Music is returning to the Vinegar Hill Mall. There have been previous attempts to bring live performances to the spot along Lawrence Avenue, just a block from the State Capitol complex. But a new restaurant is promising national as well as local acts. Rachel Otwell visited the site and talked with the owner about his plans.
CLICK HERE to find out more about the restaurant and venue in Springfield, including an upcoming show on Friday.
The now-defunct Pizza Machine claimed to have the biggest pizza in the world. And whether or not that was true, its pizza crane that airlifted humongous pizzas across the restaurant was a noteworthy novelty. But The Pizza Machine, a multi-level brightly colored restaurant, is no longer.
And soon, a new pizza restaurant will take its place, but this one promises to have more to offer than kid-centric aesthetics and gimmicks.
TASCH: “We’re going to try to keep it mixed up, throw in some DJs, bluegrass, we have some reggae bands booked, we have punks bands in here, we’re going to try just to keep mixing it up and providing something different and I think … I’m hoping it will be a destination location in central Illinois.”
That’s Michael Tasch, the Vice President of Donnie’s Homespun, he’s been booking music shows that the pizza restaurant which doubles as a music venue will host.
He explains the first location in Decatur opened in 2009 as a carry-out pizza place, but its popularity grew and it soon became a full-service restaurant.
TASCH: “Pizza was our main thing in Decatur and it still kind of is, a lot of times we stick to tradition – the recipe was given from Italian immigrants up in Wisconsin that the owner knew. And these guys had some secret recipes that aren’t published, so we stick to homemade dough, we make it fresh every day. We make our sauce fresh, our ingredients are all fresh.”
But, it didn’t stop at a sit-down restaurant with a bar either. That venue also hosts music events. Bands including The Wailers, famous for their late frontman Bob Marley, are slated to perform in Springfield, as well as a a variety of national and local acts:
TASCH: “We’re going to be having Marky Ramone from The Ramones, he’s playing with Michale Graves who’s the singer for The Misfits, they’ll be October 4th. November 28th Reverend Horton Heat’s playing. We have an opener, Kentucky Knife Fight, which is a band that started in Springfield and moved down to Carbondale … When we’re not doing national acts … kind of be a mixing pot, we’re going to have certain nights where we’ll have some of the best local acts mixed in with some really good DJs, DJs … people don’t normally see when you go out to a club, we’ve got guys who specialize in reggae and people who specialize in funk, and soul music.”
Tasch admits that the location at the Vinegar Hill Mall, close to the state capitol, isn’t exactly the most coveted in town. There’s not a lot happening on the street at night.
TASCH: “Yeah that’s always been a concern since we moved in, is if, you know, people are even going to know we’re here and support it, that’s one of the reasons we’re here is because they were having trouble bringing people out to this neighborhood … We’re hoping if we offer something that people really want, we figure they’ll drive an extra block or two for something different.”
But before the acts can perform, there has to be a proper place to do it.
So the owner and CEO of Donnie’s Homespun, Neill Dresen, has invested in a large stage and a new sound system. And there’s been expansive construction.
Dresen says when he was first approached about opening in the Vinegar Hill Mall, he was less than confident that it was a good business move:
DRESEN: “When I walked in and it was The Pizza Machine, I told them I had absolutely no interest at all. I walked through the building, I looked at it, and it was just – I need to have a vision inside of a place and I couldn’t see a vision at all. But I came back 4 or 5 more times and tried to get a vision with everything that was in here out of here, and it finally started to click, and I was like, ‘Okay maybe something could work here.'”
Dresen and I are standing where the old check-out counter used to be, he explains its new use:
DRESEN: “This right here is the bar, with alcohol and espresso. We have seating all along here, seating over the balcony, seating over the other balcony, and pretty much right here also is overlooking the stage.”
And the stage isn’t the only thing that makes the space looks different:
DRESEN: “Probably 95 percent of the material you see in here is recycled, you know I tore down an old barn for here from one of my family’s barns.”
Dresen also gives his overall vision for the Springfield location:
DRESEN: “I can just see it being a place for people of all walks of life to come and eat, whether you’re rich, whether you’re poor – black, white, Hispanic. That’s kind of like the place I have in Decatur, I thought I would market to college kids, but it ended up being a lot of attorneys, lawyers, old hippies, people who are now yuppies and that’s kind of the clientele I’ve gotten but then I also have, like I say all walks of life … where you can come in and feel comfortable.”
Dresen says he’s excited about the bands coming to play here, but he thinks the food is good enough to draw a crowd all its own. And there’s going to be a lot more than pizza:
DRESEN: “We decided to add barbeque, we decided to add more vegetarian items, more vegan items, more fish … Pretty much everything’s homemade too so all the meat we use or anything … nothing’s processed, we’re getting it cooking it preparing it and then portioning it.”
He says Donnie’s Homespun will also serve a collection of craft beers and wines. With so much going on – Dresen says he hopes the new restaurant and venue will bring a welcome change to the Vinegar Hill Mall and downtown area. And he says he has experience giving new life to an area largely forgotten about:
DRESEN: “That’s what happened in Decatur, that area was down, the last time that area was up was in the 70s. And the area I came into there by Millikin was nothing but offices, and one bar, and that was it. And now the whole street is full of stuff, so hopefully we can revive this area too.”
With plans for homemade food, craft alcohol, and music that crosses genres and regions, it’s quite possible that Donnie’s Homespun will have a welcome home here in Springfield.
Oh – and about that pizza crane from the former Pizza Machine? Dresen says it’s still here … and it might be used, but not for pizza. You’ll have to wait until the grand-opening this Friday or afterward to find out how.