The newest attraction at Lena’s favorite highway stop is just the start of a fresh new look.
Like so many great ideas, plans for The Rafters in Lena, Ill., began with a drawing on a cocktail napkin. One dollar and one year later, it began to take shape along with the new millennium. Today, it continues to thrive, grow and adapt to new economic realities.
The Rafters, 9426 Wagner Road, in Lena, Ill., is a large, rustic, outdoorsy, warm and inviting restaurant and bar, with banquet rooms and extensive off-site catering packages.
This spring, owners will break ground on 8,000-square-foot Lena Brewing Company next door to the Rafters. Names are still being decided for the core selection of brews, seasonal beers and other creations that Ross Vehmeier describes as “out of the box.” He’s general manager of The Rafters and partners with his dad, Gary, and other investors.
The brewery is the latest chapter in a series of ideas developed by Gary Vehmeier for his grand attraction along U.S. Highway 20. Back when his vision for the site began, he and his family were operating an alfalfa farm and a furniture business in Lena. They learned that the local school district owned two barns and planned to tear them down. For $1, Vehmeier purchased the barns and moved them about a mile down the road, to a new home on 16 acres. It was fortunate timing.
“I don’t think we could have done it today with all the new regulations,” says Ross. Even then, there were copious amounts of red tape, dealing with utility companies, the railroad, and all levels of government.
“Moving the barns took eight hours, from start to finish, and we opened in June 2001,” says Ross. “My dad loves to build. He’s a great visionary, and there’s no happier time for him than when he’s laying two-by-fours on the ground, thinking about how something will look. He was really emphatic about what he wanted. He wanted height and a grand look.”
And he got it.
He moved his furniture operation, now Mill Home Furnishings, to the property. Gary’s wife Sylvia runs The Red Barn, a gift shop off of the main restaurant that stocks candles, wine, candy, coffee, jellies, various gourmet food items and much more.
Inside The Rafters, the main restaurant seats 225 people and has banquet seating for 250. There’s also a bar and a meeting room.
The catering side of The Rafters has ramped up in recent years. The Rafters contracts with Freeport and Monroe country clubs, and provides catering to several wedding venues. With a full staff of salespeople, chefs and banquet servers, The Rafters can cater as many as seven weddings in one night at various locations, Ross says.
When you walk into The Rafters, you’re invited to take on the “Stacked to The Rafters” Burger Challenge. This burger is made with a pound of beef, pulled pork, brisket, bacon, haystack onions, two fried eggs, Swiss, Cheddar and Provolone cheeses, lettuce, tomato and pickle chips, served on Portuguese cornbread, with a pound of French fries on the side. Eat it in less than 30 minutes and the $23.99 burger is free. If you’re not up for the challenge, share it with friends.
The Rafters has ridden a wave of economic change since opening. There was a time when the region’s white-collar clientele set the pace for its offerings.
“The core demographic that was around, when we first started, doesn’t exist anymore, and we’ve tailored our menu accordingly,” says Ross. “In the early years, we mostly catered to the white-collar mid-level manager. Now, we’re a lot of things to a lot of people.”
Steaks, seafood, martinis and wine are still on the menu, but so are beers, barbequed items, burgers and lunch/dinner specials. Lots of food at a good value is the name of the game today.
The No. 1 item in demand is burgers, and the restaurant goes through 120 pounds of ground beef each week. Pulled pork and prime rib sandwiches are a close second.
The Rafters has an upscale feel in a comfortable setting where people can enjoy a fine dining experience or just be casual. A wall mural visible from every level provides a beautiful, outdoorsy backdrop of blue skies, trees, flowers and a waterfall. Guests within a 100-mile radius of Lena travel to The Rafters from places like the Quad Cities, Madison, Rockford, Galena, Sterling and Chicago.
The menu changes about four times a year, and seasonal specials are featured in menu inserts called “sluggers.” There are always the “777” features – seven lunches for $7 or less, seven days a week like Gary’s Chicken or Pulled Pork and Slaw. The latter is slow-smoked pork topped with barbeque sauce, served on cornbread with a side of slaw. A backyard barbeque menu is in development.
All meats are home-smoked and -cured. All sauces and dressings are homemade, many of them sold at The Red Barn. Prices on the dinner menu range from $9 for a chicken Caesar salad to $21 for a 14 oz. rib-eye steak.
Dinner selections include smoked ribs; pork medallions rolled in Portuguese cornbread crumbs, pan seared and served with a signature herb cream sauce; bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin chops; pretzel catfish served with whole-grain mustard sauce; and Caribbean tortilla-encrusted walleye, topped with a pineapple butter sauce. An array of appetizers, salads and sides fill out the menu.
There are homemade desserts like Cow Pie, The Red Barn’s famous monster cookie topped with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a cherry; cheesecake; chocolate torte; and brandy bread pudding with raisins, walnuts and brandy cream reduction sauce, served ala mode.
The restaurant is open seven days as week, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights. The bar stays open later, depending upon the crowd. Learn more at Raftersonline.com.