In 1951, a young entrepreneur and his wife opened a diner in Des Plaines with the hopes that they could operate a successful business that would be an entertaining experience for all ages.
They were James Ballowe and his wife Marilyn, and the diner was the Choo-Choo Restaurant. As James Ballowe once said, “Trains go fast, and that’s how we wanted our customers to be served.” The diner quickly became a source of popularity among adults and children alike.
The idea for the Choo-Choo style of restaurant was conceived by younger brother Roy Ballowe, while a soldier in the Philippines. The rations served were less than ideal, and Ballowe dreamed of the kinds of food he’d like to have. After a complaint by a fellow soldier who was tired of the “gravy train,” the idea began to further take shape in Roy Ballowes mind. “Gravy train,” thought the young Private. “Why not serve hamburgers on a model train? Kids love both of ‘em.”
The opening of another hamburger joint a few blocks away by a Mr. Ray Kroc did little to dissolve the Ballowes’ excitement. James Ballowe was just sure that he would be able to beat out the hamburger joint dubbed McDonald’s, because of the novelty of the train. He also donned the proper attire: an engineer’s cap, red bandanna around his neck, and a whistle he would blow whenever he sent the train around. And according to Marilyn, Ray Kroc didn’t think his restaurant would surpass the business the Ballowes’ were getting. He even paid the Ballowes’ a visit and reassured them that his restaurant would be no competition. He told them, “I don’t have a place for people to sit down.”
James and Marilyn Ballowe owned the diner for 25 years, before James retired at age 68. Marilyn is happy to see the diner she and her husband created back in business. Says Marilyn, “I’m getting to enjoy it all over again.”
And the kids love it too! Here is a review of the Choo-Choo by Siena, a third grader from Olive-Mary Stitt Elementary School in Arlington Heights sent to us by her teacher Mrs. Klimas in 2011.