The 25-year story of Honeycreek Inn and Cannonsburg
“There were two wars going on. There was an oil embargo. We were in a recession. Our president had just resigned and a new one was coming on board,” said Don Kurylowicz of his first days in the Village of Cannonsburg. “So, things have changed a lot in 25 years, but things also haven’t changed a lot.”
Kurylowicz is reflecting back on a 25-year journey he has taken with his community. Kurylowicz could be called the “King of Cannonsburg,” as he owns lots of it-every commercial property that faces the road. His properties include the Honeycreek Inn, the Cannonsburg Grist Mill, the gas station, and the Cannonsburg Market. He doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m so blessed. I’m so grateful,” he insists. “You know the show Cheers, where everyone knows your name? Here, everyone knows your name, but they also look out for each other and take care of each other.” As an example, Kurylowicz pointed out a tragic death last year of a young waitress at the Honeycreek. Just 30 years old, she left behind her family, including young children. The community had a fundraiser for her and collected $38,000.
When Kurylowicz began his long relationship with the people of Cannonsburg, things were different. Twenty five years ago there wasn’t a lot going on there. There was Townsend Park, a real gem of a recreation area. Besides that, there was a restaurant in a 125-year-old building in poor condition. The original town had burned in the big fire of April 10, 1889, “completely destroying the business district,” according to the Cannon Township Historical Society history book.
Kurylowicz was a 30-year-old man with a desire to work for himself. With degrees in sociology, urban planning and architecture, Kurylowicz saw the state of the country and didn’t think architecture would be a profitable career for quite some time. He worked a few years in the mental health field and didn’t want to go back. Back then, no one used the term “flipping” houses, but he had done just that and had about $15,000 to his name-enough for the down payment on the Honeycreek building that was operating as a bar.
“The only people who went there were bikers, rednecks and drug dealers,” Kurylowicz said. He saw potential.
Kurylowicz bought the building and business. With a kitchen no bigger than a closet, he did some remodeling and opened his doors for business, offering food along with the alcohol. The original menu was modest-nachos, hotdogs and hamburgers. They didn’t even sell potato chips, since he had the tortilla chips available already. The first night was Thursday, March 22, 1984. It was pretty great. Sales totaled $1,200, mostly in beer.
“People wanted to see what it looked like, so everyone showed up,” Kurylowicz said. “It was all downhill from there.”
Kurylowicz got rid of the drug dealers first. “That was easy,” he said. “You just tell them to leave or you are calling the cops.”
The bikers and rednecks proved more of a challenge. “In 1985, Westside was having a strike, so I decided not to carry Budweiser,” he said. “That’s where the sociology came in. I thought, ‘How do I make them less comfortable here?’ ”
Bikers love Budweiser, and the Honeycreek brought in Strohs and Pabst. It also began the long tradition of selling imports and microbrews on tap, which the restaurant is now known for, in addition to great fish and other meals.
The biker strategy was a two-parter. In addition to taking away their favorite brand of beer, Kurylowicz partnered with Pat Boone and the juke box. For a quarter, you could buy four songs. Kurylowicz opened his doors each day with a pocket full of quarters and lined up “Love Letters in the Sand” to play over and over again. “It drove them crazy,” he said. “It drove me crazy, too, but it worked.”
Staff at the Honeycreek spent the next October clearing out the rednecks-defined by Kurylowicz as the unruly drunks who came in to cause trouble and fight. They were driven away by a refusal to serve them, which didn’t go over very well.
Business wasn’t doing so well then, since most of the clientele had been shown the door. There was also an early disagreement with the township, which at that point was suing Kurylowicz regarding his liquor license. Kurylowicz had run out of cash and was living above the restaurant in a space heated by only one register and which had no bathroom. “I’d get up, go to the gym to get a shower and come back for a 12-hour workday,” he described.
The angry rednecks, the last undesirables left, were proving stubborn. At closing time one night, one of them shot out the windows with a 12-guage shotgun. “I guess I was too stupid to quit,” Kurylowicz said.
But the tide was turning. Kurylowicz, who had never worked in a bar or restaurant in his life before this, had a clear vision for his restaurant. He’s traveled extensively and remembered one little restaurant in Italy. It wasn’t pretentious. It didn’t even have a toilet, just a two-hole bathroom with feet painted on the floor forward for the men’s hole and facing back for the women’s. The food was fantastic.
“That’s my philosophy. Great food on a plain white plate beats crappy food on the best crystal china,” he said.
Gradually he worked toward expanding his menu, always concentrating on offering food made in-house, and improving the building. He began building his customer base, and he built relationships. The restaurant began to do well.
The little grocery next door wasn’t doing well. The owner approached Kurylowicz and asked if he’d be interested in buying the building. “I didn’t want another building,” Kurylowicz said.
He had just purchased the property across the street for $35,000. He bought that mostly because drug dealers lived there and he hoped to clean up the neighborhood. He felt bad for the shop owner, who said he’d stay on as a tenant with his grocery, but couldn’t make the mortgage anymore. “He named a price and I paid it,” Kurylowicz said. “It wasn’t much.” That was 1993.
Later the same year, a couple in the home across the road asked if he would buy their property. He told them to get an appraisal and if the bank okayed the deal he’d do it. The bank did and he did.
Two years later the homeowner of the property next to that asked if he’d buy that home, too. He didn’t need it, didn’t want it, and the appraisal was for $134,000. He offered $105,000 and four weeks later they accepted. He kept the commercial frontage on the road and sold the home to a friend’s daughter.
Next was a home on Cannonsburg (old-timers will remember it as the big white house). It had parking for six cars. It was another drug house. “They wanted too much for it, but I paid the price,” he said.
A few months later the renter, some other guys and their attorney were arrested in a big Mexican drug ring. Kurylowicz was the sole owner of every piece of commercial property fronting Cannonsburg Road in Cannonsburg. “It was all by accident,” he said.
“There were a lot of bumps in the beginning, but over the years real friendships were formed,” Kurylowicz stated.
The former township officials who advised him to tear down the building and build something decent now are patrons of the businesses and friends with Kurylowicz and the staff members. “Yes, I own it, but it’s their community. It’s a partnership we’ve built over the years.”
Kurylowicz now owns Cannonsburg Grocery, he built the Cannonsburg Grist Mill, and the Honeycreek Inn is a well-established and popular restaurant with a menu he says can match Red’s on the River. Kurylowicz attributes much of the restaurant’s success to the stability of the staff, many of whom have been on board 10, 12 or 14 years. The chef is award-winning Mike Whelan, who has been there 17 years. The restaurant has its own butcher and flies in fresh fish of the quality you’d find on the plates at Cygnus.
Adherence to the belief that good food, good prices and a clean place lead to success, Kurylowicz is also always looking for improvements. On July 1, the restaurant is going smoke-free. It’s been a formula that works. For the 20-year anniversary of Kurylowicz ‘s ownership of the Honeycreek Inn, the town celebrated with an old-fashioned day that reflects Kurylowicz’s own views on what is important in life.
“It’s community that is important,” he said. “You don’t need your gadgets, your Gameboys, cell phones and laptops to be connected. You need to walk out your front door and know your neighbors. That’s what makes this place special. That’s what makes this the heart of Cannon Township.”
“My vision was to own a little Polish pub in the country,” Kurylowicz laughs. “This all comes down to the neighborhood. If it’s successful, it’s because they support it. We support each other. Despite the government, people take care of each other.”
The town had a golf outing a few weeks ago and raised $4,000. “That’s money we can give to St. Patrick’s Church, to Cannonsburg school and to help a local family,” Kurylowicz said.
“Because of my architecture background, I love history and I saw these old buildings weren’t being preserved,” Kurylowicz said. “I could have torn these down and put up a strip mall and saved myself half a million dollars, but that’s not what this area needs.” Kurylowicz said he believes people approached him to purchase the buildings because they liked what he was doing, saving the town’s history.
“Even the stuff I built [the Cannonsburg Grist Mill] I built from looking at pictures of what was there 100 years ago,” he said.
He called the community a little like Disney, where the show people see is not all there is to the story. Under the Grist Mill is a huge space of state-of-the-art equipment and walk-in freezers. You’d never expect that from the quaint deli and store above. From his office over the Honeycreek Inn, Kurylowicz can see into every business through security cameras. All the business are networked with phone and computer, and Kurylowicz put in wireless in the village before the City of Rockford put in theirs. Security cameras are a little insurance to keep everything safe; backup to the watchful eyes of the community.
Since the beginning, Kurylowicz has also been putting out a monthly newsletter. It keeps the town informed in a humorous way. “Looking back, that is the best thing I ever did,” he said.
He started the publication to quash the rumor mill. “Nothing kills projects like rumors,” he said.
When he started working on the Honeycreek building and fixing up other properties, he heard rumors starting that were wildly inaccurate. “People hear this and rumors end up being so far from the truth. The next thing you know, there’s a township meeting and hundreds of people up in arms.”
The Cannonsburg Chronical is a bit of editorial, news and whimsy. It’s characteristic of Kurylowicz, who calls himself “a little bit of a wingnut.”
He refers to the “tree people” in front of the Grist Mill and the newest addition to town, Ralph the Moose, who arrived this spring, as examples of his vision for the village. “I just want people to enjoy their life, to have a smile or a laugh, to appreciate what it’s all supposed to be about.”
Ralph the Moose made a trip to Rockford Ace Hardware for his first visit, has been to a Whitecaps game, was on Kurylowicz’ first Start of Summer parade float, moves back and forth across the street, and gets dressed up for holidays. It’s just for fun. Ralph also has his own Facebook page.
“It’s been a fascinating ride,” Kurylowicz said of his 25 years. “I started out with bikers, broke, getting sued, no sales, and I thought I was having fun. It was an adventure. I guess that shows how my mind works. How many people can say they can go out and paint the town and really do it? I can. I color-coordinate all the buildings.”
Kurylowicz said as his customers back from his early days start to come in with their grandchildren, he realizes he’s getting older. “I’m 56 years old. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, would all this die? I have 40 to 50 people who work in these businesses and take care of their families. I’d be irresponsible not to think about that. You don’t think about that when you are 30. I’m trying to figure out how to preserve it. Yeah, I’m a wingnut, is there another wingnut out there?”
For now, Kurylowicz is looking to the next five years as well as looking back on his milestone anniversary. “I’m still working with the township to get sewer out here. We need that. We need a good beauty/barber shop. We need a drycleaner, a nice little bank, a car wash.”
“Anniversaries are a time to look back and reflect. Otherwise you are just running,” he said. “When you drive into here, you can feel that it’s a different place than anywhere else in Kent County. I don’t know if it’s karma or it’s ghosts, but we’ve been really lucky. If these walls could give back all that has happened over the years, it would be amazing. This is an interesting plac