East Dundee extends contract with caboose operator Duke's Blues-n-BBQ
East Dundee officials know it takes a unique tenant to make the village's caboose concession stand successful.
Cuisine, customer base, flexibility and overhead costs all play a role. So far, they say, Duke's Blues-n-BBQ seems to have the right recipe.
For the past two years, Terrance "Duke" Seward and his wife, Rhiannon, have run their business seasonally out of the village-owned train car at 112 Railroad St. At their request, the village board voted 5-0 this week to approve a five-year lease extension.
Built in 1952 for the Milwaukee Road, the caboose was purchased by the village and has been used as a concession stand in the heart of downtown since May 2015. It became an attraction for Dundee-area residents and visitors, particularly those passing through on the Fox River Trail, Village President Lael Miller said. Still, the village struggled for a few years to find the right operator.
When Seward signed a two-year license in 2018, Duke's had been making a name for itself through its catering services, food truck and participation in local festivals.
Rent was set at 5% of gross sales, brought down from 10% after previous tenant Butcher on the Block struggled to make a profit, Miller said.
Though minor expenses are paid by the operator, the village is responsible for major repairs and maintenance.
As a landlord, East Dundee hasn't made any money, Miller said. "In fact, we might be taking a slight loss on this."
That was concerning to Trustee Scott Kunze, who said he wanted to make sure the deal made financial sense.
But a deficit on the village's end isn't necessarily reflective of the Sewards' success, Village Administrator Jennifer Johnsen said, noting the village had to address some challenges at the property.
Duke's has been the caboose's most profitable vendor to date. And more importantly, Miller said, the Sewards have developed a business model that works for the seasonal concession stand, while also drawing patrons downtown.
"I would like to break even on this, but I think the ability to maintain the current ownership there is worth a five-year contract," Miller said.
Though eager to keep Duke's in the village, trustees Kirstin Wood and Kathleen Mahony expressed concerns over its irregular days and hours of operation. They requested the business maintain a more consistent schedule and develop a marketing strategy.
Though Duke's has scaled back its hours due to the coronavirus pandemic, Seward said he maintains a strong social media presence, working to gain new followers and posting updates about how and when customers can place their orders.