In general, how has the restaurant adjusted to the COVID-19 situation this year?

Strong: Oh, it’s been horrible. We’re losing money every day. Trying to be open inside and outside has been a nightmare. We lost a lot of people when the lockdown happened, and it’s been difficult to get some people back. Now there’s the additional stress of just having more work, going twice the distance to deliver food, and working in the heat and all that stuff. It’s been pretty tough.

SP: So, what are ways that customers can support you guys right now?

Strong: Well, customers were really supportive. When we reopened back in June, I realized that outside seating would be the only viable option we could have because people were so worried about dining inside, which I hope changes soon. So we had to do something. I went ahead and rented a tent and turned our parking lot into a dining room, which has been the only thing that’s kept us open. It’s been hard. You know that cost me $5,000 a month — which is more than we make. So, it’s been very, very tough.

As Strong mentioned in his interview, a tent used for outside service during the COVID-19 regulations is out in the Courier Cafe parking lot. Many are sitting socially distant while everyone is wearing a mask. Photo by Allen Strong.

Photo by Allen Strong.

SP: Is there anything else you’d want CU readers to know?

Strong: I just wish everybody luck to get through this and keep the faith. Hopefully, it’ll be over sooner than later. You know, I love this community, and I love Urbana. Urbana’s been great to us and I’ve raised four kids here, so I’m deeply committed to the community. The past 40 years have been great, I’d just love to throw away the last one.

Courier Cafe
111 N Race Street
T-Th 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
F-Sa 8a.m. to 9 p.m.
Su 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Top image by Allen Strong.

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