April 4, 2008

Timothy York's Bistro: The dream is passed on

Joan Stepanski at Timothy York's Bistro

Timothy York's Bistro is the story:
-- Of a dream briefly realized, cut short by tragedy -- and then passed on to someone else.

-- Of days when receipts wouldn't cover the utilities bill; when the one-person staff (the owner), after a night of tending bar and a day of cleaning the premises and managing, was too broke to buy spirits by the case and so had to shop retail at Timers.

-- Of a landlord dealing sympathetically with a tenant who couldn't pay the rent.

--Of friends and customers and performers pulling together.

-- And finally, of hope and optimism -- but with the villain of the Sixth Street roadwork looming ahead ... just two blocks down the street, in fact, and moving steadily toward the front door.
Let's start at the beginning, back in 2006 when Ed Scharding was gutting the building next to his plumbing gallery, the former "What About Me?" tavern at 600 Sixth Street. Lory Patin, a chef, drove by and visualized what it could be, and talked her partner in life, Joan Stepanski, into a life-changing experience: they would open a bistro together. "We thought we were in a position to make her dream come true," Joan says today.

And so they came to a buildout agreement with Scharding: he paid for some of the renovation; they paid for new flooring, light fixtures, the 220 electric service. "It was an unusual arrangement, but we felt we were part of it," Joan says. Scharding's work on the building exterior won a facade award from the Downtown Racine Corporation. The interior is attractive, too: warm wood floor, stylish lights, exposed brick, the bar faced with wainscoting taken from the walls. Everybody was happy and the Bistro, named after Lory's son, opened on Dec. 6, 2006.

"Things went like gangbusters; the place was packed," Joan remembers. It wasn't making a profit, she clarifies -- "We went 'way into debt to build the place, put the kitchen in from scratch" -- but optimism reigned. Lory ran the kitchen and Joan, still working as a process improvement specialist at a business forms company, ran the front of the house.

And then in February, Lory got sick. At first it appeared to be heart trouble, but a stress test showed nothing to worry about. "We thought she was just run down from starting up and running the Bistro kitchen," said Joan. But four months later, in June of '07, Lory came downstairs and said, "Something is wrong. I have no energy." Another chest x-ray was ordered, and Joan recalls the doctor looking at it and saying, "I think we have our answer." It was lung cancer ... too spread out for radiology and resistant to chemo. Lory lost 50 pounds and died at Thanksgiving.

"I really didn't know what I was going to do," Joan said. "We were broke; we hadn't been taking any salaries. We'd closed the kitchen 10 days before Lory died. But I found in the year we were open that I really, really loved this business. Nobody was more surprised than I was."

Still, she couldn't afford a chef (she defines the difference between a cook and a chef this way: a chef can create dishes and flavors; a cook just follows someone else's recipes) so the kitchen went through nine cooks in short order, none proving satisfactory. "I learned that if we didn't have good food we weren't going to make it ...but how could I find a chef willing to work with me?"

Joan laid off the entire staff, keeping the Bistro open herself; for six weeks she couldn't afford to buy any beer or liquor, selling just what was on hand. "In December, I told Ed I couldn't pay the rent." They negotiated a different kind of lease; she sold him some of the equipment they'd put into the place -- "the range hood, sinks, stuff I'd never be able to take out anyway" -- and then leased it back as part of the rent.

"Then three things happened that saved me," Joan says. First, Tony Hall showed up. "He came in while Iron Chef was on the TV over the bar; he made a couple of comments and we talked, but I didn't know who he was. Then he came in the next week, said he was the sous chef at Waves, and we talked about business. I was too terrified to be hopeful.

"Tony has a great reputation. He's a big man, with a big personality and big flavors in his cooking." Tony started as Timothy York's chef on March 1, after revamping the kitchen and creating an ambitious new menu.

The second thing that happened was a loan from a former co-worker, enough to pay the bills for a while.

Finally, Joan's friend Tom Kaiser "took me under his wing," and has been "talking up the restaurant downtown, putting flyers on car windshields" and generally corralling customers.

In addition, performers -- Timothy York's used to have a lot of them -- have been rallying. On First Friday, Ronnie Nyles -- Female Vocalist of the year -- and her drummer, Tina Dimmer -- they go by the name ChixMix -- performed. There wasn't a vacant seat in the house. Every other Sunday afternoon there is karaoke. "Things like that have kept me going," says Joan.

"Business is better; I'm cautiously optimistic," she says, although Sixth Street construction will have to be weathered. For now, you can still drive right up to Timothy York's front door (East on Seventh, a left on Villa or Park to Sixth and you're there). The Bistro will delay the opening of its outdoor patio until July 3 -- the day construction is scheduled to be finished for the summer.

Joan looks around the place -- after putting down her broom this afternoon to let in a delivery of beer and liquor -- and smiles at the picture of Lory on the piano. "This place is not the same without her. I had to buckle down and make it my own," she says. "In some ways I feel like a traitor... but in others it feels very good."

Timothy York's Bistro, 600 Sixth Street, is open Tuesday through Saturday. Hours are 4-midnight on Tuesday through Thursday; 4 to 2:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. The next karaoke Sunday is April 13, from noon to 6 p..m. A Mother's Day brunch and dinner is also being scheduled.


  1. What a great story. I'm so sorry for your loss-- but pleased to hear the restaurant is still here. I'd like to take my family there but I've heard because the bar is close to the tables it gets smoky? Is it a smoking establishment?

  2. Urban Pioneer4/06/2008 12:54 PM

    Also Sympathies to you Joan, on your loss,and Isn't great how people show up at those moments when all seems to be going downhill. I've been there a few times. I will try to get in there this week and try out the new menu. And folks all those rest. and Pubs, and Businesses on 6th will appreciate your business this year, during the construction.