Jody’s has been first in fast since 1981
by BETH ALTENA
Owner Don Mendham can’t begin to guess how many informal meetings have taken place in his restaurant since he opened the doors 30 at 503 E. Division when he was “just a kid” in 1981 and hasn’t stopped serving up good food fast since.
Mendham already had years in the restaurant industry when he tired of telling families they had to relocate and he worried about being transferred himself. He decided to make the leap and open his own restaurant. He chose Rockford because it has first class schools and he loves the sense of community he felt here. He chose the location—then a sandy lot—and has welcomed diners of all types ever since.
“I haven’t gotten rich, but I feel we’ve enriched the lives of others,” he said. “We’ve enriched the lives of those who have worked here over the years.”
Mendham said his management style is to be a mentor to others. “Sometimes you encourage them, sometimes you suggest changes in behavior.”
Mendham said his faith is a big part of how he runs his restaurant and he holds Bible studies in the building when business is slow. They consider the good book guidelines on how you should treat others.
In 30 years, there has only been one Jody among his staff, which always number more than 30. Many have been with the restaurant for many years, including Cheryl Goldner, who many will recognize as the smiling face at the drive-thru. Goldner has been serving customers at Jody’s for 23 years, and jokes, “I guess I forgot to leave.” She said she started when her kids were little and now they are all grown up. “I just like it here.”
Mendham said when he started, his children were young as well and one of the daughters said to her little sister, “Daddy’s making a job for himself.” If it is a job that keeps Mendham from getting away on vacation for any length of time, it has also been a labor of love. The motto of “great food fast” has been his goal and, ironically, now many fast-food chains are trying to do what he has always worked toward: premium food served very quickly.
The menu has changed significantly over the years, but the most popular items have been burgers and chicken. New chicken tenders the restaurant offers have become Mendham’s new favorite choice when he sits down to eat.
The restaurant got its name because Mendham and his wife Joann wanted a girl’s name and they wanted it to be short so it could be big on a sign. They liked the font Jolly Roger, and most especially the J and Y, so picked the name “Jody’s.”
“Don’t commit to anything until you have talked to a lot of people,” he said as advice to others thinking about making the leap into owning their own business. “Otherwise you will make some major mistakes and have deep regrets.” He said it has been sad to see small businesses come and go from the area.
Mendham said he enjoys his work because of the people—both employees and customers—and the variety of work he gets to do. The menu at Jody’s also offers a wide variety with over 75 items not including breakfasts, which are also a busy time for the restaurant. His idea for the eatery is a place people can feel comfortable in a suit and tie or while taking a break from cleaning house. It is often used for business meetings and State Representative Tom Pearce held his informal coffees there, invited the public to comment on their concerns.
“Upscale food was my original idea back in 1981,” Mendham said. “It’s hard to make that kind of food fast,” but with 30 years and many loyal customers, Jody’s has apparently succeeded in that goal.
The late Jerry Pike and his wife, local residents, chose the restaurant as the place to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary, which is quite a compliment. “There are a lot of special people in Rockford and I’ve had the pleasure to know many of them and call them friend,” said Mendham.
Thirty years ago the original slogan of Jody’s was “Quick, Comfortable and Delicious,” a theme that still suits and might be making a comeback. In any case, to the delight of Rockford diners, Jody’s continues to provide delicious food the way Mendham had in mind when he first opened his doors.
“I believe in blooming where you are planted,” he said. “This is what I want to be known for, for having done my job well.”