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Owner’s missing her Ohio House Coffee Shop ‘family’

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Updated: July 10, 2013 6:02AM

She doesn’t have to wake at 4:30 a.m. anymore.

But every morning Kathy Roquemore still does. Old habits are hard to break.

Roquemore was the owner of the Ohio House Coffee Shop, a 53-year fixture in glitzy River North, where a meal of comfort food cost less than a sawbuck.

When the 27-seat greasy spoon at 600 N. La Salle was forced to shut its doors April 28, local websites called it the end of an era. It was the end, too, of a colorful history.

“I still get teary. That diner was my life,” says the 78-year-old grandmother, whose hearty laugh, twinkling eyes and raspy voice puts one in mind of the school lunchroom ladies.

Reminiscing while thumbing through a memory book at her home in southwest suburban Worth, Roquemore holds up a DVD of the time she played herself in a Jerry Springer episode filmed at the diner (yes, she and the two feuding females were just acting).

She turned down a bit role opposite Dennis Farina when “Crime Story” shot an episode there.

Goodbye notes from customers include regulars she watched grow up, get married, or pass on. “They’re my family,” says the widow of 18 years, who has one daughter.

There were characters like nutty Kenny, an unhinged Vietnam veteran she fed 15 years for free, until the day he snapped and chased her around the diner with a butcher knife. (He was banned, except for takeout.)

Or old man Bruno, who ordered the same thing daily — coffee and a doughnut — for 20 years, always leaving a $1 tip. When he moved to a nursing home, she tried to find him. “Then I heard he died. Sweetest old man I ever waited on,” says Roquemore, whose three decades of a diner life began in 1983 when she was hired by then-owner Jim Shannon.

“I was the waitress, cook, grill, dishwasher. Jim said, ‘Cathy, you’re very, very fast. I think you can work this place all by yourself.’ I was very, very tired too,” she laughs. “But I enjoyed it.”

Shannon sold the place to John Royer, who sold it to Roquemore in 2004 for $30,000. Life was good, if busy. Then her restaurant site gained its own infamy through owner Jacob Kiferbaum, 60, of Glencoe.

Kiferbaum was convicted of extortion in Operation Board Games, the federal probe that landed former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in prison. Among the earliest defendants, he admitted in court to colluding with Blagojevich fund-raiser Stuart Levine to extort contracts for his construction firm from three hospitals — overcharging, then kicking back millions to Levine.

Facing a plea deal of 27 months in prison, $7 million restitution and $250,000 fine, Kiferbaum sought a more lucrative restaurant franchise for his Ohio House Motel — a throwback in a downtown gorged with luxury high-rise hotels — before his sentencing in federal court July 17.

“There was no other reason for him to tell me goodbye. I was a good tenant. Me or my insurance paid for over $50,000 in work he should’ve paid for as landlord. But I could tell you plenty of stories about other illegal stuff there,” Roquemore claims.

Known for its “Deuces Wild” plate — two eggs, two pancakes, two strips of bacon and two sausage patties for $5.75 — her menu was breakfast, burgers and daily specials.

“People were wild about my beef tips and noodles,” she says with glee. “Tim, who worked at one of the high-rises, loved it so much he made me call him at the end of the day so he could come get whatever was left; said his wife and kids were nuts for it.”

She made what she calls hillbilly spaghetti. Short ribs, pot roast and meatloaf. Breaded pork chops and fish fry Fridays. “Just home-cooked meals. But Sunday was all breakfast. People went out and drank the night before and all they wanted was anything with grease in it,” she laughs.

Coming to her former location this fall is a hip new restaurant from Heisler Hospitality, owners of the trendy Trenchermen and Bangers & Lace restaurants in Wicker Park, Nightwood in Pilsen, and Ukrainian Village’s Bar DeVille. Owners Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner say the unnamed eatery will boast a small, focused menu, and will not lose the site’s retro feel.

“Biscuits and biscuit sandwiches,” Eisler told the Sun-Times. With gourmet coffee and delivery. Roquemore sniffs, saying they’ll have a hard time attracting Ohio House Coffee Shop customers. “My customers have kept in touch. They keep asking, ‘Are you going to open another restaurant?’ I’m thinking about it. My doctor says, ‘You got more energy than you’re supposed to have,’ ” she laughs. “Or then again, I just might sit down and enjoy myself. I got a little saved.”

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