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Alumni Profiles Decades of diners Kitchen Tune-Up

Spring 2006 • Volume 12, Issue 2

Decades of diners

by Gayle Erwin McDowell ’77

Group photographWhich came first—the chicken or the… steak dinner? In the case of White Fence Farm, the answer to the proverbial question just has to be the chicken. Now in its fifty-second year, the Chicago-area restaurant sells between 5,000 and 10,000 chicken dinners per week.

Owner Bob Hastert Jr. ’59, pictured (center) with his mother Doris, and cousin Denny Hastert, U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, also offers a choice of aged steaks, shrimp, and whitefish. By far the most popular entrée is the four-piece chicken dinner, however. Laura Hastert-Gardner, president/manager of White Fence Farm (and Bob’s daughter) estimates that the family-style restaurant goes through almost 6,500 pounds of fryers per week. The chicken comes in by the truckload, fresh from Georgia.

Bradley students Matt Heidenreich ’07 and Lauren Heidenreich ’08 and their parents have been White Fence Farm fans as long as they can remember. Lauren comments, “It hasn’t changed at all in that time.” She says simply, “It’s delicious.”

She’s right. In an era when businesses are constantly on the lookout for the next new thing, the White Fence Farm menu has not changed in 50-plus years. “We make all our relishes homemade everyday—kidney bean salad, pickled beets, cole slaw, and corn fritters,” says Hastert-Gardner. Dinners also come with a choice of potato and homemade gravy. “We have our own homemade desserts as well. The brandy ice is to die for.”

The famous food isn’t White Fence Farm’s only draw. Diners are able to turn their visits into an adventure, checking out the petting zoo, collection of antique cars, doll displays, and games and rides for children. That may be why some families will happily wait two hours for a table on Mother’s Day. With about 6,000 diners, that Sunday in May ranks as the restaurant’s busiest day of the year.

Some of the memorabilia and dining rooms date back to the 1920s when Chicago coal magnate Stuyvesant Peabody built the original restaurant on his estate north of Joliet. It was in 1954 that Hastert’s parents, Robert Sr. and Doris, remodeled and reopened White Fence Farm. Although Bob Jr. was a busy Bradley student, he worked in the family business during breaks. Bob served two terms as president of Sigma Phi Epsilon and met his late wife Jeanne Henry Hastert ’59 when she was president of Gamma Phi Beta. The couple raised five children and also enjoyed civic activities. Jeanne was the White Fence Farm cashier for many years.

Bob is a Bradley Centurion and received the Distinguished Alumnus award in 1992. After more than five decades in the restaurant business, he still enjoys greeting guests nightly. Inquisitive visitors might be tempted to ask if he thinks about retiring—that is, until they see 92-year-old Doris Hastert busy at work as a hostess six nights a week.

The Hastert’s historic restaurant boasts 12 dining rooms with distinctive themes, although suburban Chicagoans can enjoy a White Fence Farm meal without even sitting down. Bob made the decision to cater to on-the-go lifestyles in 1970 and opened a carry-out operation in River Forest. There are now five suburban carryout branches. The newest, in Plainfield, opened last August.

White Fence Farm is able to claim its chicken is “the healthiest fried chicken you can eat” because of a special cooking process. The chicken is flash-fried for just three minutes in soybean oil after first being pressure-cooked. While healthy eating may be the main draw for some faithful customers, all others really care about is that the golden fried chicken and side dishes are fresh and simply delicious.

Kitchen Tune-up owners

Four Bradley University alumni from the ’70s are owners of Kitchen Tune-Up franchises. Standing from left: Jeff Hughes ’74 of Hoffman Estates; Marty Ceranec ’73 of Downers Grove; and Gary Ellis ’78 of Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts. John Whitcomb ’73 of Dover, New Hampshire is seated.

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