HENRY — As you take a leisurely drive along Illinois Route 29 between Princeton and Peoria, along the road on the east side of the highway just north of Henry is what looks like a caboose and a railcar. You’ve reached the Happy Hobo restaurant.
Stop. Pull in. You’re in for a treat.
From the moment you walk into the railcar — the order counter and dining area of the restaurant — the aroma of the food starts teasing the tastebuds. The caboose houses the kitchen, and the scent of Italian beef and burgers is captivating.
The Happy Hobo is the brainchild and pride and joy of Bill Eklund, a former Spring Valley native who spent some time working in the Chicagoland area and brought a taste of the local fare when he came back. Eklund and his wife, Lynn, run the restaurant with enthusiasm, and the food is bountiful and inexpensive.
Chicago-style hot dogs have their home on the menu, as do several Italian sandwiches. The Italian beef is authentic Chicago fare, and the Italian sandwiches are served on Turano rolls from a Chicagoland bakery. However, the most popular items come from their dynamic burger menu.
The burgers are 100 percent ground chuck that are a touch more than a quarter-pound when cooked, and reflect Eklund’s love of trains with names like the 3rd Rail, the Santa Fe Express and the Hobo Burger. The most popular item on the menu, Eklund said, is the Train Wreck. Top the juicy burger with an equal amount of tender Italian beef, add grilled onions and mozzarella cheese, and a culinary cafe masterpiece is ready for your delight. Add an order of onion rings, but be prepared to take some home with you; this is not a small burger by any means.
If beef isn’t what’s for dinner for you, the Happy Hobo also serves up chicken and seafood, including a tasty shrimp taco which Lynn said has proven pretty popular.
The road to opening the Happy Hobo was a difficult one. Eklund worked in construction, but when the bottom fell out of the housing market, he looked for another way to make a living and remembered a childhood dream. He had a home at Lake Thunderbird and decided the time was right to live the dream there.
“I always wanted to do a restaurant, a restaurant/bar, something like that. I never thought it would come true,” Eklund said. “The first year we started was actually at Lake Thunderbird at the Snack Shack. There had been a Snack Shack there before, but nobody had really done anything with it, so we figured we’d turn it up a notch and started doing hot dogs and beef.”
Favorable reactions led him to take the next step, and he opened the Happy Hobo shortly after. The caboose is actually a trailer that was built in Ohio where the owner took it to fairs and such. When he retired, he put the mobile restaurant on eBay where Eklund outbid a train museum that also wanted to buy it with a margin of just a couple dollars.
Once people stop in, Eklund said they return frequently.
“There are some people working on a temporary project outside of town,” Eklund said. “They came here the first day they were here, and they’ve been back every day since.”
Much of Eklund’s growth has been by word-of-mouth — no pun intended — and it’s been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve had one complaint so far, and that’s pretty good I think,” Eklund said. “We’ve built up a good customer base through referrals and social media as a nice family place.”
The dining area was added in November of last year; before that, most of the business was either carry-out or in the screened-in gazebo out front. The gazebo will soon be a farmer’s market and picnic tables have been placed outside for dining with nature.
People have asked Eklund, “Why Henry? Isn’t that out of the way?”
“Everywhere is out of the way to someone. We’ve got a good location on the highway,” Eklund said. “We’re not going to do anything like Interstate traffic, but we still do some drive-through business. We’ve had a couple of buses stop in on their way through.”
The menu will undergo a slight change with the Memorial Day weekend.
“When we started out, we did hand-dipped ice cream,” Eklund said. When we moved to the caboose, we phased it out, so we could have room for everything else, but we’re bringing that back starting with the holiday.”
Eklund is looking ahead at more possible expansion in offerings outside the kitchen.
“We might host different events like a car show or a craft fair,” he said. “I think a little stage area for people to play some music unplugged where people could listen for free would be a great idea.”