By Anna Hughes
Photos by Victor Hilitski
Kathy Barbara was tired of the “ugly” blue and pink wallpaper on her restaurant walls. The previous owner, Chuck Page, didn’t worry much about internal aesthetics toward the end of his tenure. For the first 18 months that she owned the restaurant, Kathy didn’t either. But one day, she decided it was time for a change. She had a pile of photos she’d taken – kids that frequented the restaurant – and a plan. Kathy put up some cork and those pictures on the walls. This, like many things at Page’s Restaurant, became a tradition.
Now, Kathy and her daughter Cissy Rallo have owned the restaurant for 10 years, and the walls are jam-packed with photos of loyal customers. Many of those kids on the wall are now college graduates who stop in for breakfast when they’re visiting home. Over time, the photos of kids became photos of families. One special section honors those who have passed, including Kathy’s mom, Mary Riley, who helped at the restaurant, too. Cissy’s high school graduation photo is centered on the wall – a local celebrity in all her teenage glory. These pictures tell a story: ten years of hard work, love, joy, grief, loss. For Kathy and Cissy, all of these people are family, and they want their restaurant to feel like home.
“You have to love what you’re doing. Not like. Love. If not, you shouldn’t be here.”
– Kathy Barbara
“Page’s isn’t just a place to fill your belly with homemade food made with love…it’s a safe haven for children, Page’s is a place you can unwind and forget about your troubles, Page’s is a place where you have an ear that will listen to the good and the bad,” Cissy said.
It’s not easy buying a restaurant. Or running one. When this mother-daughter duo found out the restaurant was for sale, they knew they had to take the leap.
Kathy worked at Page’s for 18 months during the days the Pages owned it (Chuck established the restaurant in 1981). She had a bit of a leg up on the news that they were selling thanks to a friend who still worked there. Cissy recalls sitting in a booth with her mom one day saying, “What a great place this would be to own.” They never thought they could; places like this always stay in the family. Or so they thought. When it came time for the sale, Chuck and Wendy Page were going to hand over the restaurant to the first person who presented the money.
Kathy had extensive restaurant and customer service experience. Cissy was a successful business owner for many years (and a great cook). But Cissy got hit hard by the recession, just like so many others. So, they thought: Why not? They paid the Pages, and just like that, the restaurant was theirs. They both had a love for this community and a passion to serve the people that lived in it. Their magnetic personalities and natural charisma only added to their appeal.
“My heart believes, and I think, everything happens for a reason. I really do,” Cissy said.
When you walk into Page’s, you’re greeted by a sign that says, “Sorry, we’re open.” It’s the first note of humor you’ll experience during your stay. Kathy and Cissy don’t believe in doing things the traditional way or the “right” way; they do things their way – even if that means having a cardboard cutout of Gov. J.B. Pritzker in Christmas pajamas or the Batmobile right outside the restaurant. Whatever they’re doing is working. They have a loyal fanbase of recurring customers who pop in almost daily for a donut, a bottomless cup of coffee, and good conversation.
Steve Zilk, a loyal customer from Willowbrook, comes to the restaurant multiple times a week. He’s one of many, according to the owners. Some customers even visit for breakfast and lunch – on the same day. Zilk looks forward to seeing JJ (one of Page’s rockstar servers), who greets him with a warm welcome every time he visits. He said it’s always a great day when he starts it at Page’s.
“It’s wonderful to be here. It’s so nice to have JJ taking care of you. The coffee is always free-flowing, it’s good, the donuts are great, the food is really good,” Zilk said.
While he and others are enjoying their donuts at the counter, it’s likely there’s a line forming behind them. Often, it’s overflowing out the door. In 30 seconds, Cissy will somehow take an order, cash out a customer, ask you how many people are in your party, and bus a table, all while listening to someone tell her a story. She’s a chef and a therapist, a server and the CEO. She’s known to be skilled at her job, but more importantly, immensely kind.
Ginny Long, who has known Cissy for nearly 20 years, has experienced this kindness firsthand. Five years ago, Long’s son was diagnosed with a chronic illness. She hosted a small, neighborhood fundraiser, and Cissy offered to bring some food to lighten the load of both the news and the party. But she didn’t stick to chips and dip or a bottle of wine. She made and delivered 300 Reuben sandwiches and asked for nothing in return.
Now, the Reuben sandwich is a staple on the Page’s menu, and people still ask Long where they can get one of those delicious sandwiches they had that day at the fundraiser. She and her family frequent Page’s as a thank you for Cissy’s kindness (and for the delicious food).
“It’s just such a great, unique place. She makes everybody feel like they’re family no matter what, which has been such a Godsend for us as well as everybody she knows,” Long said.
The restaurant staff is family, too, and the head chef, Sean Ruiz, runs the kitchen like your grandma would: he might yell a little bit, but it’s just to make sure that everything runs smoothly. The tiny kitchen at the back of the restaurant fits exactly three line cooks, who have perfectly choreographed the quickest way to deliver your meal. Sean also cooks everything like your grandma would: comfort food all made fresh in-house (and with love, Cissy adds). Eating at Page’s is like having an especially tasty home-cooked meal, and that’s exactly how they want you to feel. Sean jokes that he’s always at the restaurant, but he doesn’t mind. When staff are treated right, they don’t mind coming to work. They enjoy it.
“You have to love what you’re doing. Not like. Love. If not, you shouldn’t be here,” Kathy said.
At 71, Kathy jokes about needing a replacement (even though she’s got the looks and attitude of someone half her age). Luckily, Cissy’s daughter, Lola Kozlowski, is open to the idea. She works at the restaurant now – a helping hand wherever needed; she’s the fourth generation of women in her family to be part of the restaurant’s history. Lola knows the owners better than anyone, and she appreciates how much they love the community. And how much the community loves them.
“My mom just loves this restaurant,” she said, smiling.
So many others feel the same way. With a loyal base of customers, a tight-knit, generous neighborhood, and support from the village, they’ve bounced back from the pandemic and are even stronger than before. Both Cissy and Kathy said they felt an outpouring of love from the community who showed up for this small business during a time of need.
“It’s not about the fancy dresses and money in our pockets … we are just regular, everyday people trying to keep roofs over our heads and our children fed and having fun in the process,” Cissy said.
Ten years and a lot of pancakes later, they’re doing great. So great that they’re going to start a slideshow of photos on the TV above the counter. That way, everyone is included in the famous photo wall. Turns out Chuck Page’s “ugly” wallpaper was a blessing. And so was his restaurant.
“Life is pretty good. It’s really good. I have no complaints,” Kathy said. ■