Loyal customers and curious shoppers flocked to a Saturday public auction of Chicago restaurant souvenirs. The most valuable? Neon signs for two old restaurants in the North Center neighborhood.
The signs, for the now closed Chicago Joe’s and the possibly closed Orange Garden, sold at five figures each: $32,450 and $20,060, respectively. The Lakeview Dinkel’s Bakery sign, which officially sold its last bakery on Saturday, will go up for auction next month.
The auction – which brought in nearly 300 people – was held inside Chicago Joe’s, 2256 W. Irving Park Rd., where all the collectibles were torn up and displayed for buyers. Tables, milkshake glasses, plates, framed newspaper articles, lamps, sporting goods and even the Rock-Ola jukebox were for sale.
The exhibition started at 9 am and the auction was from 10 am to 3:30 pm
A place where “average Chicago Joes” would gather and enjoy cheeseburgers, the building was purchased by a developer that plans to build condos in its place.
Chicago Joe’s was one of many restaurants that suffered financially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After closing in October 2020 following state restrictions on indoor dining, Brad Rompza, Chicago Joe’s last owner and grandson of restaurant founder Joe Rompza, made the difficult decision to close after being in the neighborhood since 1980.
Michael King, 30, has been a customer for many years, but this was his first auction. In addition to getting some hockey sticks and Chicago sports photos for under $100, he was able to secure Chicago Joe’s van for just $500.
“I didn’t come here thinking I was going to buy the van, but I thought it would be a fun little thing to have, it was a good deal for $500 and I like the slogan,” King said.
The Chicago Joe neon sign was purchased by an anonymous buyer from Michigan.
Meanwhile, the recognizable bright orange neon sign affixed to the Orange Garden Chinese restaurant, also on Irving Park Road in the North Center, has been sold to a local buyer in the northern suburb of Highland Park.
The double-sided porcelain sign with neon lights, the original signature of this 1932 restaurant, has been a neighborhood landmark for 90 years.
Although Orange Garden, 1942 W. Irving Park Rd., remains open for business, its manager said he’s considering selling next year because the owner wants to retire and the sign hasn’t worked since the months leading up to the pandemic in 2020.
“We don’t want the plaque to go to waste,” said the manager, who said he didn’t want his name publicized because he didn’t want the publicity. “So we decided to sell it at auction before selling this place to a company that would destroy it.”
Both the last Chicago Joe owner and the Orange Garden manager received heartwarming stories from loyal fans who went on first dates with their current spouses, celebrated birthdays and met lots of friends at their restaurants.
Randy Donley, founder and owner of Donley Auctions in Union, IL was leading the team that organized Saturday’s auction.
Donley, 68, founded the company with his brother Mike Donley, inspired by their father’s business – a theme park in Union, IL called Wild West Town after he collected tons of American frontier relics.
“The park had a huge museum of Old West memorabilia,” said Randy Donley. “I remember going to auctions since I was five, and it always intrigued me. So, you know, at some point in my life, I went to auctioneer school and started selling.”
In addition, Donley’s Auctions plans to sell the 101-year-old Dinkel’s Bakery neon sign in May after it closed on Saturday. All proceeds from the Dinkel Sign auction will go to charity, he said.
Wearing a vintage Cubs jacket, Harry Mitrovich, 55, was the second person who arrived at Chicago Joe’s Saturday morning to take a look.
“You go to a restaurant or anywhere and you never notice the nice little things that are out there until it’s too late,” said Mitrovich, who grew up in Lakeview and used to go to Chicago Joe’s often in the 1990s to meet up with the friends.
Before heading to the auction, he stopped by Dinkel’s around 6:45 am to pick up a few last roasts before the place closed.
“It’s so sad to see these places disappear,” Mitrovich said. “Chicago Joe’s, Dinkel’s Bakery, what’s next?”
Leroy Larsen, 81, lives in a condo rental for seniors a few blocks away from Chicago Joe’s, which used to be his favorite restaurant. Larsen remembers celebrating birthdays there with friends and taking advantage of the special discount the restaurant offered to people in their homes.
Larsen, who is a US veteran, was wearing his American Legion cap and stayed throughout the auction to bid on the set of three American Legion wall memorabilia items that have been at the restaurant for years, he said.
When Donley heard his story, he made the bids for Larsen and bought them for him as a gift for $225.
Georgina Kelle, 38, who also lives down the street, said she and her family frequented the restaurant until her last days during the pandemic.
“We were here when the tables were set up (for al fresco dining during the pandemic). We had to go back for the key lime pie, the oysters and the burgers. Always the best!” said Kelle, who has bid on several Chicago photos and also purchased some Chicago Cubs-themed kitchenware.
Preservation Chicago, a non-profit organization that advocates for the protection of the local community by protecting Chicago’s historic buildings, creates an annual list of Chicago’s most endangered sites, and in 2015 included neon signs.
“Neon signs are under threat in Chicago because they’re being torn down left and right, they’re not necessarily being appreciated, they’re not being maintained,” said Max Chavez, 33, director of research and special projects at Preservation Chicago. .
“So we are extremely alarmed to see that not one, but three iconic neon signs will be auctioned in the coming weeks,” Chávez said.
Preservation Chicago wants to see the city’s neon signs officially as landmarks like any other historic building or monument so they can be protected.
“Chicago’s neon signs are really like pieces of art in themselves,” Chávez said. “Each neighborhood has its iconic signs recognized by locals that remind them of home and are important to them.”