The Olive Garden up in Bolingbrook had a pretty good crowd the other afternoon. The dining room was full and there were even a couple of groups eating by the bar.
Next door to the Olive Garden there’s a Red Lobster and across Weber Road they have a Red Robin. All those restaurants setting up shop in Bolingbrook, for some reason. What do they see in that place?
Before Bolingbrook got its Olive Garden, there was talk of one opening up right here in Joliet by the Louis Mall. A Michigan-based developer had mentioned it. But the Olive Garden was never built. That was almost 25 years ago.
And the Olive Garden came up again just recently. This time, real estate developer John Bays name-dropped the Olive Garden to Joliet’s economic development committee, saying it’s the kind of restaurant he wants to see doing business in the Catholic Charities building he owns at the corner of Cass and Ottawa streets.
“I want something to pull people from the West Side, but you’ve got to have a big name,” Bays said in a story by Herald-News reporter Bob Okon. Bays said those big names were the Olive Garden and Cooper’s Hawk.
Yet again, the prospect of an Olive Garden dangles in front of the people of Joliet.
We’ve seen this before. There was that time with the Michigan developer back in 1993 when they were planning out the Joliet Commons shopping center by the mall.
Then, in 2001, there were more murmurs about an Olive Garden, this time the possibility of one coming to Joliet’s downtown on the heels of an expected Starbucks. Bolingbrook was able to get its Olive Garden that same year. But it didn’t happen for Joliet, which is puzzling since Joliet is better than Bolingbrook in every way.
A few years later, in 2007, the Olive Garden came up again. A new strip mall was opening up where Tuckaway Tavern used to be, and the city assured the public that it would be home to “high-end” businesses.
One of those high-end businesses was supposed to be an Olive Garden. At least that’s the impression Councilwoman Jan Quillman said she had at the time. But again, no. The closest thing they got to an Olive Garden in that strip mall was a Denny’s, and the Honey Jalapeño Slam is a far cry from what the Olive Garden describes as its “uniquely Italian” cuisine.
The disappointment of yet another strip mall going up in Joliet without an Olive Garden was indeed a bitter pill to swallow. But then, in 2013, it looked like the impossible dream might finally come true.
“We’re close,” Mayor Tom Giarrante said in his state of the city address that year.
“A lot of people say we need an Olive Garden,” Giarrante said. “I’ve had Olive Garden in my office for 45 minutes.”
The Olive Garden might have been in Giarrante’s office for 45 minutes, but they weren’t anyplace else in Joliet for any time at all.
The Olive Garden issue is of such import that it even came up in the last city election. Council candidate Rachel Ventura listed the Olive Garden, or at least a restaurant like it, as not just a chain place that might be nice to have around, but as something the city of Joliet needs.
Ventura lost. There’s still no Olive Garden.
Will John Bays be the man to change all this? Probably not.
“We have no plans to open an Olive Garden in Joliet at this time,” Jessica Dinon, a spokeswoman for Olive Garden parent company Darden Restaurants, said in an email.
Dinon had been asked for a phone call but apparently couldn’t be bothered. Just like she couldn’t be bothered sharing the Olive Garden’s secret formula for picking new locations.
“Unfortunately, we do not disclose our site selection criteria as it is proprietary,” she said.
The site selection criteria might be proprietary but is obviously flawed, as evidenced by Darden Restaurants’ selection of Bolingbrook over Joliet, which remains bereft. But it’s not for Bays’ lack of effort.
“Everybody I talked to, none of the big names want to take a chance on Joliet,” Bays said, adding, “I don’t know why.”
Especially, he says, since he’s willing to take all the financial risk.
“Really, you’ve got nothing to lose, if I build the building and I’ll let you out of your lease” if things don’t work out, he said, adding, “I’m willing to take the chance by putting up all the money.”
You might think a man would get discouraged by a second-rate chain restaurant like the Olive Garden turning him down after he makes them a tremendously generous offer like this, but not Bays. He remains optimistic in the face of such adversity.
“It’s going to be somebody and I’m not going to give up on this,” he said. “It’s going to be nice.”
Maybe it will end up being nice. But it doesn’t look like it’s going to be an Olive Garden. Again.
• Joseph Hosey is the news editor at The Herald-News. You can reach him at 815-280-4094, at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JoeHosey.