Chicago restaurateur marking 30 years of service to diners in the Model City

Mike Feliu (left) and his brother Jerry have operated Rush Street on Stone Drive for 30 years. Much of the decor reflects their roots in Chicago, where Mike got his start in the restaurant business. Photo by Erica Yoon.

KINGSPORT — Mike Feliu didn’t want to open a restaurant in Kingsport. The Chicago restaurateur didn’t even want to visit this Tennessee town.

But at the insistence of his best friend and business partner, Feliu came to the Model City — and fell in love.

Feliu visited Kingsport in the summer of 1979 and a year later, opened the Chicago Dough Company on Stone Drive.

Today, the restaurant — now called Rush Street — is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and Mike and his brother Jerry Feliu recently got together to reminisce about the last three decades of restaurant operation in their adopted hometown.

Restaurant calling

Mike Feliu knew he wanted to be in the restaurant business at an early age.

His father’s company in Chicago sold plastic products to the food industry, and every year from the time he was a teenager, Mike Feliu would accompany his father to the National Restaurant Show in Chicago.

“This started my fascination with the restaurant business,” he said.

During high school and college, Mike worked as a cook in a high-volume pizza place in Chicago.

His first job out of college was with McDonald’s Corp. based in Chicago.

Feliu worked for McDonald’s for three years before getting involved in a Pizza Inn franchise with his friend, Mike Rose.

In January 1976, Feliu and Rose opened their first Pizza Inn restaurant in Richton Park, Ill. The two opened a second Pizza Inn in Bourbonnais, Ill., in August 1977.

In 1979, the two changed the name of the restaurants to The Chicago Dough Company.

That same year, Rose suggested Feliu come to Kingsport, Tenn., to see a restaurant property that was for sale on a busy street.

But Feliu wasn’t interested.

“I said, ‘Are you crazy — what a stupid idea.’ So he bought airline tickets and said, ‘I’m taking you on a trip,’” Feliu said. “I came and immediately fell in love with the area.”

He said Rose was familiar with Kingsport because his father owned a shopping center here on Stone Drive.

He thought the Stone Drive restaurant property presented a great opportunity. And once Feliu saw it, he agreed.

“I went from thinking what a dumb idea making this visit, to thinking, ‘Oh this is great — it will be easy to operate a third restaurant. It’s only 580 miles away,” Feliu said, laughing.

He and Rose purchased the Kingsport property and spent $590,000 to renovate it for the third Chicago Dough location. They opened the restaurant in June 1980.

In 1985, Feliu decided to leave Chicago and permanently move to Kingsport.

“I said I’m not coming back,” Feliu said.

So he and Rose struck a deal — they swapped property, and Feliu assumed ownership of Rose’s portion of the Kingsport restaurant, while Rose assumed ownership of Feliu’s interest in one of the Chicago restaurants. (Feliu still has ownership in the other Chicago eatery).

In 1989, Feliu decided to change the Kingsport restaurant’s name.

“We were primarily a pizza place, and the concept wasn’t working the way we thought it should, so we started to evolve the menu a little bit.

”We added all sorts of things. And we changed the name,” Feliu said.

He choose the name Rush Street after a busy thoroughfare in Chicago, and started a major physical renovation at the property, as well as a major menu makeover.

Meanwhile, his younger brother Jerry Feliu had come to the Kingsport restaurant to work as an assistant manager after graduating from the University of Illinois in 1980. He became general manager of the restaurant in 1983.

In 1990 Jerry left Kingsport to attend the Culinary Institute of America.

He graduated in 1992, and took top honors as the institute’s top student that year.

Following graduation, he went to work as executive chef at the Ranch at Keystone in Colorado.

A year later, he returned to Kingsport to become chef at Skoby’s.

In 1998, the younger Feliu came back to Rush Street and began designing new menu creations.

“When Jerry came back, we added some things that are special and they’ve made a big effect, and now pizza in only 18 percent of our sales,” Mike Feliu said.

Today, Rush Street offers steak, baby back ribs, chicken, and seafood, in addition to pizza.

Why success?

Becoming a successful restaurant is no easy task.

The business is one of the toughest for any entrepreneur, and studies show that more than half of all new restaurants fail within the first three years of operation.

Asked why his restaurant has succeeded for the past 30 years, Mike Feliu credited the people — his long-time managers and employees.

“At all three of our restaurants, we’ve had the same management in place for years,” Feliu said.

In Kingsport, Jan LeBlanc has been with the restaurant for nearly 30 years, while Renee Cloyd has worked there nearly 25 years, and Genena Williamson has been there nearly 18 years.

“I counted two out of 45 employees that haven’t been here at least two years. And 15 employees have been here over 10 years,” Mike Feliu said. “You get consistency.”

He also credited the customers, saying many people have been coming to the restaurant for decades.

“We have customers who carried their babies in here in 1980 and 1981, and now, their kids are carrying their kids in here,” he said.

He said Kingsport is a great place to live and work. And his family agrees.

Parents Jerry and Ann Feliu followed their sons here from Chicago 16 years ago.

“My dad was thinking about moving to a bigger house in Chicago and I said ‘You should move here,’” Mike Feliu said.

The couple bought a house off Orebank Road and immediately started making friends.

“If you moved into a community in Chicago, you’d meet nobody. Everybody goes in different directions with different things to do.

“But here, within a month, they met lots of people,” Mike Feliu said.

And three of Mike’s four children now live in Tennessee.

“This is home,” he said.

As for the future, Mike, now 59, said he’s hoping to continue operating Rush Street for a long time to come.

“I’d like to do another 20 more years here,” he said.

For more information, visit the restaurant at 1229 East Stone Drive, call (423) 247-3184, or go to www.rushstreetgrill.com.

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