Johnny Pamcakes: 15 Years of ‘Family’ at this Restaurant

A dedication to customers and staff are part of the corporate culture that have made this breakfast spot a beloved hangout for Rockford diners.

Before opening Johnny Pamcakes in 2008, owners John and Pam Lack spent years working for other restaurants in Rockford and Loves Park, Ill.

When John and Pam Lack opened Johnny Pamcakes in 2008, they knew they were taking a chance despite both having many years of experience in the restaurant business.

“We risked everything we had and everything we didn’t have,” says Pam. “Every day, we looked at the numbers and wondered if we did the right thing.”

The Lacks both spent years working at The Mayflower Restaurant in Loves Park, Ill., and Stockholm Inn, in Rockford. But the couple dreamed of buying a restaurant to call their own place, so they decided to take the plunge and bought the Fairview Family Restaurant.

Talk about a rough beginning for the restaurant that bears their names.

“We thought we knew everything, but there was a huge learning curve,” says Pam. “In the first 48 hours a grill went out, a cash register broke, and our electricity was accidentally turned off.” A few weeks later, the hot water heater and freezer needed repair. “Whatever could go wrong did.”
They couldn’t even afford a building sign until a longtime customer lent the Lacks money to purchase a sign. “We were definitely flying by the seat of our pants,” says John.

Eventually, things got better and within two years the restaurant turned a profit. Known for its breakfast food served all day, the family-style restaurant is one of the most popular establishments in town. This year, Johnny Pamcakes is celebrating 15 years in business.

“Our business model is simple: get the customer seated and served as fast as possible,” says John. “There’s nothing fancy going on here. We serve big portions of comfort food. You’re not going away hungry.”

Johnny Pamcakes’ first location is sandwiched between a car wash and a strip mall on Rockford’s busy East State Street. The 4,000-square-foot building seats up to 130 guests for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a dining room that features simple decor.

In 2015, the Lacks opened a second location inside Kegel Harley-Davidson, across from CherryVale Mall. It’s about half the size of the East State restaurant and is open for breakfast and lunch only. The menu offers many of the same home-cooked items featured at the East State restaurant. The space is cozy, with a lower-than-usual dinner counter surrounded by comfortable booths.

“It’s been a nice addition to our business,” says Pam. “At the time, we were overstaffed at our East State restaurant, so it was perfect timing to open a second location. It has served us well.”
Regardless of the time of day, breakfast is the meal of choice at Johnny Pamcakes. Morning skillets, fluffy omelets and buttery pancakes are popular with customers of all ages. But if breakfast isn’t your thing, there are daily specials ranging from baked chicken to soups and fried or baked cod. The menu has stayed mostly the same over the years, and all meals are still made entirely from scratch.

“Every place I go, people tell me we have the best pancakes in town,” says chef Arnulfo Flores, who has worked at Johnny Pamcakes since day one. “That makes me feel good. I cook to make the customers happy. That makes me happy, too.”

There might not be a more avid fan of Johnny Pamcakes than Allen Much. The owner of an appliance repair business, Much followed the Lacks from Stockholm Inn to Johnny Pamcakes and has been a regular customer ever since. Many days, Much can be found camped out at the front counter for three square meals a day. “It’s basically my kitchen,” he says.

While he enjoys the food – an omelet for breakfast, a half order of chef’s salad for lunch and meatloaf for dinner – spending so much time at one restaurant serves another purpose for this satisfied customer.

“It’s like the TV show ‘Cheers,” he says. “It’s family. Everyone knows each other. I’ve met people there who’ve become my friends.” Much has even gone caroling with staff during the holidays.
Much isn’t the only one who makes frequent appearances at Johnny Pamcakes.

“We have many customers who come in two or three times a day,” says operations manager Stephanie Wrenn. “Over the years, we’ve had a group of older guys who come in every morning and sit at the same table for an hour or two. They like that warm, inviting feeling that our restaurant provides.”

Johnny Pamcakes owners John and Pam Lack (right) have built a close-knit staff that includes Jaci Grant (left) and operations manager Stephanie Wrenn (second from left).

For the Lacks, the backbone of their thriving business is their 70 employees, many of whom have been with them through both the difficult and good times. The Lacks say 80% of their staff have been with them for at least 10 years, and 20 of their employees were there when the doors first opened. And they love hiring young people looking for their first job or making a few extra bucks for college.

“It truly is family,” says Wrenn. “We have dishwashers who are husband and wife, and we hire our employees’ kids, too. It’s always been like that.”

That’s why the Lacks make time to reward their faithful team. Over the years, the couple have treated staff to outings including baseball games, a Fourth of July party at their home, and a Christmas party for staff and their families at the restaurant.

“They are such wonderful people,” says Jaci Grant, who has worked with John for 25 years and runs the East State location. “That’s why so many of us have been with them for so long. We’ve grown up with them and have become like a family. I wouldn’t have had some of the opportunities I’ve had without them. I feel blessed.”

In addition, Johnny Pamcakes supports many local organizations including Miss Carly’s, Festival of Lights, Rockford Rescue Mission and many others.

One of the most challenging times in the past 15 years has been dealing with the COVID pandemic. Like every other restaurant, Johnny Pamcakes was forced to change the way it did business – closing its doors, temporarily laying off employees, and turning its main dining room into storage for its newly founded curbside business. Employees openly wept when the Lacks brought them together for a meeting to discuss next steps.

“It was terrible; everything was up in the air,” says Grant. “We had about eight workers who toughed it out. It was crazy doing curbside on Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, but we did what we had to do.”

“The emotions were so high, we never knew what the next day was going to bring,” adds Wrenn. “Those were the most stressful, hardest days I’ve ever worked in my life.”

A few years ago, the Lacks thought about opening a third restaurant, but not anymore. They’ve talked about adding online orders to their business, but that would mean more registers, phones, employees and possible staff burnout.

For now, the Lacks are content as they begin to ease into semi-retirement, knowing their employees can handle any situation. They’ve rallied together before.

Two years ago, John underwent emergency open-heart surgery. It was a serious wake-up call for the owner who was regularly logging 70 hours a week at the restaurant.

After a hard recovery that lasted many months, John is back working three days a week. But he’s discovered a work/life balance. The Lacks have purchased an RV and are now carving out time for vacations with their spunky goldendoodle, Maddie, along for the ride. The Lacks have learned to make every moment count.

“We never thought all of this would happen,” says Pam. “We are grateful to the community and our staff. Without them, we wouldn’t be Johnny Pamcakes.”