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Port Edward Restaurant navigates 40 years of fine dining

ALGONQUIN, ILL. -- Port Edward Restaurant is sailing full-speed ahead into its 40th year, leaving many shorter-lived competitors in its wake.

For four decades Edward Wolowiec has captained the fine-dining destination that once was a rundown bar, keeping loyal customers while attracting new residents from its fast-growing, outer suburban area, located about 50 miles northwest of Chicago.

The 462-seat restaurant with its 25-foot wooden sailboat mascot anchored in an indoor pond has a dinner check average of $48, and Wolowiec estimates that sales in 2004 will total between $4 million and $5 million.

Keeping up with changing food trends and rewarding regular customers with occasional free meals have worked to increase sales almost every year. Wolowiec said. Starting as a fried-seafood house in the days when fresh fish was hard to get in the Midwest, the restaurant has evolved into one offering fresh rather than frozen fish of all varieties and in all preparations.

Wolowiec, the son of Polish immigrants, originally was a music teacher and musician. He decided to try his luck in the restaurant and lounge business after seeing restaurateurs "driving big cars," he quipped. He and a partner bought a somewhat derelict tavern on the Fox River for $1,500 and named it the Anchor Lounge.

"It was such a redneck place; I couldn't stand it," Wolowiec recalled. He began rebuilding and expanding, doing much of the work himself, including painting some of the artwork and displaying a growing collection of nautical memorabilia.

"We look upriver at one of the best views in the Fox River Valley," said Wolowiec, who lives above the restaurant. The lounge has floor-to-ceiling windows to capitalize on the view, and some 20 boat slips allow boaters to dock at the restaurant.

A casual atmosphere prevails, in spite of the upscale food and service. The growing wine list has won awards, and wine dinners have attracted area wine lovers.

Chef Auriane Ugalde, who formerly worked for an acclaimed restaurant in Spain and later at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! in Chicago, has upgraded the menu during her five-year tenure, being careful not to change longstanding favorites. The most popular specialty continues to be lobster Edwardo, medallions of Australian lobster tail, fried in beer batter and served in the shell with drawn butter, tartar sauce and cocktail sauce.

Sunday brunch and Friday night seafood buffets are big draws. Some 76 items for $29.95 dazzle diners on Fridays, when covers average 350. The spread includes everything from sushi and oysters to crab legs and Alaskan halibut.

Such holidays as Mother's Day and Easter also attract huge crowds of about 1,500 people each day.

To boost regular business, Port Edward launched a birthday club some years ago that fetes birthday celebrants with free meals. The database now totals some 40,000 people after two and a half years. On a typical weekend at least 100 guests are celebrating birthdays.

"Direct mail brings people in. We mail about 3,000 to 3,500 a month for birthdays, and we will use the data base for special-event announcements," said Kenny DeCamp, marketing director.

Several special events are taking place this June to commemorate Port Edward's 40th anniversary. Among them are a grape stomp, a wine tasting, a pig and fish roast, a Greek Olympics celebration and a dockside beach party, complete with clam bake and oyster fest. All events will benefit local charities.

Community involvement through the years has helped to build regular business. For example, the local Rotary Club has been meeting at Port Edward weekly for a breakfast buffet for many years.

"A lot of staff has been here almost since the beginning," Wolowiec said. "We have almost no turnover." He credits the longevity to treating everyone with respect and recognizing that every position is important.

But it wasn't always smooth sailing for Port Edward. Most of the staff stayed with Wolowiec during some lean times, which he blamed on major road and bridge construction projects, as well as economic downturns and increasing competition, especially from chains. "At one time I owed over a quarter-of-a-million dollars," Wolowiec said. "You aren't supposed to come back, but we did. I don't have problems but merely items that need to be figured out," Wolowiec said.

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