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The Eppers family spent three decades feeding chicken and mojos to people in Elkhart.
They can't bring back the restaurants. One was torn down to create a car wash and the other has been a variety of restaurants and bars, the last where a homicide happened.
But for one night, they can feed people hungry for the flavor — and the memory of when they enjoyed Shakey's.
The tastes in our memories are powerful, and sometimes the best.
On Jan. 26, Matt Eppers, along with his father, Joe, and perhaps brother Rich, will oversee frying fried potato slices and pieces of chicken for whomever wants to pay $10 to eat their share.
The event is a fundraiser for the Elkhart Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization that gave away about $30,000 to various causes in 2012. Steve Riikonen, who had the idea of asking the Eppers to make the food, said they need money for their food baskets and “everybody loves Shakey's around this town.”
He wants to bring back the flavors and the nostalgia — and some good memories.
Joe Eppers opened Shakey's Pizza Parlor and Ye Public House at 420 N. Nappanee St., Elkhart, on Jan. 23, 1968, according to a clip in The Elkhart Truth archive. Shortly after the opening, Bob Flury, that era's Truth restaurant guy, wrote, “Shakey's is fast becoming known as the 'place to go' for an evening of good fellowship. You can pick from a choice of 21 pieces, have a stein or pitcher of that cold golden liquid, imported or domestic beer that is. Or, if you prefer, you can have a cold stein of cola drink.”
The restaurant had piano and banjo players. And it became the place to go for a generation or two of Elkhartans. Terry Mark, the Truth's copy desk chief, got very excited when he heard of Shakey's return for an evening. On his blog, he wrote, “It brought back memories of Friday nights after football games, Saturday nights after basketball games, laughing with my high school buddies on just about any other occasion and playing video games in the back corner.”
He'll be there on the 26th, enjoying those flavors and remembering those nights when Elkhart gathered at the restaurant after a game.
Another location at 23845 U.S. 33, Elkhart, was the only one I ever got to. And I remember the flavors, but they didn't take on any emotional power for me like they did for Terry and others.
Matt Eppers said, “I think a lot of people, especially my age, grew up there.” It was one of the first places with big-screen televisions. Cartoons and old movies played on them instead of ESPN or Fox News. And after a ballgame, a couple hundred kids would gather at the restaurant, he said. “It was really the place to go,” he said.
Eppers has done chicken and mojos for other fundraisers, including a couple for his wife's Beta Gamma of Beta Chi sorority. But the night at the Knights will likely be the biggest so far.
“It's kind of hard to do this,” he said.
He used to be able to get the breading for both and the marinade for the chicken from a Shakey's operator in Wisconsin. But that place went out of business and he couldn't find another operator willing to break the chain's rules and get some for him.
So Rich and Matt went online and created their own formula that mimics what they used. “We know how to make the breading and we know how to make the marinade,” he said.
The mojos at Martin's Super Markets have a similar flavor, but are potato wedges instead of slices, Matt said.
Prior to the event in a couple weeks, his family may slice 250 pounds of potatoes and prepare hundreds of pieces of chicken. Riikonen is hoping to feed hundreds of people that afternoon.
They won't have the pressurized Henny Penny fryers the restaurants had, Joe said. But they'll fry away. “It's very simple as long as you get the breading and deep-fry the chicken,” he said.
He was about 70 years old when he sold the two Elkhart County locations and two in South Bend. He also had one in Indianapolis. The operators who had them after him weren't as successful, but the chain still has locations in the United States and overseas, he said.
For one night, in Elkhart, there will be a taste of the past. And people will gather to eat and remember good times. “It'll be a fun night,” Matt said.
The meal will also include salad and bread and maybe a few desserts. You can get tickets by calling 293-0341 between 4 and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday or by stopping by the hall at 112 E. Lexington Ave., Elkhart, when it's open in the evening.
Joe was at the club on a recent evening when a young couple stopped in to get tickets. He asked if they'd been to Shakey's and they assured him they were fans.
“They remember. They want to go again, get the food again,” he said. “Hope it'll be as good as it was.”
I'm hungry. Let's eat.
Marshall V. King is news/multimedia editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth/eTruth.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 574-296-5805, on Twitter @hungrymarshall or via Facebook. His blog is at www.blogs.etruth.com/diningalaking/.